Ever wanted to be an astronaut? Now’s your chance (partially anyway)

Professor Binna Kandola, co-founder and senior partner

** This post was first published in 2020 during lockdown in the UK **

When you were a child, did you ever want to be an astronaut, an archaeologist or an arctic explorer? These are rare jobs which require unique skills, and it’s unlikely that many of us will have actually ended up in such careers. However, there is, in the current situation that we now find ourselves, much that we have in common with the people who are engaged in such work.

Our daily lives are typically dominated by routines which have developed over many years. The time at which we get up, the things we listen to on the radio, the journey we take to work and even the people we encounter will all be familiar to us. Within that recognisable framework, however, there will be a degree of variety as we move from one environment to another: from the place we live to the place we work, from friends and family to work colleagues, from one set of expectations to another. We are exposed to different stimuli and have to adapt our thinking and behaviour as we navigate our way through our daily lives. Indeed, we are so used to these routines that we don’t have to expend too much conscious effort as we move across the boundaries.

Now, however, with the vast majority of us being confined to our houses for a large proportion of the day, this variety of daily stimulation that we ordinarily experience will be denied to us. Not only will we be living in a much more enclosed and confined space, but we will also be with the same small group of people – if we are lucky – for large periods of time and that will be a very different challenge.

For many of us, our homes are now places in which we both live and work. For some of us, it won’t be such a huge change to use the same environment as a place for recreation, socialisation and communication. However, it’s undeniable that many of the features of a ‘capsule environment’ – something psychologists have studied for many years – are being replicated in our homes.

The capsule environment is one in which people are isolated and confined. They include transatlantic ships, remote mining sites, and space stations. In these situations, people are confined in remote locations, separated from social networks and unable to leave.

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Though capsule environments are often more dangerous than the situation many of us now find ourselves in – locations such as a spaceship or mountain peak, for example, are referred to as EUEs (extreme and unusual environments) – there is much in the research which is relevant to the situation that people in many countries are now presented with. This is not just about working from home, because the restrictions placed on us in terms of both the amount of time that we can spend outside of the environment and the lack of interaction that we have with others, mean we are all now working in capsule environments.

There are some notable differences, of course. The environments in which we place ourselves, even though we may only be able to look at them through our windows, will be familiar. Likewise, people working in isolated locations and environments have typically chosen to be there and will, in some instances, have been trained to deal with the challenges that they will face.

Despite these differences though, the research on people living and working in capsule environments often bears one very striking similarity: that for the majority, this experience is a very positive one. Even with the privations, lack of contact with their social network and the stresses and strains that they had to deal with, typically, the event is looked back on with pride and as something that was special and to be valued.

It may not feel like that at this very moment in time, as we try for example  to juggle work with children, and deal with the anxieties about the future. But it is important to recognise that for many people, this will be a very positive experience in which we will find reserves of resilience, energy and creativity that will help us in our growth and development as human beings. Even in the most dangerous and life-threatening situations that people have found themselves in, the reports in books and autobiographies invariably make reference to the sense of accomplishment, adaptability and even enjoyment.

And so, I find it a strangely comforting thought that, looking back on it in the future, this will most likely be an experience that I feel has challenged and changed me.

This is the first in a series of posts about living and working at home, in which I will be dealing with the stresses and strains, the challenges and conflicts that can occur and how we can deal with them. It is well worth reflecting that this is not only a difficult and unprecedented situation that we find ourselves in, but it is also one in which we will learn a lot more about ourselves and which we may well ultimately feel positive about. Albeit at some later point.

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