The COVID psychological impact on Higher Ed institutions is the topic of this Changing Higher Ed Podcast with host, Dr. Drumm McNaughton and guest, Dr. Tom Marrs. Under discussion is crisis recovery for higher education institutions that will continue to remain challenging as the fallout from the pandemic, including increasing economic issues, continue to emerge. Dr. Tom Marrs is a licensed psychologist and assistant director for client engagement at the Center for Executive Education at Texas A&M University’s Mays Business School.
COVID Psychological Impact on Higher Ed – A Rapidly Changing Stream of Challenges
Higher education institutions are dealing with the psychological impact of COVID and the multiple challenges causing extreme burnout of faculty and employees. During this pandemic, many faculty and employees are returning to work exhibiting signs similar to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Employees may have contracted the coronavirus and may be dealing with its implications; they also may have lost loved ones, friends, and work colleagues.
Additionally, the metaphorical higher education “ship” is trying to right itself in a world that has changed significantly. The challenge of crisis recovery for higher education institutions becomes how to adapt to this emerging new paradigm.
The pandemic and the resulting economic issues are causing a pivot in many organizations’ business model. This can lead to a purgatory where organizations have to figure out how much money to invest in changing infrastructure while not knowing how much of this will be moot once “business as usual” returns (if it ever does). This situation can result in organization leaders experiencing significant stress that can make decision-making difficult.
Every day, solutions emerge for some COVID-related problems while new problems emerge. For example, there is now the reality of the vaccine on the horizon, but that brings up a quandary related to the large section of the population that doesn’t want to get the vaccine because they don’t trust it. There also are issues with distributions and logistics as well as timelines to be followed in administering the vaccine.
Understanding and Coping with High-Stress Events
Many are describing the stress-induced issues in the general population as being PTSD. While PTSD is well-known as a buzzword, most individuals do not understand what it is, especially since the term is used frequently in social media and by news agencies.
In the present circumstances, individuals are facing some element of struggle to function socially, interpersonally, developmentally, educationally, occupationally, and physically. Many are lumping these experiences under the term PTSD as a way to give everyone a common language about what an individual is witnessing or experiencing.
Many individuals use this term because it is known and there is a set of assumptions about what it means. People want to use this term to describe how severe their symptoms feel because these symptoms are stress-related and lead to a profound reaction. However, this applies a clinical pathology to something that is non-clinical and is instead better explained as a human reaction to a very stressful situation.
One needs to look at the primary populations – the military, police, and domestic violence victims – as examples of populations who experience PTSD. The current reaction by faculty and staff look very similar to that at this point. However, in the military, very few soldiers get PTSD given the number who experience severe trauma. That’s because the military prepares soldiers for what battle will look like during boot camp and gives them the strategies and tools in order to deal with these stresses psychologically. We don’t have that type of training with the general population so people are not prepared for the current situation and the resulting stresses.
Extended Levels of Stress
The real impact on people’s mental and psychological health and mental well-being is yet to be seen because one of the key components to diagnosing someone with a stress disorder is the cessation of the thing that is causing the stress. An accurate diagnosis cannot be made if the stressor is continuing.
Society now has to deal with other emerging issues. While COVID may go away thanks to the vaccine, there is a new intense stressor on economic conditions. We haven’t seen all of the impacts of this situation economically and the health symptoms that will emerge because of it. This means our way of life is changing profoundly, which is going to lead to more stress.
The first thing that needs to happen is for the dust to settle once the immediate risk for COVID begins to subside. People will have a natural tendency to try to return to homeostasis once the stress alleviates. When this happens, most people return to normal functioning within 3-6 months, but they don’t feel that is possible when they are in the middle of severe stress events such as we’re experiencing with COVID.
Many people may be suffering from an adjustment disorder, which is a very high-functioning level of PTSD that comes from being exposed to a novel situation that is highly stressful and out of the ordinary. The situation overloads individuals psychologically, and they start showing signs of PTSD. This is very similar to what is being seen during the pandemic.
Managing the Psychological Impact on Higher Ed Employees and Faculty Returning to Campus
The question becomes how to prepare these individuals to return to some sense of normalcy when they return to campus. That happens naturally as people regain their sea legs once they determine they can do things the way they used to or they find a new normal that will eventually feel safe. Most people will eventually find a new sense of security and safety in the new normal.
However, there will be a group of people who will continue to struggle because they can’t overcome their adjustment disorder. This may emerge in older faculty and employees who are more set in their ways; for example, individuals may exhibit these symptoms because they can have difficulty pivoting to a virtual environment and to the new order of things.
An Unequal Psychological Impact – Finances
The COVID psychological impact on Higher Ed employees is exacerbated by the resulting economic impacts to staff who are in lower compensation brackets and may be taking a larger financial hit. It’s important for higher education leaders to be aware of this because these impacts can cause individuals to develop a palpable fear reaction that can be seen in the workplace. This leads to behavioral issues that have to be dealt with in the workplace, especially because individuals are worried about losing their jobs in the present economic climate.
