According to a study by Mental Health American and FlexJobs, 40% of employees in the US have experienced burn-out since the start of the pandemic.
Furthermore, employees are more than 3x as likely to have poor mental health now compared to before the pandemic, according to the same survey.
As the weight of social and economic circumstances continue to pressure businesses, many executives feel like there is no light at the end of the tunnel. Or, if there is light, it’s from an oncoming train…
This is no longer about managing to hang on for a few weeks or months. It is now a matter of long-term resilience and the ability to thrive in the face of multiple stress factors.
How Resilience Works
At its core, long-term resilience is largely about creating a sort of “insulation” against adverse situations.
But what is this insulation?
How is it built?
To put it simply, this resilience “insulation” consists of a regular diet of positive emotions.
Resilience is much less about “powering through” adversity, and much more about cultivating a positive emotional state.
It’s built by the regular release of four chemicals in our brain that are related to positive experiences and emotions.
- Dopamine (associated with creativity)
- Oxytocin (associated with love)
- Serotonin (associated with happiness)
To build that insulation and substantially increase our resilience, we must intentionally cultivate and manage the experiences in our lives that trigger the activity of these positive chemicals.
However, in the current state of relative isolation or “hibernation” many of us are experiencing, these positive chemicals tend to be suppressed.
There are important ways that we as leaders can adapt, however.
To do that, we need to take control of our resilience by really investing in positive activities.
8 Questions to Assess Your Resilience
The first step towards mastery is measurement. It is especially important that executives give themselves time to evaluate their own emotional condition and how it’s affecting their physical and mental condition.
If you fail to take this step because you believe you aren’t being negatively affected, there is a good change that at some point you will hit the burn-out point. For the sake of yourself, your team, and your family...
And ask yourself these 8 questions to evaluate your current level of resilience:
- How clearly am I thinking?
- Have I had any short-term memory lapses out of the ordinary?
- Does it feel like I’m constantly living through a fog?
- How am I breathing?
- How rested do I feel?
- Am I finding any joy in life?
- What is draining my energy?
- What is increasing my energy?
7 Habits to Increase Your Resilience
If we can effectively deal with positive experiences, we can build up our resilience against the negative experiences with which we’re bombarded. The following are 7 practices to intentionally manage your DOSE-building experiences and increase your “insulation.”
The following are 8 practices to intentionally manage your DOSE-building experiences and increase your “insulation.”
Savoring is the act of noticing, appreciating, enhancing, and prolonging the positive experiences in life, with deliberate attention to, and awareness of, positive emotions.
Think about the everyday things that give you pleasure. What do you look forward to on a typical day?
A morning cup of coffee? A hot shower? A stroll down the block?
It could be something as “mundane” as eating an orange…peeling it…smelling it...feeling the texture…
You will make this exercise most effective by using all 5 of your senses: touch, taste, smell, sight, and hearing.
2. Strength Journaling
It isn’t difficult to find strong, scientific support for the positive effects of journaling.
Strength journaling elicits a healthy, positive emotional state by giving you a medium to clarify and focus your thoughts on what strengths you possess. It is a formalized opposite to mentally "beating yourself up."
As noted in Psychology Today’s The Good and Bad of Journaling, it’s important to avoid making your journaling into a pity-party detailing all the negative circumstances in your life.
Related to Savoring, Mindfulness is a deliberate awareness of your environment.
One good way to practice mindfulness is to stop what you’re doing and begin naming the physical things around you. Focus on an item and describe it; Plant by the Window – deep green leaves, chocolate-brown trunk, lime-green stems, etc.
Actually putting words (mentally or verbally) to an object will help you truly notice it. This exercise settles our brain, calms our system, and allows us to let those positive chemicals flow rather than the anxiety-driving chemicals.
Meditation can include exercises like Mindfulness or Savoring, but also encompasses exercises such as Guided Imagery, Loving Kindness, and Progressive Muscle Relaxation.
An app for your phone or fitness device can be a useful tool to help guide your meditation.
Here is a list of some of the top meditation apps in 2020:
- Meditation App
- Insight Timer
5. Gratefulness Journaling
This habit can be done at the end of a day to help you focus on the positive aspects of your earlier experiences.
A related study the University of California, Davis found that “A daily gratitude intervention…resulted in higher reported levels of the positive states of alertness, enthusiasm, determination, attentiveness and energy…”
6. Thankfulness Jar
This is another tactic to tap into the benefits thankfulness - it has been demonstrated that thankfulness increases the levels of dopamine and serotonin.
One approach to this habit is to periodically write down something you’re thankful for (it doesn’t have to be incredibly significant) onto a scrap of paper and put it into a jar. Every few days, take a moment or two and pull out a few scraps to remind yourself that you are truly blessed.
This can be brief! A good rule of thumb for best results is to exercise at least 20 minutes at a time, but shorter durations are worthwhile too.
Try High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) for a short workout with significant strength- and cardio-building results, or a brief yoga flow for a more restorative-focused experience.
The Importance of Experimentation
Over-achieving leaders might be tempted to think that they must implement all 8 of these habits, and perform them all perfectly.
This is an erroneous mindset, however.
Instead, give yourself permission to “get it wrong.” Find the results for yourself. What works for you? What doesn’t work for you?
Experiment. Get to know what you are they capable of, and what you are willing to do.
How exactly we generate the DOSE chemicals isn’t the point; the positive chemical reactions are where the benefit lies. How you get there is largely your choice. One person might practice chair yoga, another might go for a run. Someone else might take up boxing, another, meditation. For myself, I love to spend 10 minutes meditating in the morning. However, you may be distracted by kids trying to crawl all over you, or dogs that need to be fed and let out, etc.
As with any new habit, it might be uncomfortable at first, but practice it for a week or so.
You can’t really fail unless you fail to try.
A Leader’s Emotional State Drives Productivity
Many leaders resist the notion that emotions are key in unlocking resilience. They think to themselves, “This is just an emotional issue. I don’t need to deal with emotions, I just need to work. there is no return from focusing on emotion.”
However, this simply isn’t true!
Especially in a situation like we are in right now, we cannot ignore the emotional states of either ourselves or the people around us. Those emotional states are driving our capacity to be resilient.
We humans are emotional beings, and our productivity is directly tied to our emotional condition.
If you believe you don’t have enough time to build your resilience, consider this: how much time do you have to deal with the negative fallout of becoming burned-out?
If you don’t see a need, have you looked deep enough?
Building Habits for Long-Term Results
True resilience, almost by definition, is about the long-term sustainable practice of the preceding habits. In other words, to build resilience we must build habits. All the best-practices for habit-building apply in this context.
Use this season as a gift to build a sustainable practice of habits that you will maintain throughout your lifetime, customizing as you experiment.
There is a well-known and fascinating study about the effects of positive emotions over a lifetime. In this study, not only was a positive outlook correlated with a substantial increase in lifespan, but it was also connected to a mitigation of Alzheimer’s disease.
Shape your resilience with your emotions, and shape your emotions with the preceding 7 habits.
As an executive coach, Michelle Rios develops leaders in the nonprofit, healthcare, technology, retail, and government sectors. She has over 20 years of experience in Human Resources and Leadership Development, having served globally in leadership roles with companies including Intel and DFS Group.
Michelle, a Professional Certified Coach, is currently based in Portland, OR.