As I See It: IT And The Other Pandemic
September 28, 2020 Victor Rozek
Most mornings I wake up with a now-familiar feeling of nagging dread. It sticks like gum to my shoe and sullies the rest of my day. Accordingly, I enter the world worried, impatient, and easily irritated.
The unrelenting stress of dodging the pandemic has slowly taken its toll. Activities that not long ago were prosaic – like grocery shopping, going camping, dining out, or attending a wedding – are now cloaked in a patina of anxiety. A convenience store clerk recently asked me how I was doing? I shrugged. “Another day of avoiding people,” I said. She nodded knowingly and her eyes looked weary above her mask.
I suspect we were both feeling the effects of relentless uncertainly, living life in semi-isolation, worried about our family’s health and finances, frustrated by the summer resurgence of the virus, bombarded daily by news of infection rates and death counts, and wondering when it will all end.
But just in case we don’t have enough to worry about, the unrelenting stress has created another looming concern. According to a recent article by William Wan in The Washington Post: “Federal agencies and experts warn that an historic wave of mental-health problems is approaching: depression, substance abuse, post-traumatic stress disorder and suicide.”
Not to be outdone by a national medical system that proved itself valiant but woefully unprepared for the pandemic, the mental health system in the United States, according to Wan, “is even less prepared to handle this coming surge.”
The system suffers from a familiar lack of funding, in addition to being “fragmented and difficult to access.” The fear among experts is that millions of people will simply go unaided, particularly problematic in rural areas with scant resources, high rates of drug and alcohol abuse, and domestic violence.
But the problem extends beyond rural outposts. A Kaiser Family Foundation poll discovered that “nearly half of Americans report the coronavirus crisis is harming their mental health.” As early as April the federal emergency hotline experienced a “1,000 percent increase” in calls. Since then, the volume has been described as equivalent to “50 plane crashes a week for four months.”
While stress is experienced universally, IT professionals, by virtue of temperament and job requisites, have a better than average chance of riding out these discomforting times with minimal damage.
For one thing, IT professionals are already accustomed to a degree of isolation. Many IT tasks are performed in quasi-solitude by people who have learned to be comfortable with their own company. Solitude, for most of us, facilitates deeper concentration and programmers have learned how to create a personal bubble in rooms often dotted with noisy cubicles. Headphones have become the PPE of techies. And that ability to create a private world and hang out in it for hours (while giving the appearance of being productive) is a skill that will serve during a time when the normal range of activities is restricted.
For another, IT professionals tend to be more introverted than extroverted. And while I have no statistical data to support that assertion, it makes sense that introverts are more likely to be drawn to a profession where interacting with screens is more common than interacting with people. And, as a rule, when introverts need to recharge they prefer to do it alone. They will not miss being around others as much as extroverts who tend to recharge in groups. The biggest challenge for introverts may be surviving extended periods of confinement with roommates or family. On the other hand, introvert or not, not everyone gets along with roommates or family, but extroverts are more likely to need someone to complain to.
The IT professionals’ familiarity and ease with technology also serves them. As more and more people turn to the Internet and social media for connection and comfort, using technology will not be as foreign or frustrating as it is for many older people. (My wife spends hours on the phone just talking her step-mom through the process of changing a password.) Finding online resources (including counseling if necessary), enrolling in classes, entering chat rooms, online shopping, virtual banking, starting a Zoom session, downloading new apps; none of these things will be a mystery or a challenge for IT savvy folks. We take it for granted, but having ease and normalcy navigating the intermittently choppy and ever-changing seas of technology is something that millions of Americans simply do not possess. Therefore their options for connection and entertainment will be limited.
The possibility of working from home also provides a clear financial advantage. A large measure of the stress people are experiencing comes with the loss of a job and/or income. During the Great Depression people often greeted each other with a single question: Are you working? Having a job was not only important for survival, but for mental health. Being able to provide for yourself and your family remains a basic, primal need. And a job is inextricably tied to identity. Losing one threatens the other. Working from home is a huge advantage, alleviating a bushel of stressors from how will I pay the rent to how will I put food on the table.
And people who work in tech tend to have functional computers at home that don’t crash or freeze when more than two applications are open, or a video is streaming. Plus, they typically live in areas where broadband is available. So as far as access to entertainment and distraction-on-demand are concerned, they will not be limited to the wasteland known as television.
Regardless of any natural/career immunity IT professionals may have to help them weather mental health stresses, anyone who tends to self-medicate, would be wise to self-assess. Addictions are quiet and stealthy as a jungle cat. The dependencies they create offer escape and relief until they don’t. Particularly vulnerable are people sliding into depression. Addictive behavior is the handmaiden to melancholy. And when self-care becomes more damaging than restorative, it’s time to get resourceful.
I don’t know whether the following is an example of radical resourcefulness, or whether it’s a form of concealed rebellion, or one of those just-because-I-can things. Apparently, people attend business meetings on Zoom while sitting behind their desk without their pants on. That will arguably spike the mental well-being of the pantless person, but if they want to improve the disposition of the other people on the call, here’s a suggestion: Stand up.