Higher education leaders can make a difference by helping individuals deal with these stress and fear reactions. Higher education leaders should not pathologize behavior, especially when there already is a performance baseline. Personnel issues will continue, regardless of the pandemic. There will continue to be good and poor employees, based on the differences in performance.
Leaders have a choice if issues have emerged. These issues can be treated as a sudden onset of performance issues or can be looked at as if the employee has PTSD and needs to be referred to the employee assistance program. Leaders also can consider that these behaviors may be signs of adjustment disorder or extreme stress over a long duration of time.
Under these circumstances, leaders need to take a different approach that is focused on getting the best from the team. Therefore, it’s important to cut employees a little slack and talk to them about what they need. Leaders also need to normalize the situation and become empathetic.
Additionally, leaders need to be careful about the language they use in communicating to faculty and staff (even through emails). The language that is used can help employees to be okay with the situation and to feel the leader’s empathy.
The psychological impact on higher ed employees means leadership must step up their game while managing their own stress and trauma. When people are under stress, they look to people in power and who they respect for direction. Therefore, it’s important for leaders to take care of themselves—and set an example for others.
Leaders also can get fixated on specific issues or topics so they are continually ruminating. Leaders need to understand that it is completely normal to have difficulty making decisions when under a lot of stress.
They also need to be careful about not pathologizing the current situation for themselves by saying it is terrible and awful, or that they have PTSD because the body will respond to what the individual thinks.
The human body is very adaptive based on stress levels. By shutting down, the body helps lower the stress levels. This can show up as depression, where individuals don’t want to go out and do things that previously were pleasurable, such as attending social situations. Sleeping patterns can change, which can range from getting no sleep to always sleeping, and even having nightmares.
Three Recommendations for Higher Education Leaders and Boards
Marrs suggested several takeaways for higher education leaders:
- Leaders need to help people not pathologize their situation by being careful about the language they use. During times of stress, change, flux, and uncertainty, we should increase the flow of information instead of decreasing it. Stay in touch and keep communicating, be positive, and use intentional language to help people feel okay and normal.
- Leaders should not make decisions based on assumptions that things will go back to normal or the world is ending. Instead, take the approach that this is a severe but temporary condition. While terrible and life-altering, this situation is temporary.
- Don’t overlook opportunities to temporarily increase support services for employees in order to get the most return for investment. This could be increasing funding for programs that provide financial assistance for employees, creating more sessions at employee assistance programs, or increasing daycare services on campus.
- The COVID psychological impact on Higher Ed institutions has created a ripple effect of both solutions and emerging problems that have resulted in prolonged high stress levels among individuals.
- Some organizations are in purgatory as leaders have to figure out how much money to invest in changing infrastructure while not knowing how much of this will be moot once “business as usual” returns. This can result in organizational leaders experiencing significant stress that can make decision-making difficult.
- While PTSD is well-known as a buzzword, most individuals do not understand what it is. It can be triggered by sudden traumatic events such as waking up during surgery or anaphylactic shock. However, in general, these events do not include a life-threatening illness or debilitating medical condition such as COVID-19.
- The real impact on people’s mental and psychological health and mental well-being will not emerge until the cessation of the thing that is causing the stress, which in this case is the pandemic.
- Many individuals may be experiencing an adjustment disorder, which overloads individuals psychologically and leads to signs of PTSD. While most will recover from this disorder once the stress drops, many older faculty and employees may struggle with it post-COVID because they have difficulty pivoting to a new environment.
- The deteriorating economic conditions are emerging as a new stressor. This may have a profound and continued effect on employees.
- Staff who are in lower compensation brackets may be taking a larger financial hit due to the current economic situation. Higher education leaders need to be aware of these situations.
- Individuals may develop a palpable fear reaction that can be seen in the workplace. This leads to behavioral issues that have to be dealt with in the workplace, especially because individuals are worried about losing their jobs in the present economic climate.
- Higher education leaders should not pathologize behavior, especially when there already is a performance baseline related to that employee.
- If issues emerge, they can be treated as a sudden onset of performance issues, a case of PTSD where the employee needs to be referred to the employee assistance program, or signs of adjustment disorder or extreme stress that developed over the pandemic’s long duration of time.
- Leaders need to cut employees a little slack and talk to them about what they need. Leaders also need to normalize the situation and become empathetic, especially in their spoken and written communication.
- Leaders also need to take care of themselves, which sets an example for others. This includes understanding that it is completely normal to have difficulty making decisions when under duress and through not pathologizing the current situation because the body will respond to what the individual thinks.
- The human body is very adaptive based on stress levels. By shutting down, it helps lower stress levels. This can show up as depression and changes in sleeping patterns.
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