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  • Writer's pictureLex Enrico Santí, LCSW, MFA

5 Days at Memorial: A Stark Reflection on Post-COVID Workforce Realities

Last summer, a TV binge led me to "5 Days at Memorial" on Apple TV, a series that,

unbeknownst to its creators, became a scathing indictment of the relentless, soul-crushing corporate culture that has long glorified the sacrifice of personal life on the altar of work. This show, with its gripping portrayal of tragedy, unwittingly exposes the toxic underbelly of office culture, becoming a must-watch for those of us disillusioned with the pre-COVID work ethos—a system I vehemently refuse to reenter, especially under leadership blind to the pandemic’s glaring lessons on the sanctity of work-life balance.

The narrative, set against the catastrophic backdrop of Hurricane Katrina, illustrates the United States at its knees, with New Orleans’ plight emblematically showcasing the systemic failure to protect the most vulnerable. Amidst the chaos, the hospital—supposedly a sanctuary—devolves into a profit-driven battlefield, where decisions to end the lives of the most vulnerable are coldly calculated. This harrowing exploration across eight episodes isn't just storytelling; it's a damning critique of pre-pandemic life's disregard for human dignity.The horror of watching healthcare workers coerced into endless shifts without a whisper of concern for their personal lives is infuriating.

One scene, in particular, in the first episode, is enough for you to get the gist: the employees of the hospital all gather to understand the task ahead: to stay around the clock for days unknown even though their own families are in harm's way. To do so for the "patients" or the mentality for the good of the institution of "Memorial" is, sadly, what healthcare workers always face. The guilt of putting themselves above anything is questioned; the long list includes their clients, the organization, and the needs of others.

This scene—a grotesque mirror reflecting the broader corporate mantra of self-sacrifice for the company's sake—reveals the shocking complacency with which we accepted such norms pre-COVID. Yet, the pandemic has ripped the veneer off this unsustainable facade, revealing a disturbing picture of mental health strain among healthcare professionals. Studies have shown a staggering increase in burnout rates, with over 50% of healthcare workers reporting symptoms during the pandemic, compared to 30-40% pre-COVID, highlighting the untenable pressures faced by those on the frontline.

Meanwhile, the juxtaposition of healthcare workers' plight against the backdrop of corporate profiteering during the pandemic is downright obscene. As healthcare professionals grappled with unprecedented challenges, Fortune 500 companies saw a profit surge of 45% in 2020, a stark testament to the perverse priorities of a system more concerned with bottom lines than human lives.

This series and my own experiences as a therapist during the COVID years have solidified my resolve to never return to a traditional organizational structure that values profit over people. The pandemic laid bare the profound impact of such toxic work cultures on mental health and well-being. It's infuriating to think about the countless hours and the sacrifice of personal health for organizations that, when it came down to it, prioritized their earnings over the welfare of their employees.

So, to those corporations wondering whether I'll slot back into the old ways of working, the answer is a resounding no. My life, sanity, and well-being have vastly improved outside a profit-driven ethos. It's high time we call out this systemic exploitation and advocate for a radical overhaul of work cultures that prioritize human well-being over insatiable corporate greed. The tragedy of "5 Days at Memorial" serves not just as a reflection on a specific event but as a wake-up call to the urgent need for change in our post-pandemic world.

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