How lockdown redefines our weekends

Leisure time is important – particularly in stressful periods. How can we make weekends feel fulfilling under coronavirus lockdown?

There’s a scene in the Downton Abbey pilot in which the landed Crawley family’s sumptuous evening meal is marred by a dinner guest’s shocking disclosure that he has a real job. When the guest explains that he has time for other pursuits at the weekend, Maggie Smith’s wealthy dowager inquires with a hint of alarm: “What is a weekend?”

It’s a question those of us with non-essential jobs have had plenty of time to ask in recent weeks as schools, offices and public spaces of all kinds have closed to slow the spread of coronavirus. Confined to our homes and stripped of our daily routines, many in self-isolation have found that time has become a strange and amorphous thing that can’t be defined by a calendar.

If you’re still in pajamas and both the TV and your work laptop are on, does it matter what time it is? If you’re still ping-ponging between work that needs finishing and kids who need snacks, does it matter what day of the week it is? What is a weekend, really, and is it even possible to have one in a quarantined world?

Veronika Makarova reads fairy tales to children on the phone, working from her apartment during the Covid-19 pandemic (Credit: Getty Images)

Something to look forward to

“One of the challenges of the current crisis is that many of our schedules are completely in disarray,” says Laurie Santos, a psychology professor at Yale University who teaches the popular course The Science of Well-Being. “Humans are creatures of habit, so having a regular schedule for when we work and when we engage in leisure can help us reduce uncertainty, especially in this already uncertain time.”

In normal times, that regular schedule is dictated for us by external forces: school schedules and train times, work meetings and appointments. Without those, people around the world have had to craft their own creative ways to distinguish downtime from regular time.

Chaney Kourouniotis is a Seattle-based marketing director for the travel company Rick Steves Europe. Though she’s now working at home, she’s continued to set an alarm so that she can rise and be at her desk at her regular time. Sleeping in is a pleasure she reserves for weekends.

For those with kids at home, leisurely mornings on any day are often out of the question. Emily Seftel works in administration for an international organisation in Paris, her husband works in tech, and they’re juggling both jobs at home with care and schooling for their six-year-old son. To ensure they look forward to their weekends, they’ve instituted a rule: each weekend day, each parent gets three hours to themselves alone, in whatever space they can find in the apartment.

“The other members of the family pretend that parent isn’t there,” Seftel says. “We alternate mornings and afternoons. This last weekend I got Saturday morning and Sunday afternoon off to read on the balcony in the sun, lock myself in the bedroom with Netflix, to do whatever I wanted.”

Man-made cycle

Why do weekends matter? Unlike the 24-hour daily rotation of the Earth or its year-long journey around the Sun, the seven-day week is a purely social construct, as the journalist Katrina Onstad notes in her book The Weekend Effect: The Life-Changing Benefits of Taking Time Off and Challenging the Cult of Overwork.

In fact, the two-day weekend was in part born from another economic crisis, Onstad says. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, many industries that had not yet adopted the 40-hour workweek cut employee schedules back to five days a week, so that fewer working hours could be distributed among more people. By 1938, the 40-hour workweek was enshrined into law with the Fair Labor Standards Act.

It’s possible that this current crisis will lead to long-standing changes as well.

“Even before the coronavirus pandemic, the traditional working week was changing,” says University of Portsmouth history professor Brad Beaven, citing the rise in remote working, self-employment and gig economy jobs. “Strangely enough, self-isolation has … enabled the worker to determine their own cycle of productivity, their breaks and own work routine.” 


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