The American View: Looking Back on Our First Year of Stressing Endlessly

Are you feeling easily distracted these days? Chronically fatigued, perhaps? Easily irritated? Are you having difficulty focusing, especially when your full attention is required? You’re not alone. We’re all worn down from a year of unrelenting pandemic stress. The incessant anxiety has been more than enough to ablate our usual mental and emotional defences from impenetrable armour plate to abraded tissue paper. It hasn’t mattered how much “self-care” we committed to in between bouts of Netflix binging and staring vacantly at the infinite horizon. It’s the end of Plague Year One, and we’re exhausted. 

To be fair, it hasn’t been a full year for everybody; some of my friends started COVID lockdown in late February; others in late March. My home confinement stated on 13th February 2020 when I came down with a wicked awful respiratory illness that left me without a functioning voice for six weeks. By the time I “recovered,” everyone else was starting to hunker down. For some folks, it’s been ten or eleven months of this. I’ve been staring out the same home office window seven days a week for the last consecutive 360 days. 

It wasn’t so bad at first. I binged Season 1 of Doom Patrol, took a long walk every night after dinner, and spent most of evenings quietly reading. My massive stack of unread books actually shrank noticeably. I remember devouring the entire Horatio Hornblower series, Yhatzee Croshaw’s three latest recent sci-fi comedy novels, a dozen obscure noir detective stories … then things get fuzzy. Earlier this morning, I found the box in the garage where I’ve been stashing my books after I’ve finished them and counted 35, all consumed since last February. For a while, the pandemic wasn’t so bad … Sure, it was terrifying and all that, but it seemed manageable … at first.

As spring turned to summer, I found myself growing increasingly irritated at Texas’s determined refusal to seriously deal with the pandemic. I could feel my daily patience buffer shrink over time; it took progressively less effort to tick me off. I also felt my ability to focus start to slip. Each new leisure reading book took me increasingly more time to process. By mid-year, I could only read a few dozen pages in a sitting. I also found myself losing my place more frequently and had to re-read entire pages because my focus has deserted me midway through a chapter. 

This, in a quiet suburban setting with no squalling little kids, traffic noise, sirens, or other urban noise pollution. I don’t see how young parents locked down in dense urban environments can read anything longer than a wine bottle label these days.  

By autumn, my attention span started to resemble that of a sugar-hyped toddler. Not all the time, thankfully; Mornings were hit and miss. By evening time, though, I was usually spent. I realized how bad things had gotten on night in early October when I tried to finish Louise Richardson’s What Terrorists Want and felt like I was beating my head against a wall. The book itself was fine; the problem was entirely in my head. I would read a few paragraphs and get lost for long periods mulling over the ramifications of the author’s argument. [1] 

I tried alternating titles to see if interspersing serious non-fiction with inconsequential fiction would help, and … no. I’ve tried attacking my stack earlier in the day (especially on weekends) and that didn’t help either. I recently got my pre-order of Sarah Jaffe’s Work Won’t Love You Back and tore into it … to about the one-third mark. That book has so much to say that it deserves all your concentration. With a year’s worth of accumulated pandemic stress, though, trying to focus on is (for me) like participating in a rave hosted in a quicksand pit: the content is exhilarating, but the gruelling environment it’s consumed in makes every page turn a concerted effort. This state of affairs is ridiculous. I need to read and understand this book for professional development, but I can’t seem to sustain the focus required to fully ingest it anymore. 

It’s gotten to the point where just writing these weekly columns has become a challenge in and of itself. Even when I have the free time to write, a quiet house, and a strong choice of topics, I’ll often require double or even triple the time and attention as I used to need to generate a mediocre first draft. Editing takes longer. Stock photo selection takes longer. I might have to spend a week – on and off – finishing a piece that would have only taken 2-3 hours on a good day back in 2019. Bear in mind, this is something that I enjoy doing. It’s not like this is some dull, grey, bureaucratic task that was already a cumbersome slog in the before-times. Like leisure reading, this is what I relish spending my time on … and it, too, has become a grind. 

I’m not bringing this up to beg for empathy. Quite the opposite: if you’re feeling likewise, I see you. I understand what you’re going through. Trust me, you’re not doing anything wrong. What you’ve been experiencing is normal. To quote a two-year-old non-clinical article published by the Mayo Clinic titled Chronic stress puts your health at risk, “The long-term activation of the stress-response system and the overexposure to cortisol and other stress hormones that follows can disrupt almost all your body’s processes. This puts you at increased risk of many health problems, including anxiety, depression, digestive problems, headaches, heart disease, sleep problems, weight gain, [and] memory and concentration impairment.” [2]

I can’t imagine how any school-age kid is making any progress at all in their “remote leaning” studies this year. I have the advantage of years of military training in how to focus while exhausted and an adult’s increased ability to endure. The kids have … what? Best wishes? 

