Resilience in the Pandemic

February 3, 2022 Melaina Spitzer

How can we build resilience in the middle of a pandemic?

It’s a question every thoughtful leader is asking as the pandemic continues—and with good reason. Harvard Business Review reported on a survey of nearly 1,500 people from 46 countries. Some 85% of respondents reported a decline in general wellbeing, and 89% reported a decline in workplace wellbeing.

But all is not bleak. As a leader, you are in a position to help your people. It’s important, though, to understand that you first need to cultivate your own resilience.

Supporting your people during a crisis is like being thrown overboard into the ocean. You must inflate your own life preserver before helping others with theirs. Being prepared and safe takes on more importance when you consider that only 19% of workers are ‘highly resilient’ and 81% are either less resilient or in the ‘vulnerable’ category. Put another way, four out of five of your direct reports have low levels of resilience.

Resilience Affects Engagement

Resilience is essential because it is strongly correlated with workplace engagement. If someone is not resilient, they are probably not engaged at work. But a good leader can create engagement even in trying circumstances. In fact, managers account for at least 70% of variance in employee engagement scores. This means you have tremendous influence.

There’s more good news: be a beacon of resilience and your team will become more resilient. Becoming more resilient is like developing any new skill. It requires practice and commitment. Fortunately, your efforts to become more resilient will have a ripple effect that extends far past your immediate circle.

Becoming more resilient has three components: rebooting your brain, developing a resilience mindset, and cultivating your resilience practice. Here’s a closer look.

Tip One: Reboot Your Brain

We’ve all seen the spinning ball of death on a computer. The next thing that happens is usually a crash. There's not much you can do until you've rebooted. Our brains are like this. In times of overload or crisis, they go offline.

In his book Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman coined the term amygdala hijack to describe what goes on in our brain during extreme stress or crisis. The amygdala, a tiny little almond-shaped part of the brain, is responsible for the flight, fight, or freeze response. When the amygdala takes over, it overrides the prefrontal cortex—the part of our brain responsible for higher thinking, impulse inhibition, flexibility, and everything else we most need in a time of crisis.

You can tell you’re experiencing an amygdala hijack if you feel overwhelmed, are rude to a colleague, or are short tempered. That’s when we need to reboot our brains, get them back online, and put the prefrontal cortex in control.

Here are things you can do to reboot your brain:

  • Breathe—regulate your breath
  • Change your immediate setting or environment
  • Hydrate and nourish your body
  • Visualize a peaceful setting
  • Stretch and move your body
  • Journal to unburden your mind
  • Connect with someone or something that brings you joy

All these tips interrupt the amygdala hijack. Experiment to find the one that works for you.

Tip 2: Develop a Resilience Mindset

What we believe has a direct impact on what we experience. That means we need to cultivate the right mindset to help us stay resilient. This doesn’t mean pretending everything is going to be fine. It’s a delicate balance of optimism and realism.

We fortunately can adopt new attitudes. Our brain has an extraordinary capacity, known as plasticity, to create new neurons and neural pathways. This means we can reprogram our thinking for a resilience mindset. Here are four practices you can use:

  • Mind Shift #1: Get real. We need a mindset that's going to help us stay resilient even during the most difficult times. Realism is the foundation—we need to accept things as they really are. We need do away with any agreeable delusions so that we can make the best decision. We also need a contingency plan. We need to be able to think through the worst-case scenario so that we can meet it. And we need determine whether our fears are true or are being prompted by anxiety or what we read in this morning’s news.
  • Mind Shift #2: Make meaning out of hardship. A strong value system is critical; it allows us to interpret events in a way that benefits us. This starts with allowing yourself to feel the emotions instigated by the challenge. Don’t suppress emotions. They’ll erupt at inopportune moments, usually to the detriment of others. After this, try to identify silver linings—any positive outcomes you might experience because of a difficult period. Set goals based on something you find meaningful and visualize a brighter future.
  • Mind Shift #3: Think like an inventor. Brainstorm opportunities that could be created from the challenge. Include even crazy ones. Then eliminate the fear of failure. Think how you might act if you knew you couldn’t fail. Throw out any assumed constraints. Turn them around, and use assumed constraints as building blocks to create a more positive and empowering belief. Act from that belief.
  • Mind Shift #4: Develop a change leader mindset. Our Leading People Through Change program identifies four qualities and behaviors:
  • Courage—Strength in the face of adversity
  • Curiosity—A strong desire to know and learn
  • Agility—The ability to think, understand, and move quickly
  • Grit—The ability to withstand discomfort

Try to weave humor and play into whatever you do. These are dark times, and we all need a ray of sunshine.

