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How to Build Crisis Resilience, for Yourself and Your Team

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Credit: istockphoto.com/TomekD76

The term “resilience” has been everywhere recently. In the context of the COVID-19 crisis, what does it mean exactly, and how to we build it?

Defined broadly by the Oxford English Dictionary as “the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties,” resilience can mean different things to different people in different situations. In crisis management, resilience can mean having a strong, adaptative crisis management team, business processes in place to rebound effectively, health and safety policies that protect people and the environment, and enhanced IT and security robustness to shield us from malicious attacks.

But in this global pandemic, personal resilience is essential. It will not only help us survive this crisis collectively and as individuals, but also to thrive beyond it. So how can we enhance our personal resilience and that of our team members during these challenging times?

Many of us have already lived in “lockdown,” for several weeks, bombarded by a constant stream of negative news and trying our best to adjust to this new reality. We are feeling a range of emotions that cause a kind of stress we may not have experienced before. This type of mental stress is aggravating an already challenging situation. Clearly, the worries are legitimate and significant; we are dealing with the fears of getting infected, of loved ones becoming sick or dying, of losing our income. Ultimately, how we respond emotionally and psychologically to these fears is our choice.

Why do we need personal resilience?

According to grief expert David Kessler in a recent Harvard Business Review interview, “We’re feeling a number of different griefs. We feel the world has changed, and it has. We know this is temporary, but it doesn’t feel that way, and we realize things will be different…. The loss of normalcy; the fear of economic toll; the loss of connection. This is hitting us and we’re grieving. Collectively. We are not used to this kind of collective grief in the air.”

We are also feeling so-called “anticipatory grief.” “Anticipatory grief is that feeling we get about what the future holds when we’re uncertain. Anticipatory grief is the mind going to the future and imagining the worst,” says Kessler.

An unhealthy level of anticipatory grief typically leads to anxiety. The COVID-19 pandemic affects our sense of safety. We’re not only concerned for our physical health, but we’re also dealing with the psychological stress of being unable to predict or make sense of things. It’s a bit like being in a dark tunnel and not knowing how long the tunnel is, how many bends it has and whether or not something is coming at us from the other side. Oddly, the only thing we know about dark tunnels is that there is usually light at the end. That is precisely what we should focus on.

How do we build personal resilience?

In a world that’s changing this rapidly, adaptability is key to resilience. In the context of a crisis like this, according to psychologist Susan David, Ph.D., author of Emotional Agility, “emotional agility allows us to navigate life’s twists and turns with self-acceptance, clear-sightedness, and an open mind.”

“Resilience is the skill of noticing our own thoughts, unhooking from the non-constructive ones, and rebalancing quickly,” write Rasmus Hougaard, Jacqueline Carter and Moses Mohan in their article “Build Your Resilience in the Event of a Crisis.”

Practices to develop

Here are some steps to start practicing resilience.

Calm the mind. Do whatever it takes to pause and calm the mind such as solitary walks in nature if possible, meditation, exercise, listening to music, drawing or painting, etc.

Embrace your fears and anxieties. Accept your fears and anxieties as natural human emotions and let them go.

Balance the worst-case scenarios and the images they evoke with more positive outcomes. Don’t allow the worst-case scenarios to dominate your mind. Train yourself to counter negative visions with more positive ones.

Care for yourself. Be kind to yourself, stop beating yourself up and give yourself a break. Everyone is experiencing these highs and lows.

Accept the limitations. Working from home with young children, bored teenagers or aging parents is a serious challenge. Don’t fight it. Try and structure your work and down time in a way that works for you and your family. It won’t be perfect, but it is possible and consider it as a dry run of what may become normal in the future.

Up the compassion. Once you show compassion for yourself, you are then able to show compassion for others. Understand and accept the emotional peaks and lows of your colleagues or loved ones. Listen to other people’s fears and anxieties. Know that if someone snaps at you, this is probably not their normal behavior.

Find meaning in it. “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves,” wrote Viktor Frankl, neurologist and author of Man’s Search for Meaning. Finding purpose and meaning in a chaotic situation where we have no control is a saving grace. It gives us a compass to steer through the uncertainty.

Use the down time well. Be creative, be productive, undertake tasks you’ve been putting off for a long time and develop new ideas. The feeling of satisfaction it will generate is invaluable.

Connect and nurture your community. For instance, make the time for those in your immediate circle who live alone and most likely need more attention. Reach out to colleagues and friends you are seldom in touch with. Use this time to reconnect. In this time of isolation, that means socializing online.

Give yourself and your teams time off. This is particularly critical for those working from home with limited space and privacy. Working from home is harder in these circumstances. Being able to log off work for a day or more will preserve your sanity. So plan for it.

There has been remarkable ingenuity coming out of this crisis, with individuals and companies inventing multiple ways for employees and teams to stay connected, upbeat and productive, ranging from virtual happy hours to interactive workshops, cooking groups, meditation and yoga classes, and e-learning courses. Make the most of it.

Bon courage—hang in there! This will pass, and it will teach us resilience in ways that will be precious for the rest of our lives.

Caroline Sapriel

Caroline Sapriel is the founder and managing partner of CS&A International, a global risk and crisis management consulting firm working with multinational clients across industry sectors in Asia, the Middle East and Africa, Europe, and the Americas. With over 25 years experience in risk and crisis management, she is recognized as a leader in her profession and acknowledged for her ability to provide customized, results-driven counsel and training at the highest level. Caroline speaks on risk and crisis management at international conferences regularly. She has published articles and co-authored two books as well as contributed the chapter on crisis management to IABC’s Handbook of Organizational Communication. She has been a member of IABC since 1987 and has served on chapter boards in Hong Kong and Brussels as well as been a founding member of IABC's Ethics Committee. She has also spoken on crisis management and communication at several World and Regional Conferences. Caroline also lectures on crisis management at the University of Antwerp.

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