Even if we skip over all the other effects, that last one is a cold-blooded killer when it comes to our mental equilibrium, productivity, and reliability. Bluntly, we we’re all trying to pretend like everything is still normal and that we can carry on with our jobs, studies, and family lives as if nothing untoward has happened. That’s understandable … but it’s also ridiculous. We have to accept that we’re not functioning at our best right now. Understand that we won’t return to whatever passes for “normal” until well after the pandemic is no longer a threat. 

This is especially important for supervisors and leaders to grasp. It doesn’t matter how many inspirational dancing kitten gifs you forward to your remote workers; they’re encumbered. You can’t exhort people to hit deadlines, produce error-free work, or be chipper in meetings when they’re groaning under a year’s unremitting strain and have no hope of the situation resolving itself anytime soon. Throttle back! Adapt to the pandemic. Change your expectations. 

One more point – quite honestly, this is what I intended to say at the start before I got distracted – our cumulative stress isn’t just a drain on individual morale and work output. It’s also the exact preconditions that scammers and cybercriminals require to most effectively take advantage of us. Deception-based attacks like phishing, mail fraud, social engineering, and social media impersonation are all far more effective when the intended victims are tired, unfocused, and/or emotionally charged. You know, like all of us are right now. We’re ideal prey.

I originally intended to talk about how chronic pandemic stress makes people more susceptible to phishing lures and believable lies. I wanted to stress that organisations need to address this head-on for the remainder of … <gestures vaguely> … all this. Not just for the health and safety of our “most essential assets,” but for the continued survival of our organizations.

Maybe you’re not a “people person.” That’s cool. I get it. Instead, consider what’s going to happen to your business, your company’s stock price, your pension, and your ability to ever get hired again if one of your people is so stressed out by pandemic life that they fall for a spearphishing attack and cripple your network with ransomware. Are we synched up now? Good. 

Criminals know we’re vulnerable right now. We’re jumping at shadows when we can focus, and we’re failing to react to real signs of adversary action at all once our energy reserves are spent. Meanwhile, scammers are ramping up their attacks to hit us while we’re most likely to pay out. To counter both the increased rate of attack and the defenders’ disadvantageous circumstances, we need to ramp up our phishing recognition training for the duration to meet the evolving threat. Our people need all the help they can get right now; the last thing people need on top of being confined-to-quarters for a year is to have their boss slagging them over a Zoom connection for sloppy work or a poor attitude. 

Of course, that was my intent. Realistically, I had to take three runs at this column draft before I could type a semi-coherent introductory opening. Even then, I had to step away twice to stare out the window at the falling snow and let my runaway thoughts get back in formation. Proves my point, though. Everything costs more to produce now, including time, energy, and focus. Success is still possible, sure, but not on the same terms we judged one another on this time last year. Consider it inflation, if you like. Whatever. What’s important is that you cut yourself and your people a break. 

This isn’t over, and it’s going to get progressively worse before it gets better. It will get better. Until then, though, deal with the world as it is, not as you’d like it to be. 

[1] I still haven’t finished that book, for the record. 

[2] Condensed from a bulleted list. Also, emphasis added on the last four words. 

Pop Culture Allusion: C.J. Koch, David Williamson, and Peter Weir, The Year of Living Dangerously (1978 book and 1982 film)

Keil Hubert

Keil Hubert

POC is Keil Hubert, Follow him on Twitter at @keilhubert. You can buy his books on IT leadership, IT interviewing, horrible bosses and understanding workplace culture at the Amazon Kindle Store. Keil Hubert is the head of Security Training and Awareness for OCC, the world’s largest equity derivatives clearing organization, headquartered in Chicago, Illinois. Prior to joining OCC, Keil has been a U.S. Army medical IT officer, a U.S.A.F. Cyberspace Operations officer, a small businessman, an author, and several different variations of commercial sector IT consultant. Keil deconstructed a cybersecurity breach in his presentation at TEISS 2014, and has served as Business Reporter’s resident U.S. ‘blogger since 2012. His books on applied leadership, business culture, and talent management are available on Keil is based out of Dallas, Texas.

© Business Reporter 2021

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