Tip 3: Cultivate Your Resilience Practice

Cultivating practices that build your resilience is the last step. Thinking you don’t have the time is shortsighted. If you can’t do it for yourself, consider what will happen to your team if they lose your help. Taking care of yourself is your right—and it’s important for others.

Physical wellbeing is fundamental to our ability to lead. Start small and add more when you can. It will make you more effective at work and a better person at home.

Here are some tips to keep you vital and sharp:

  • Sleep 7–8 hours/night
  • Prepare and eat healthy foods
  • Take a walk around the block
  • Practice chair yoga or stretching
  • Hydrate regularly—our brain is made of mostly water, so drinking enough of it is essential
  • Exercise daily

Social wellbeing is also critical to resilience. It’s particularly important now, since we are in the midst of a loneliness epidemic. Working from home has exacerbated the problem. We no longer have those impromptu conversations with our colleagues. This all adds up and erodes our social wellbeing.

What can you do, given social distancing? Connecting with a friend or loved one could be an antidote. Volunteering is another one.

Look at this list and see which suggestion speaks to you:

  • Call a friend or loved one
  • Set up an accountability partnership
  • Join a virtual or in-person meetup centered on your interests
  • Schedule team connection time
  • Participate in a virtual happy hour or dance party with friends
  • Volunteer with a service project you love

Emotional wellbeing is another vital facet in resilience. We all know the pandemic has taken its toll. We may not know that burnout is very difficult to recover from once it's occurred. That makes prevention essential.

Here are some emotional wellbeing practices:

  • Practice gratitude
  • Monitor negative self-talk
  • Write and repeat affirmations
  • Schedule regular downtime
  • Talk through your feelings with a confidant
  • Set aside worry
  • Meditate daily
  • Journal
  • Connect with a therapist

Here’s a fun suggestion: create an alarm on your phone once a day that says, ‘Time to do nothing.’

Purpose is the final pillar in building your resilience. It’s your time to consider your values, your mission, and why you decided to become a leader. Ask yourself “What kind of a leader do I want to be?” This kind of question can bring clarity around your true commitments and your default commitments.

Here are some purpose-building practices:

  • Set motivating goals
  • Create sacred reflection time
  • Connect with a spiritual or purpose-driven community
  • Align your schedule with activities connected to your purpose
  • Ask yourself “How can I pivot to be more in alignment with my values?”
  • Connect with nature
  • Partner with a coach

An interesting practice is to identify a commitment you value. Then imagine a camera recording everything you do that day. Would the recording show a person acting in accordance with their values or something else? If there’s a disparity, what needs to change to close the gap?

A Final Thought

Becoming more resilient is not a solo endeavor. It is a team undertaking. We cannot do it alone. Once you accept this, you’ll want to create a resilience team—people you can contact on a regular basis whenever you need support.

On your team you’ll need a cheerleader, an accountability partner to help you reach difficult goals, a creative partner for tackling big projects, and so forth. Write down the names of these people and the roles you see them playing. Chances are, if you ask someone to be on your resilience team and tell them the role you had in mind, they’ll be honored and jump at the opportunity to make a difference. That may be the spark you need to grow as a leader and to live a happier, more resilient life.

About the Author

Melaina Spitzer

Melaina Spitzer is a senior leadership consulting partner and resilience practice leader for Blanchard. An award-winning author and executive coach, she specializes in leadership development, resilience, conflict resolution, and change management. Melaina has trained more than 15,000 leaders globally across public, private, and nonprofit sectors and delivered more than 60 keynotes and trainings on resilience since 2020.

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