Will we make it through the pandemic?

Posted on April 6, 2021 by

I suppose I have always been an optimist on the issue of making it through the pandemic. There have been so many ups and downs over the last year and we have been managing through them. However, over the last few weeks I am starting to hear a common thread of concern from leaders and I wonder what is happening and whether I need to re-assess my optimism.

It started with an email from a colleague that said: “This week my management team pulled the alarm bell. They are exhausted and overwhelmed and after a year of heroics, I will have to find a way to stem the flow of work and expectations somewhat so that they can catch a breath.” This led to an amazing, honest and open conversation among my CUCCIO peers that really shook me in terms of what is happening out there. In some ways, I felt we were no longer in control.

During the early days of the pandemic, our teams were full of energy and pride. There was anxiety about the unknown, but we were knocking it out of the ballpark. The pivot to remote work and online learning was a monumental achievement. Externally, it may not have seemed like such a big deal, but for those on the inside, details were seemingly endless. It wasn’t all perfect, but in retrospect, it was a success and it drove a great deal of digital transformation that we had always wanted to do.

In November 2020, I remember reading the article “How to power through a six-month crisis wall” (note: article behind a paywall) by Aisha Ahmad, an international security scholar who has worked in many crisis zones around the world. (Read a summary of this article on Forbes.com). She talked about the need to power through the six-month wall, which happens like clockwork. You end up with this feeling that you want to escape or just make it stop. Happiness and creativity seem to be gone and you frequently feel exhausted. The gist of the article was that you will power through these feelings and will quickly realize that you are already equipped to deal with round two, which for us — in post-secondary education — was the winter term.

Now, we are more than one year in and I am hearing a lot more anxiety from staff and colleagues. Leaders, who are typically used to dealing with change and stress every day, are telling me they are absolutely exhausted – as in end of day collapsing on the couch, both physically and mentally. Personally, I can’t pick up a novel anymore – I can’t get off the first page and that isn’t a pleasant feeling. The last time this happened to me was after some shoulder surgery and the pain meds meant I would sit looking at a page, and after half an hour I was on the same page. Getting out of that funk was relatively easy. I simply stopped taking the pain meds.

These new feelings aren’t going to be easy to shake and it goes far deeper than just Zoom/Teams fatigue. There’s talk about having to “always be on” and jumping from one meeting to the next with minimal breaks and constant context shifting. As CIOs, we do this all the time, we push change and have multiple threads open at the same time, but it feels more exhausting now. Several colleagues in the technology sphere are also saying they feel frustrated. They are being asked to do all sorts of things, but they don’t feel they are being given the resources they need, as many institutions are struggling financially. This means that their best people are taking on an added load and they are simply burning out. They feel that they are only able to skim the surface and are not getting an opportunity to properly address the issues they face. This isn’t a formula for success.

They are also telling me about staff meetings or surveys where people are reaching out for help. They are sharing very personal things around their challenges and I suspect they are looking for answers. It is great that we have created safe places for this to happen. The burning question is: Why have we allowed it to go this far?

Philip Preville wrote a thought-provoking opinion published in The Globe and Mail last week entitled “Finish-line anxiety is now the defining feature of pandemic life” (note: article behind a paywall). This “finish-line anxiety” is the notion that in the early part of the pandemic we characterized the situation as a war and everyone knew that we were in this together and that made it relatively easier. Now, this global crisis is being referred to as a race to the finish line and we are letting the “in it together” mentality slip. I don’t know if this is contributing to the added anxiety I am hearing about, but I do know it isn’t good.

At the end of the day, if you are frequently feeling absolutely exhausted and you are struggling to get energized or to focus on the task at hand, then you aren’t alone. Reach out and talk to someone about it. It may not solve the underlying issue, but it might make you feel better and regain your focus so that you can power through this.

Epilogue: The fact that this is my first blog post since October 2020 proves my point of how tough it sometimes is to focus through the pandemic.