This article was originally published by Alex Vincent, Ph.D., SVP, Global Executive Client Partner, LHH and Joanne Layne, SVP, Client Partner, LHH here.
Of all the things we have learned during the global COVID-19 pandemic, one of the toughest lessons might be that we are battling more than one pandemic. Along with the virus, the world is suffering a profound shortage of its collective resilience.
Along with infections from the novel coronavirus, the world is suffering through a pandemic of emotional and psychological exhaustion that is producing widespread physical and mental health problems, up to and including a spike in suicide. Most alarming is the fact that many of the people we believe to be the most resilient to this kind of stress are the people who are suffering the most.
Doctors and nurses in particular are struggling to endure the unrelenting stress of the pandemic. In September, a survey of thousands of healthcare professionals in 60 countries found that more than half reported substantial emotional burnout from dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. Findings like that prompted the World Health Organization to issue a directive warning health authorities to keep a close watch on the mental health of healthcare workers, particularly as COVID-19 potentially mounts a fall surge.
On one level, it’s easy to understand how and why healthcare professionals would be amongst the most affected; they literally serve as a thin white line that is trying to hold back the spread of COVID-19. But then again, they have also undergone significant education and training, all geared towards making them resilience "superheroes.”
The global pandemic of emotional burnout among healthcare workers is helping to reveal a major misconception about resilience: it is not, even in the most stalwart of people, an infinite resource.
Resilience is one of the most desired qualities in business today
In the business world, resilience is a highly desired quality for both leaders and the people they lead. It tends to function as a catch-all label that describes workers who are resourceful and able to recover quickly from stressful events.
Resilience is considered a key quality in leadership because it is closely associated with concepts such as Emotional Intelligence and Agile Thinking. Both of these core leadership philosophies rely on individuals who are independent, decisive and able to lead by example. These are the qualities that define resilience in a business context.
However, as leadership development experts have studied resilience in a business context, they realized that it manifests in a number of other ways that are perhaps more subtle. Qualities such as candor, resourcefulness, selflessness, humility and empathy—all closely associated with EQ and Agile Thinking—are now considered foundational qualities of the resilient leader.
However, in all those discussions, there is little discussion of the forces that actually erode resilience.
The Resilience Battery
Most organizations, when they consider the resilience of their leaders or workforce, tend to ask themselves the same stock questions: who has it, and how can they get more of it. Further, they want to know if they can train their people to be more resilient, or whether it’s a quality that must be recruited into an organization from an external talent pool.
Few organizations, however, consider issues like culture and workplace environment in their deliberations about resilience. The often-overlooked fact is that toxic workplaces with toxic leadership can erode resilience in even the strongest and most capable people.
Resilience is like a battery; to maintain a full charge, it must be properly maintained and periodically recharged. Run the resilience battery too long in an environment that is harsh and unwelcoming, and it will eventually be drained and lose power. Resilience can be recharged through development, practice, rest and wellness practices.
A good example of this can be found in our example of healthcare workers. It would be easy to attribute the current pandemic of declining mental and physical health to COVID-19. In reality, the emotional and mental wellbeing of healthcare workers has been a concern for many, many years.
In January, the National Physician Burnout & Suicide Report for 2020, an annual project by global health care information site Medscape, found that 42 percent of respondent physicians in the United States felt burned out from “long hours, an overwhelming workload and a lack of support” from their employers. The survey, a snapshot of the American medical profession prior to COVID-19, also found out that one quarter of respondents had suicidal thoughts. The report noted that prior research has shown that between 300 and 400 American physicians commit suicide each year.
Although the resilience of healthcare professionals is particularly vulnerable to erosion from stressful working conditions, the same dynamic can be seen in just about every workplace regardless of industry, sector or profession. For organizations that would like to improve or sustain the resilience of their employees, it’s essential to perform a full diagnostic and introduce remedial measures as soon as possible.
The early warning signs of eroding resilience and what to do about it
The first step is to determine whether your organization has a weak resilience battery. The good news is that most existing psychometric assessments can provide a relatively accurate snapshot of individual and organizational resilience. These assessments can be applied in a variety of seminal career moments: onboarding, promotions and leadership opportunities, expat assignments and priority project assignment.
On a more ongoing basis, however, there are a number of things organizations should look for and address on an urgent basis to recharge the resilience batteries of their employees:
1. Get feedback. Simply put, you won’t know if there is a problem if you don’t ask people how they are holding up. Engagement surveys can be an important early warning system for a resilience deficit. However, there are other psychometric instruments—like the Connor-Davidson Resilience Scale—which can specifically measure the individual resilience of an employee group.
2. Keep a close watch for the early warning signs of declining resilience. Psychologically unsafe workplaces are almost invariably the scene of high levels of resignations, absenteeism and sick leave. These metrics, taken together, provide unambiguous evidence that basic working conditions are draining resilience from your people.
3. Watch for employees who are pushing themselves too hard. Are your people constantly deferring their PTO, or answering work emails during time off on evenings, weekends and statutory holidays? These are tell-tale signs of employees who will eventually drain their resilience batteries. No one, not even the hardiest top performers, can ignore work-life balance and remain resilient.
4. Promote a psychologically safe and healthy workplace. Even the most naturally resilient people will eventually lose their ability to adapt, endure and recover if their workplace is characterized by poor communication, internal conflict, rampant office politics, poor leadership and an absence of work-life balance.
5. Pay particular attention to leadership. Broad engagement surveys show that the main reason why people leave organizations is to escape bad or toxic leadership. You need to apply a focused and explicit lens to the quality of leadership in your organization to ensure your leaders are not subjecting employees to neglect, unreasonable work demands, sexual harassment and emotional abuse.
It’s important to note that a transfusion of new employees or leaders cannot, on its own, improve the resilience of an organization with a particularly toxic culture. Even the most confident and capable new employees and leaders eventually drain their resilience batteries when faced with an unsupportive workplace.
Organizations can take steps to help build and sustain resilience skills by taking the time to assess culture, leaders and people. Once the weak links have been identified, it will be essential to provide practical tools to build resilience in those who may need it and restore resilience to those who may have depleted their batteries in the early days of the pandemic.