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  • Madeline Weiss, Director

Anxiety in the Time of Covid-19

At the Spring 2020 Advanced Practices Council (APC) meeting, which was virtual due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I asked APC members – all senior technology executives - to introduce themselves with words describing how they are feeling during the pandemic. With few exceptions (I and one other person said we are feeling anxious), the feelings expressed were very positive (energized, optimistic, productive).

The next day I participated in a webinar intended for SIM Regional Leadership Forum (RLF) participants (manager and director levels) that started in a similar way. Responses in this second situation were anonymous. Almost all the feelings expressed were negative (e.g., stressed, anxious, fearful). Why this difference? I can account for two reasons: (1) the APC poll was not anonymous and (2) the APC poll was among CIOs (more senior leaders).

I was reminded of research I conducted many years ago among IT leaders about stress (possible impact of stress on outcomes such as health and work performance). The resulting findings won't surprise you, but might have implications for today's pandemic environment. The higher the level of the manager, the fewer outcomes of stress experienced. The higher up you are, the more control you have. A famous movie mogul was quoted as saying, "I don't get ulcers; I give ulcers."

Please consider that those in your organization may be experiencing more anxiety than you are (or want to acknowledge). Are you doing everything you can to acknowledge and relieve that anxiety at a time when we are working remotely and social support due to distancing is low?

When I shared this observation and question with APC members after our Spring meeting, I received a response from an APC member that leads me to follow up with additional questions. The response was that all IT managers in his company reach out several times per month to direct reports to check on how people are doing. When they ask if there is anything people need, the answer is no. However, the APC member reflected that people may have underlying anxiety despite their negative responses to the questions they are being asked. One of the APC member’s best direct reports asked about outside opportunities because of anxiety about the security of his current position. Another direct report postponed retirement because she feels financially insecure due to the pandemic. The APC member concluded: “You have to go above and beyond to be honest and forthcoming and initiate those hard conversations to create the level of transparency with everyone.  We just held an entire department meeting to talk about all of those things.  It needs to be a dedicated effort ongoing at every level.  In general, the unknown of what we are going through just fuels the feelings of anxiety in all of us.” 

So my additional questions are: Have you created an environment of trust and transparency that encourages people to express their anxieties? Are you looking for patterns of behavior that reflect anxiety that haven’t been expressed in words?

The response from the APC member ended with yet another point worth adding to the list of reasons that CIOs may have fewer negative outcomes from the stress related to anxiety. He pointed out that CIOs have become more conditioned to handle higher stress levels without experiencing the deleterious consequences. That may be true, but it leads me to yet another question: Are you taking good care of yourself so you can take good care of others?

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