It’s midday on a typical pandemic Sunday. You’ve just drained your Bloody Mary, and as the buzz wears off, reality sets in. You feel that familiar pang. Maybe you even momentarily think it’s still Saturday, until your stomach drops. This is it — the weekend is over.
Maybe you even momentarily think it’s still Saturday, until your stomach drops. This is it — the weekend is over.
The term “Sunday scaries” was probably coined somewhere around the turn of the last decade, but the phenomenon has been around a lot longer. Very generally, it refers to the dread that sets in at some point on Sunday when you realize there’s mere hours between you and the start of another workweek. It is the pivot point between what — at least for many — is an essential period of rest, and the transition back into work mode. But now that we’ve been in a yearlong quarantine with so many people working from home, this pivot has become less and less distinct. As work and life blur, and days run into weeks without traditional socioeconomic structure, it’s not surprising that some people are experiencing even worse “scaries” than they did before Covid-19.
I began to notice my own dread about six months into the pandemic — a sweeping sense of resistance to the start of a new week. It was a far more intense feeling than I’d experienced previously. As a practicing psychotherapist, of course I wanted to figure out why this was happening. Even though I’d eliminated the headache of a commute and expensive office rent, I headed toward Mondays feeling exhausted. Which is when it clicked. I was feeling existential dread because of the way the pandemic has blended our sense of time. We have no sense of forward movement, and that’s impacting us emotionally.
In December, the Pew Research Center reported that 71 percent of employed Americans adults are working from home all or most of the time, up significantly from 20 percent before the pandemic. While this seems to have been a preferable situation for many, the Pew data also showed that younger workers have reported struggling with motivation, and that parents have struggled with working while caretaking. Even if remote workers achieve greater flexibility, the nature of the stress has changed as it seeps into our personal spaces. And any respite from Monday that we might have enjoyed by socializing with coworkers or going out for lunch is no longer available.
According to a UCLA study reviewing Gallup poll data from 2014 to 2016, Americans were happier when they took vacation days. So the study authors suggested that people can improve their psychological well-being by treating their weekends as though they were mini vacations. People who did this reported feeling happier on Monday.
But even these kinds of coping mechanisms are much harder to do now, with travel and social restrictions. Instead of trying to treat our weekends like vacation, we struggle to treat them like weekends.
Divorced from their primary function, weekends at best feel like empty rituals.
Divorced from their primary function, weekends feel at best like empty rituals. At worst, they’ve become just another work day. In fact, the Society of Human Resource Management reported in December that close to 70 percent of professionals who began to work remotely in the pandemic are now also working during weekend hours.
Kaycie Belangeri, a third grade teacher in the San Bernardino City Unified School District, embodies the many millions of Americans who now find it almost impossible to take breaks from work — even if they’re not working weekend shifts. Despite having taught third grade for several years, Belangeri explains that distance learning involves creating weekly plans and strategies. “Everyone I talk to feels like a first-year teacher,” she said. For Belangeri and her coworkers in the district, lesson plans are due Monday, so Sunday has long been a working day in some respects. But without being able to rely on previous years of established work, Sunday now requires much more labor. “The workweek starts on Sunday,” she said.
And this is clearly not just a problem for teachers. With work and life blended together, we are in adjustment mode indefinitely.
Beth, a change management consultant for a New York-based firm, said of pre-pandemic weekends: “Because you’re doing something different, it feels longer. You’re having an experience.” But now, without the same freedom for an outing or excursion or even social activity, Beth — who asked that I only use her first name because of sensitivities with her employer — finds herself wondering “how is it already Sunday?”
Prior to the pandemic, Beth would feel anxious about specific upcoming events. A particularly demanding week ahead might trigger an increase in “scaries.” After the shutdown in New York, Beth was no longer traveling or commuting, which lightened her schedule. But because her job entails coaching leaders to communicate through change, the challenges of the pandemic kept her and her clients busy. That also meant helping the corporate world mitigate the effects of burnout. “My day job is dealing with this,” said Beth. An avid watcher of true crime documentaries to unwind, Beth echoed the recent “Saturday Night Live” sketch when she said: “There’s nowhere for me to escape this topic, except for all my murder shows.” (Although it says a lot about American life that our shared escapist vice would be so based in aggression.)
New York City psychologist Dr. Sarah Mitchell affirmed my hypothesis about worsening “scaries.” Mitchell, who shifted from working in a hospital to private practice during the pandemic, told me she has long been familiar with that Sunday anticipatory dread. But now, “rather than dreading an aggravating commute, administrative meetings, or the onslaught of potentially stressful situations — interpersonally, logistically, or clinically — I think about the sameness of every week."
Having to hold others’ emotions in addition to our own has always been an occupational hazard of mental health work, but the current level of emotional demand is completely new. In her patients, Mitchell says she has seen the “scaries” increase “with the caveat that all symptoms seem to be in upsurge — anxiety across the board.”
“Most of us don’t do brilliantly with the unknown,” said Mitchell. Add to this months of sociopolitical unrest and division, and you’ve got a national problem. She also notes an uptick in substance use, so that “Sundays might also mean recovery, hangovers, regret.”
Ultimately, however, the pandemic has merely exacerbated existing problems baked into our capitalist system. Thus, while giving ourselves grace and implementing self-care routines and setting boundaries will continue to be necessary for daily maintenance and burnout prevention, what we really need to do is rethink our relationship to “productivity.” Even amidst unprecedented viral spread and death, human rights violations, racial injustice, election strife and insurrection, we continue to expect productivity of ourselves and others.
The “Sunday scaries” is a cute name for a serious problem. Now the angst we feel about our stagnant lives, the utter exhaustion of this new endless grind, the absence of any sense of “future” — not to mention the guilt we may feel for complaining while so many are struggling — has made this serious problem even worse. Whatever “scaries” many of us felt before, they’ve become scarier because we failed to anticipate this. Sunday is becoming an extension of the workweek, even if just in spirit. But that push was happening before the pandemic. We cannot allow Sunday to be the day we rev the engine before the race, despite now running on fumes.
Simply put, we all need a break. Friday nights cannot be the only time we feel actually free.