The onset of national lockdowns in early 2020 (and subsequent restrictions) have made working from home the ‘new normal’. What was once seen as an ideal for many, free from commuting and office politics, suddenly became an enforced reality for all of us.
Our homes, which were previously separate, became our place of work, schoolroom or therapy room. The initial sense that being at home was an exciting new way of living and working, gave way, for many, to a sense that home and work were one and the same.
When home and work take place in the same space does it make us think about what function the workplace has? The workplace allows us to leave a lot of work-related stress there when we go home. Ad hoc chats with colleagues are part of how we manage some of the anxiety and challenges of working life. In short, the places that we work at and the people that we work with, hold a lot of our emotions.
This sense of something being held by a place and the people in it chimes with what Bion (1962) referred to as ‘containment’. Bion’s theory was based on the idea that it’s a person, invariably an early caregiver, who the infant looks to, to help them to process unbearable feelings. The infant cries and expels their feelings and the caregiver, through touch, facial expressions and sound makes these feelings more tolerable and, this in turn, calms the infant.
Bion felt that this cycle of learning what it is like to have feelings contained by another was part of how an individual learns to cope with their own feelings in later life. Once we learn this we can contain our own feelings and we can also trust others to contain them.
How does this translate to the impact on our lives of working and living in the same space? Bion spoke about the impact of the caring parent on a child. Might this sense of something being contained by another also relate to the place in which we work? This place forms it’s own sense of containment that may be lost with home working. It is somewhere that we engage with unconsciously as a space where we leave the challenging feelings that are evoked by the tasks carried out there. This place holds our feelings and leaves us free to go home and leave them behind.
Home working challenges us to find a way to manage this lack of separation and hold a boundary between what is work and what is not – and the anxiety that comes with that. How we do this is as individual as we are.
Bion, W. (1962). Learning From Experience. London: Karnac Books.