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3 hard truths about work-life balance that Apple TV’s ‘Severance’ eerily illustrates

The Ben Stiller-directed TV series explores what might happen if you could medically sever your work brain from your private brain.

3 hard truths about work-life balance that Apple TV’s ‘Severance’ eerily illustrates
[Photo: Apple TV+]

Nobody wants to bring their work home with them. Of much more concern to corporate overlords, though, is when employees bring their home to work with them. All that pesky detritus from a full and dynamic life can really get in the way of productivity.

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Severance, a new series from Apple TV+, explores a simple solution for the problem of worker multidimensionality—one with Black Mirror-ish implications for society. It involves a medical procedure that severs an employee’s brain so that it functions in a vacuum whenever they’re on the clock. No personal life, no personality, and none of the emotional baggage associated with either. All that a severed brain retains on the job is the worker’s skill set and their time.

If you can believe it, this innovation doesn’t exactly usher in a utopian era of American labor. It does, however, provide some interesting insights about work-life balance as it currently stands.

Premiering February 18, Severance takes an occasionally funny, often bleak, look at the difficulty of separating the dueling spheres of work and home life. (The show was greenlit in late 2019, just before the pandemic further collapsed this separation, perhaps now permanently.) Shepherded by Ben Stiller, the series stars Parks and Rec’s Adam Scott as Mark Scout, a severed middle manager at Lumon, the mysterious company that pioneered severing technology. When we first meet Mark, he is explaining to newly severed employee Helly (Britt Lower) what her situation entails. Literally all her waking hours will be spent at the office, the clichéd lament of the overworked underling brought to hellish life.

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In the world of the show, the workers’ outside selves are called “outies” and those who reside within the office are “innies,” which is ironic considering innies don’t possess nearly enough self-knowledge for interiority. The innies come online the moment they step off the elevator on the severed floor, and the outies return once they get back on the elevator at the end of the day. (“A weekend just happened?” Helly says, arriving on her first Monday after starting the job. “I don’t even feel like I left.”)

To ensure that outies and innies never communicate, the elevators come equipped with sensors to detect hidden symbols innies might use to send coded messages to their outies, and the workers’ entrances and exits are staggered so that the outies never encounter each other on the outside. A lot of work goes into keeping the working conditions on Severance running smoothly, until complications inevitably ensue. But what does the show have to say about how we work in real life?

We’re different people at work

Mark Scout, whose name-resemblance to Michael Scott of The Office feels not-coincidental, is the character with whom we spend the most time. Since we follow both his innie and his outie, we take in the stark differences between them.

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At work, where he and his team do something called Macro Data Refinement, Mark’s face as he roams the lengthy, spartan hallways is a tableau of affable blankness. His features scrunch up in a robotic parody of a smile, either exuding natural magnanimity or straining to convey as much. He has learned to cope with the strictures of his office existence, the same way anyone does upon finding themselves in a job they hate but feel trapped in. We quickly learn, though, that Mark’s wife perished a few years ago, and he took this job mainly to forget about her for upwards of eight hours a day. Off-the-clock Mark is a heavy and frequent solo drinker who can barely be bothered to show up for the meager social engagements he reluctantly agrees to attend. Innie and outie seem like night-and-day strangers, which is exactly what Lumon wants.

But people already generally are different people at work and at home, even without first getting Lumon’s lobotomy lite.

The person you are at work is one version of yourself, while the person you are around your parents is another, and the person you are on a first date is another still. The differences between these people can be just as startling as those between the two Marks. (Hopefully, no loved ones ever have to encounter the person you are during a worst-case-scenario customer service exchange.) The reason Mark’s innie is so different from his outie is partly because he’s unburdened by survivor’s guilt and depression, but also because office environments mold their workers in many ways. For roughly 40 hours a week, they shape your time management, your sense of humor, the way you socialize and with whom, and your overall code of conduct. For roughly 40 hours a week, you are, by necessity, not quite yourself.

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The main difference between who you are at work and at home, though, is that the former person is often just trying to get through a series of tasks, and the latter has already made it to the good part. (See: weekend, everybody’s workin’ for the.) With any luck, our jobs are complex and engaging enough that working can regularly become the good part, while the stress related to some element of leisure might make us want to skip past it. We are different people at work and at home, but we are better people for it because both parties are in conversation with the other.

