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Resilience, Exhaustion, and Change: oh my!

| August 3, 2021

by Brian McDonald

Resilience, Exhaustion, and Change: oh my!

[Today’s Tuesday Reading is from Brian McDonald, President of MOR Associates.  Brian may be reached at [email protected].]

During the last eighteen months people have experienced an unprecedented level of uncertainty coupled with anxiety due to the pandemic along with other threats in our environment. This has been an incredibly challenging time.  Many people are exhausted and some are reporting they are experiencing burnout.
This is perfectly understandable, as it will take some time for individuals and families to rebuild and/or renew in a way that will once again demonstrate people’s ability to be resilient.
Resilience is the ability to withstand adversity and bounce back from difficult life events. 
Being resilient does not mean that people don’t experience stress, emotional upheaval, and suffering.  While we are coming back from this very rough stretch it may be helpful to recognize what has contributed to this exhaustion, so we are able to differentiate cause from effect.
There are threads suggesting many people have change fatigue and we need to slow down or back off from moving forward on some needed changes or initiatives. It may be more accurate to recognize some people just don’t have any fuel left in the tank to take on anything new. They simply don’t have the mental or emotional or physical energy to rally or even support the likely continuous evolution underway.
As leaders, it is helpful to make this distinction and see the causes for the exhausted state many are experiencing as related to the traumas our country has endured. As leaders there are ways to support people who are working through these challenges that meet them where they are.

Yet, let’s not accept the claim “change” was the culprit when you analyze the cumulative impact of the many forces that upended our society during these last 18 months.
Was the primary contributor to the fatigue the virus that spread exponentially in our country as well as in the world causing heartbreaking losses, taking millions of lives, and causing countless hardships? Was it the necessary and unexpected adaptations COVID-19 required of us? For sure, COVID created an unparalleled degree of uncertainty, anxiety and stress.

While COVID descended upon our country there was also a divisive election that contributed to the further polarization of our society and after the votes were counted there was continued tension, anxiety and uncertainty for months. Then there was the tragic murder of George Floyd and others, the accompanying video replays, the protests and focus on social justice and the inequities in our society. Beyond these events there were all natural disasters with hurricanes in the southeast, the deep freeze and utility shut down in Texas, and the raging fires in the west. 
Assessing what has contributed to our exhausted state makes it clear: it is the overwhelming threat level our brains have been experiencing for a prolonged period of time.

Our brains have developed in such a way that we are extremely sensitive to threats and ambiguity.  Our brains are constantly scanning our environment to detect such threats at a rapid rate.  If not addressed this results in distraction, anxiety, and fear.

Our brains subconsciously look for threats five times a second.  The limbic system processes these stimuli before they reach conscious awareness providing us with an ongoing, nonconscious intuition of what is meaningful in every situation of our daily lives.
So, what happens when our brain’s prefrontal cortex is presented with a threat, say a major ambiguity compared to your goals or a major initiative?  Since the brain has only limited capacity and energy, it focuses on the threat and how to respond to it.  The result is we become distracted, focusing on how to understand what the threat or uncertainty means for “me.”  This response filters the way we see and engage the world around us.
The collective uncertainty and anxiety experienced these past 18 months is the prime cause underlying the mental and emotional exhaustion people are experiencing.
On the other hand, people as well as organizations have been remarkably adaptive during this rough stretch. In many cases there was a surprising agility and resilience exhibited by individuals who were able to work from home, coach children who were learning online, adapt to shelter in place or take their role on the front line. Organizations such as universities as well as companies were also remarkably adaptive embracing the technology needed to keep the world and the work moving forward.
Individuals appreciated the flexibility and autonomy that accompanied the work from home opportunity. Organizations demonstrated they were far more agile than thought as they rapidly adopted online platforms such as Zoom, Teams, VPN, and other technologies to ensure they could continue servicing their customers and fulfill their missions.
Many organizations had to pivot in a week or two to working remotely or embracing the technology needed to carry on their mission.  This demonstrated an amazing agility. Will our institutions seek to return to the familiar and revert to the way work was, or will they be continue to be adaptive and recognize agility is an attribute few can do without in the 21st century?
It is possible one longer term outcome from this time (2020-the year that was lost) will be our enhanced collective ability to embrace needed adaptations. It is possible for optimists to foresee how our resilience will have been tested and demonstrated in a way that grows this muscle.
The world we live in is evolving at a quicker and quicker pace. There are multiple forces and trends shaping the environment requiring individuals and organizations to respond or to adapt in record time. Agility, adaptability and resilience are capabilities we need to strengthen given the times we are in.
As we near the start of the fall semester, these are concerns we need to ensure are addressed.    As leaders we can work on our own self-care as well as our resilience while we support the well-being of others.
Attributes you can turn into practices to help build resilience include:

  1. A positive mindset, practice writing out 3 gratitudes a day
  2. Maintain your focus on what you can control, prioritize what’s important
  3. Be flexible, people have navigated this past year plus by being adaptive
  4. Develop a healthy rhythm to your day to give your brain the consistency and predictability that will reduce the uncertainty
  5. Be emotionally tuned into to your own processing of what we have experienced and empathize with what others may have or be experiencing.

Although the world is full of suffering, it is full also of the overcoming of it.”  – Helen Keller
As a leader, what can you do in the coming weeks to help rebuild resilience, combat exhaustion and burnout, and prepare for continued change in the time ahead, both for your team and for you?