Essential: absolutely necessary; extremely important. -Oxford Dictionary

Since the world’s rapid twist of events from COVID-19, some of us have found ourselves with a new label — “essential workers.”

Essential work is considered “critical to a country’s infrastructure” by the US Department of Homeland Security and includes several categories:

  • Health care and public health 
  • Law enforcement, public safety, and first responders 
  • Food and agriculture workers 
  • Energy employees 
  • Water and wastewater 
  • Transportation and logistics 
  • Public works 
  • Communications and information technology 
  • Other community-based government operations and essential functions 
  • Critical manufacturing 
  • Hazardous materials 
  • Financial services 
  • Chemical workers 
  • Defense industrial base    

These types of work are undoubtedly essential. But as I look at the list, I think about another kind of essential work. It’s not on this list, yet it’s so important, and it affects us all.  

It’s the work done at home.     

Since this work doesn’t get the same kind of press, I want to:

  • Highlight its importance, which directly impacts COVID-19.
  • Show how this work can give us a sense of purpose and improve our lives.  
  • Encourage you to get creative with this meaningful, much-needed work.


I recently heard a great observation by Dr. Michelle Au, an anesthesiologist at Emory. She noted that although healthcare is often referred to as the front line of this epidemic, healthcare is actually the last line of defense. We hope that the fight doesn’t reach this point.

She explained how the front line in the battle against COVID-19 is people of the community, who are tasked with the challenge of keeping everyone safe, through measures such as:

  • Social distancing
  • Cleaning and sanitizing
  • Applying quarantine when indicated
  • Vaccines (once available)


I love this observation and completely agree. In fact, I want to delve further into this concept of front line work, which affects us all.

Beyond the important measures noted above, I’d like to point out five more. I think of these as “essential work” we can all do at home.

1. The work of creating an environment of safety, peace, and love.

We have the power to create healing, joyful spaces. In doing so, we promote health and healing within our homes and communities. As the saying goes, “Home isn’t a place, it’s a feeling.”

Our environment greatly impacts our health and well-being. Stressful environments contribute to poorer health outcomes. Perhaps the most profound proof of this comes from ACEs research, which showed that as the number of adverse childhood experiences increase (often stemming from household challenges), so does the risk for a multitude of negative health outcomes.

How might we manipulate our environment to one that makes us feel good and optimizes health and well-being? This includes both the physical environment (for example, getting rid of clutter) and the emotional environment (see my next point).

2. The inner work it takes to manage your emotions during this trying time.

Our words and actions are powerful. They can serve as a harmful weapon or as a healing drug to ourselves and others.

By addressing our own grief, frustration, fear, etc., and finding healthy ways to cope, we can strive to be a source of patience and compassion for others — instead of an added source of stress and pain, which perpetuates the problem.   

3. The work of reaching out to others.

Human beings are pack animals. We need to belong. We need to matter.  When we don’t, our health deteriorates. Countless studies have demonstrated this. For example, the Harvard Study of Adult Development, which may be the longest and most comprehensive study of adult life that has ever been done, found that healthy relationships decrease both physical decline and mental decline.    

Long before COVID-19, loneliness was already recognized as a major health epidemic, shown to significantly increase mortality and be as dangerous for your health as smoking 15 cigarettes per day. Now, more than ever, we need to reach out to others. It’s not about the number of friends a person has, but about the quality of their relationships.

4. The work of taking good care of your physical body.

This includes healthy eating, engaging in physical activity, getting enough sleep, and incorporating fresh air and nature where you can. I’m sure this comes as no surprise. Yet knowing what we should do and doing what we should do are very different things. Unfortunately, in times of stress, we tend to reach for unhealthy behaviors that provide a source of comfort in the moment, but negatively impact our health in the long run.

An ounce of prevention really is worth a pound of cure. A lot is at stake here, and a healthy lifestyle can be potent medicine. For example, we are learning that regular exercise may prevent or at least reduce the severity of Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS), a major cause of death in patients with COVID-19.

It’s essential that we make a daily commitment to take good care of our physical health, and that we promote this with our loved ones.   

5. Using your unique gifts and talents to help others

What are you good at? How might this help others, and how might it give you a sense of purpose during this time? Examples might include: sewing face masks for others to wear, helping someone with yard work or a house repair, donating to a food bank, or offering expertise in a particular area (homeschooling, organization, meditation, saving money, technology, etc.).

Giving is a form of healing, which benefits both the giver and the receiver. Who needs your gifts right now?


Just as health care workers, plumbers, police officers, grocery store employees, and so many others are doing their essential work in challenging conditions, at home we also have important work to do, under trying conditions.

There’s a lot of stress. We’re dealing with lot of change and uncertainty. We’ve had new roles thrust upon us, such as homeschooling and remote work. Financial instability may be compounding the problem. These things have brought a new level of challenge and complexity.   

Despite these challenges, how might we lean in to some of the most essential work we have to do in this life? And how might this positively impact our families and communities?  

It’s not about being perfect. Of course we’ll mess up. Personally, I mess up in one or more of these areas on a pretty regular basis. Some days it’s my lack of organization. Some days it’s my food choices or failure to exercise. Some days it’s snapping at my kids (which always stems from me feeling bad inside). Some days it’s my failure to stay in touch with people I care about. You get the point.

Judging ourselves comes easy, but it doesn’t help. Even worse, it constantly sends information to our brain about who we are. Over time, the brain accepts this as “truth” and resists actions that do not support this belief.

On the other hand, being a curious learner does help. And focusing on the person you are becoming also helps. Habit expert James Clear refers to this as identity-based habit development. It involves: 1) deciding the type of person you want to be, and 2) proving it to yourself with small wins.

Just as a child doesn’t learn to walk without falling down over and over, we can’t expect to navigate this new “normal” without some mistakes and setbacks. The important thing is that we learn from our falls, pick ourselves up, believe in our ability, and keep trying. In the process, we’ll experience small wins, which lead to bigger wins over time.

As we stay committed to the ongoing practice of this work, a transformation takes place within us, which creates a positive ripple effect to those around us.  

I believe this is the most “essential” work we can do, for ourselves and those we care about. 


  • Kiley Owen

    Physician Assistant and Creator of

    Kiley Owen works as a Physician Assistant at Carle Foundation Hospital in Urbana, Illinois. She is certified in Lifestyle Medicine by the American College of Lifestyle Medicine. Kiley writes a blog called Making Health a Priority, which focuses on creating a healthy lifestyle that is enjoyable and sustainable.