While the show doesn’t reveal every character’s motivation for getting severed, Mark’s reason hints at the desperation that might lead someone to it. In his protracted grief, all of life has become something to merely get through. For him, there is no good part. A Mark-shaped stranger might as well take the reins for eight hours a day while he excludes himself from that narrative.

It takes a lot of not-working to keep teams working together

When the widow of a severed character encounters one of her deceased husband’s coworkers at the funeral, she recoils.

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“You knew him through Lumon?” the widow asks.

The other character nods.

“So, you didn’t know him at all.”

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Given that we are different people on the clock than off, getting to know one’s coworkers can be an exercise in shadow boxing. Each person responds to the SFW version of the other, leaving a little ambiguity as to whether either would get along if they’d met on the outside. In the world of Severance, the potential for disconnect seems to matter less. If you don’t get along with your coworkers in the real world, any number of outside people are available as friends post-5 p.m. For severed innies, though, coworkers are the only possible friends in the world. Together, they form a family, as managers have toxically tried to convince workers since time immemorial. Getting along is essential.

So, just as in real life, the employees in Severance devote an extraordinary amount of office hours to getting along.

Even in this world—or, perhaps, especially in this world—workers often keep busy with activities that are not “work,” per se. Severed employees technically have no outside interference to distract them from work, but they still need a barrage of non-working interludes to keep them working together amicably. The dreaded mandatory fun of team-building exercises here is necessary interactivity. It’s also a reminder of why such things are necessary in real life, too, even if they seem eminently skippable. Meetings that could be emails, games that involve trivial disclosures, sad birthday cake served on a tiny paper plate; none of it may get coworkers closer to meeting the equivalent of each other’s outies, but it does help them remain comfortable enough with each other to spend 40 hours a week together, pulling in the same direction.

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There is no motivation stronger than authentic purpose

Beyond nurturing compatibility within their teams, corporations are faced with the challenge of motivating each employee to give his or her all.

Which works better: the carrot or the stick? In Severance, incentives and disincentives are both always on offer. If Lumon employees act out, they’re subject to immediate, unpleasant discipline. (I could expend lots of space unpacking why the so-called break room is where this discipline is meted out, but it’s ultimately open to interpretation.) On the other hand, the path to success at Lumon is littered with meaningless trinkets like finger traps, and the top worker of the quarter is rewarded with a “private waffle party.”

Perhaps there is a moderately impressive-size Amazon gift card waiting for you who are reading this, if your goals this quarter are met.

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Severance depicts one more form of motivation, though, and it may be the key that unlocks the entire show. In order to keep the innies as close to happy in their work as possible, the unseen top brass at Lumon stresses the virtuous nature of the company. (Employees and viewers alike are kept in the dark at first about what exactly Lumon does.) With that in mind, innies are encouraged to take occasional visits—mandatory fun, again—to a place called the Perpetuity Wing, a sort of Disney Hall of Presidents for the company’s founder and his lineage. Through understanding the purported purity of the founder’s intentions, innies are meant to derive meaning, the ultimate motivator.

“The work is mysterious and important,” Mark says when Helly understandably wants to know more about what the hell they actually do all day.

When employees believe in the righteousness of the company they work for, the work itself becomes something like a moral imperative. In Severance, as in real life some times, this imperative is an invention. Some of the employees drink the Kool-Aid; others are more inspired by the prospect of a waffle party. The only time all of them can get on the same page is when they eventually decide to go rogue.

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In order to achieve the plan they agree on, which I won’t reveal here, the team must meet its quarterly goals. They do. Their true motivation may be an ulterior motive, yet it is an authentic one. There is no substitute for authentic purpose—even if that purpose is to take down a company overdue for a comeuppance from within. All the more reason to downplay a company’s true nature to its workers.

One last thing that severed employees do not possess, after all, is a corporate conscience. With no access to outside information or memories, Lumon employees toil, guilt-free, for a company that makes the world a worse place. It’s a feature of severing, not a bug.

Sadly, this hurdle of a guilty conscience is much easier to overcome in the real world. Offer enough money, and people don’t need a medical procedure to get over their reservations about working for morally questionable megacorporations—which is precisely why the far-out premise of Severance rings so true.

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