Wearing a mask seems like a simple solution for an immunocompromised professional who must attend in-person meetings and conferences. In reality, though, wearing a mask creates a new set of challenges — and anxieties.
For our latest installment of Confessions, where we trade anonymity for candor, an assistant dean at a public university discusses the balance between staying healthy while attending in-person conferences and events, where the majority of attendees are maskless.
This interview has been edited for clarity and flow.
Many people who are immunocompromised now work entirely from home. While you often do, why do you frequently need to attend large, in-person gatherings?
A lot of my work is connecting with industry partners, because we’re expanding our campus. It’s a public-private partnership so there’s networking and meetings that have to happen as we align industry and higher ed. It’s important to be in those rooms to do the casual connecting.
Why do these in-person meetings cause anxiety?
I’m immunocompromised, I have an autoimmune disease and I take medication that weakens my immune system. I haven’t had Covid-19, so I don’t know what that would look like for me. I’m vaccinated and double-boosted so I think I think I’ll be okay if I do get it, but I don’t really want to find out. People act like there’s no Covid.
When you’re at a work event, do you find the other masked attendees gravitate toward each other?
Not really. I feel like the people in masks are all sort of a bit standoffish. I recently went to an all-day meeting which was followed by a networking event. The people who were wearing masks at the meeting didn’t go to the event after. I did because I knew it was important for me to make connections. Doing that in a mask is a bit more challenging. It takes a bit more effort. I sometimes feel social pressure to just take the mask off, but then I put myself at risk.
Why is it hard to network with a mask on?
It’s especially hard when you’re in a crowded room since it’s loud. It’s harder to project especially since I’m a fairly soft-spoken person. My voice doesn’t boom so I really have to focus on raising my voice. You kind of get short of breath when you’re behind a mask, especially if you’re outdoors. It’s even worse outdoors because it’s sweaty and uncomfortable.
I was recently at an all-day working retreat where there were about 70 people in the room and maybe three or four of us had masks on. I kept mine on during the working parts, but then in the all-hands session a microphone got passed around. I’m not taking my mask off to put my mouth near a microphone that other people just spoke into. There is this pressure when I meet one-on-one to pull the mask down.
It’s harder for the other person to know if I’m laughing and smiling — those normal, nonverbal expressions. Talking with a mask on already takes so much effort that it’s like you’re not able to fully be yourself. It’s like the mask almost hides some of that. In the back of your head you’re feeling pressure or anxiety that you are wearing a mask.
Do you feel pressure from your boss or co-workers?
No, not at all from them. But my boss is not vaccinated. We interact mostly online so it’s not an issue. There have been some team meetings where I keep my mask on, but he’ll have his off when he’s talking to everybody. And then if we’re in a one-on-one, I have my mask on but the conversation is just harder that way.
Being fully virtual comes with its own set of challenges. Does it feel like a no-win situation?
It’s important to get back to the normal way of life. Virtual meetings are fine for intensely focused specific topics. And yeah, you can do some degree of casual catching up with people. But the relationships that you can form while networking at a conference or retreat are very valuable, and could be vital connections for work moving forward. Doing them in person really is important. That’s why at this point, it’s really hard to have to make that choice, do I take the risk and take my mask off for the sake of making a connection that might really make a large impact in the work I’m trying to do? Or do I make the choice to keep the mask on to protect my health?