In what might be one of the most creative TV shows of the last few years, Apple TV+’s Severance takes the much-talked-about idea of work-life balance to the extreme. And, in doing so, brilliantly shines a light on the cult-like atmosphere of modern corporate culture (looking at you Big Tech) and the myth of achieving a true work-life balance.
What is Severance?
In the series, employees of megacorporation Lumon undergo a procedure known as “severance.” The procedure surgically divides the individual’s memories between their work and personal lives. When employees take the elevator down to their floor, they lose all memories of their outside life. Alternatively, the moment they step off the elevator at the end of the day, employees have no recollection of who they work with or what they do. As a result, their work selves are known as “innies,” and the people they are outside of work are called “outies.”
The Cult of Corporate Culture
Severance is essentially a mix of Black Mirror meets The Office with a splash of Lost thrown in. But despite its sci-fi, futuristic premise, it hits the nail on the head when it comes to the inhumanity and cult-like tenants of today’s corporate culture.
There’s the deification of Kier Eagan, the founder of Lumon, reflected by the Perpetuity Wing — a Madame Tussauds museum-like shrine to the founder and his descendants — which employees get to visit for a rare break from their perpetual work. It might seem over-the-top and ridiculous, but it closely mirrors the way society views CEOs like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos as more than mere humans.
The obsession and cult-level worship for Lumon’s founder and his descendants also unlock the deeper reason for the company’s focus on its leaders’ infallibility and accomplishments: showcasing how a life of working at Lumon provides a “greater purpose” or a sacred mission. Much like the overly ambiguous corporate mission statements found on every modern company website, Lumon hopes to get buy-ins from the “innies” to dedicate their entire lives to serving the company by making them believe they are a part of something bigger than themselves, something making the world a better place. In reality, the “outies” wouldn’t even be able to tell you what it is that they do at work. This is quite similar to reality in which many working in the corporate world could quote their organization’s mission statement in a second, but would have a hard time pinning down exactly how their day-to-day role adheres to or advances that mission. It’s the idea of the mission that matters.
Then, there are the perks. Just like in real life, they are completely meaningless, and yet, just like the characters in Severance, we attach value to them because the company has convinced us of their value; they signify our own worth and contributions to the greater mission.
In the show, it takes the form of finger traps, erasers, and an engraved paperweight, which one character treats as his greatest life accomplishments. In real life, perks to incentivize you to work overtime and hit your goals could be a shout-out at the next company-wide All Hands meeting or a gift of corporate swag AKA t-shirts and mugs with the company logo. Outside the context of work, they mean nothing yet we are still willing to sacrifice our mental health by working harder and staying later for a chance at “earning” these rewards.
The Myth of the Work-Life Balance
Then there’s the main premise of the show: how to achieve true work-life balance. To the leadership at Lumon and those who willingly opt-in, the severance procedure unlocks unparalleled productivity by getting rid of the distractions of home life.
On the surface, the procedure seems to successfully accomplish the ever-elusive idea of work-life balance by creating a physical barrier between the two in the brain: your work self and your normal self. Never the two shall meet.
But what the show gets right is how even a medical procedure isn’t enough to solve the work-life balance problem permanently. Because who we are at home, while different, is still a part of who we are at work. Compartmentalizing is the goal, but segmenting out your brain like that doesn’t work in real life and it doesn’t work in the show.
We are good at our jobs because of our skill sets and professional experience, but our memories, our lived experiences, inform how we respond to certain stimuli and situations. As a result, it also plays a role in our job performance. Similarly, you can’t help if the stress of an upcoming work deadline stays on your mind well after you’ve clocked out.
The increase in remote work with the global pandemic over the last two years has only blurred this divide even more, begging the question of whether work-life balance was ever actually achievable in the first place.
Is “balance” the impossible goal we should be pursuing or should we reframe our approach and look to achieve work-life synergy? We need to acknowledge that the two don’t operate in silos and understand that they are intrinsically connected and need equal focus, protection, and time. At times, you’ll need to resolve a personal issue at work, and other times you’ll need to do some work during your personal time. The two need to work in tandem; rather than balancing the two and treating them as wholly separate from each other. After all, there is only one of you.
Severance brilliantly illuminates the fallacy of work-life balance and the other lies corporations tell us in order to secure our compliance. Maybe the ongoing “great resignation” trend means we’ve finally caught on and are no longer willing to accept this status quo. But then again, maybe not.
Severance has already been renewed for season 2 on Apple TV+.