The R Word – Resilience in Difficult Times

Vicki Culpin, Professor of Organizational Behaviour at Hult Ashridge Executive Education

Why has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted our personal resilience so much, and why is there such a variation between how people are dealing with, or at least reporting how they are dealing with, their current circumstances?

A few weeks ago, during a webinar on the topic of resilience, I asked 500 HR and L&D professionals how they felt the current pandemic would affect the resilience of their employees. Did they feel that by experiencing the crisis, and surviving, maybe even thriving, employees would, post-COVID, believe that their resilience had improved or strengthened? Or, did these HR and L&D professionals believe that employees would find that the very nature of operating in very difficult, often stressful circumstances, for such a length of time, would ultimately drain resources, negatively impacting psychological and physical resilience? I was very heartened to hear that 84% of the individuals on the webinar reported that they believed that post-COVID, levels of resilience in their employees would either be slightly better, or significantly better than before.

If for some people, experiencing a difficult time may help to build their resilience in the longer term, this is good news, but of course, this does not, nor should not, take away from the struggles that many are currently facing, struggles that many are often not sharing. COVID-19, by its very nature, hits the heartland of personal resilience factors – those aspects of behaviour that help us to build and maintain resilience in the face of adversity. The importance of feeling in control, the human to human connection of work colleagues, family and friends, social connectedness more generally and a sense of optimism are a few of the psychological aspects of resilience which can be negatively impacted, often quite significantly during this time. We can then add into the mix physiological resilience factors such as ensuring you consistently get good quality and quantity of sleep, regular exercise and a healthy diet, and it is easy to see how personal resilience can start to deplete, and how difficult it may be for individuals to feel able to do anything about it.

Whilst the list of resilience ‘protection factors’ is not exhaustive (I see about 15 or 16 different behaviours to focus on), it isn’t the case that one size fits all. That is, what helps to build or deplete, resilience in one person, is not necessarily the same for the next person. This is a really important point – what may help you, may not help somebody else. What drains your energy may excite or engage someone else. Let’s use an example – speaking in public. Glossophobia, or the fear of speaking in public, is a very common phobia, with approximately four out of ten Americans reporting this as a real fear. Yet so many people find public speaking exciting, and are passionate about being able to engage with an audience in such a way (think of politicians, journalists, university lecturers). What motivates and excites one person, may terrify another. The individual nature of resilience means that even if their geographical, political, socio-economic, social and cultural situations are identical, two people may be in very different places in terms of their responses to the crisis, and of course, this may change from day to day too.

What does this mean for you, your family and friends, and your work colleagues? Have a conversation and listen. Really listen, rather than just stopping talking. Learn to read the non-verbal cues and what is not being said as well as what is being shared. Spend time working out what helps to build your resilience and what depletes you, and ask others. Try the ‘bath’ metaphor to help explore what works and what gets in the way – what behaviours help you to fill up the bath with resilience, and what behaviours are the equivalent of pulling the plug, leading to loss of resilience. Finally, be mindful that whilst we are all on this journey, our view of the world, our challenges, and our resilience are unique.

Find out more about how to develop team resilience with our Resilience Leadership programs.

Vicki Culpin is a Professor of Organizational Behaviour at Hult Ashridge Executive Education. She specializes in well-being research, specifically related to memory and sleep.

Hult International Business School
Hult International Business School
Ashridge Executive Education