- The physical, emotional, social, intellectual, and spiritual demands of the current pandemic affect different people in different ways. The saying goes that under pressure, rocks become either diamonds or dust. Grappling with the increased demands of worldwide change create that kind of pressure. Are we becoming clearer about the many facets of our personal “diamonds” of physical energy, emotional well-being, social connection, professional productivity, and spiritual meaning? Or do we feel like we’re crumbling? Today's article, co-authored with my wife Wendy Ulrich, offers suggestions for a way forward if you are experiencing pandemic malaise.
by Wendy Ulrich, Psychologist, Founder Sixteen Stones Center for Growth (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Dave Ulrich, Rensis Likert Professor, Ross School of Business, University of Michigan, Partner, The RBL Group (email@example.com)
How are you (and others) coping with the demands of the coronavirus crisis?
The physical, emotional, social, intellectual, and spiritual demands of the current pandemic affect different people in different ways. Some of us review, renew, or revise relationships; others feel desperate for time alone. Some jump into the challenges with both feet; others hesitate to put a toe into this new stream. Some creatively explore new ways of working; others find themselves inexplicably devoid of motivation. Some rethink their life’s goals; others may wonder how long they will have life at all.
The saying goes that under pressure, rocks become either diamonds or dust.
Grappling with the increased demands of worldwide change create that kind of pressure. Are we becoming clearer about the many facets of our personal “diamonds” of physical energy, emotional well-being, social connection, professional productivity, and spiritual meaning? Or do we feel like we’re crumbling? If you (and many we meet, including ourselves) are experiencing pandemic malaise, we offer a way to move forward.
A number of years ago, Wendy wrote her dissertation on teenage depression (summarized in figure 1). As children turn into adolescents, the demands they experience increase (vertical axis). They face more pressure to succeed in school, be popular with friends, deal with physical changes, create a personal identity, and handle complex emotions. Envisioning how these increased demands can cause depression is easy (top left of Figure 1), but that is not universally the case. If the new demands are balanced with resources, teenagers can emerge polished instead of pulverized by these life changes.
While some new demands can be modified or decreased, many cannot. The focus instead has to be on increasing resources (support, skills, relationships, values, and identity).
In the current pandemic, adults are also facing new physical, emotional, social, intellectual, and spiritual demands (vertical axis). While some demands may be reduced by managing expectations or firming up personal boundaries, most demands pandemic related demands don’t just go away. And in times of rapid change, the resources we’ve used in the past to cope are often compromised or unavailable. High pressure turns us to dust unless we acquire new resources by taking new risks and practicing new skills.
What resources do you need to better cope with your current demands?
While demands have increased, let’s look at resources in each category to counteract these demands.
- Physical: How are your habits around nutrition, exercise, sleep, meditation, physical space, finances, and daily chores? These basics are often the first to go when stress ratchets up, yet fatigue compromises decision making, undermines confidence, and leads to burnout. What physical routines do you most need to add or improve now as a foundation for stamina and positive mood?
- Emotional: Emotions can be as contagious as the coronavirus. Skills for optimism, self-compassion, confidence, and humor can be learned. When you’re feeling irritable, ask yourself what you’re afraid of—identifying that underlying fear can help reduce its potency. Also, one of the brain’s most draining tasks is prioritizing, so give that task its due on a daily basis in a calm, consistent way to help you keep from feeling overwhelmed. Simply taking a break of almost any kind helps emotions reset so we can refocus. What creative ways have you found to take breaks amid social distancing and closed venues? Some are using technology to regularly connect with family and loved ones (we do weekly “zoom church” with our extended family), others are becoming reacquainted with old friends by reaching out (each day we try to reach out to someone and express gratitude), others are getting to know neighbors and making new friends (early in this crisis where we live, the stores had a run on toilet paper, so we took a roll of toilet paper to fifteen of our neighbors as a goodwill—and humorous—gesture), many are using this time out to improve personal habits (exercise, nutrition, sleep), and others are learning new skills (we are learning to read subtle cues through technology connections and to read). How do you discover your pathway to emotional renewal?
- Social/Relationships: Work is a team event. Take time to connect with colleagues who offer support when things are difficult. Leaders build relationships of trust with key individuals by challenging them with an attitude of affection. One leader under attack from the press of business got support from a daily 7:30 am call with her team members, regardless of where they were in the world. Others are finding that technology-only meetings need to include personal touches to maintain relationships (in one meeting a leader asked those attending to show something personal about them from where they were sitting). Uncertainty puts us all on edge, so help everyone remember to practice (and practice yourself) patience, forgiveness, apologies, compassion, listening, and appreciation, and help each other get back on track when you slip. What relationships do you want to strengthen, and what skills would help you do so?
- Intellectual/Accomplishments. Anticipate and create the future by increasing skills and creativity today. Vision and gratitude nourish hope and keep you moving forward. Harness the creativity inherent in uncertainty by taking risks and learning from both mistakes and small, incremental accomplishments that build on each other. Take pride in teaching a child a new skill, learning a new digital application, taking an online class in a subject that is new to you, or simply solving current problems one at a time. What do you want to learn or teach during this crucial time
- Spiritual/Meaning. Discovering our values, goals, identity, and sense of purpose gives meaning and direction to our lives. Although he is agnostic, Martin Seligman (the father of positive psychology) catalogued values from the world’s great religions to identify a range of character strengths that help people flourish. What are yours? How can you use them to chart your life course? Does your individual language of spiritual growth (like the five love languages) include meditation, time in nature, community gatherings, service to others, reading sacred texts, worship rituals, music, hobbies, volunteering, or prayer?
As business or HR leaders, be alert to signs that employees’ demands are outstripping their resources. Don’t offer false hope of removing inescapable demands, but do scaffold the development of new skills to meet those demands through healthy routines, social support, emotional clarity, learning and creative risks, and conversations that help people clarify their values and purpose and find meaning in the journey.
Take care of yourself so you can take care of others. Even amid the increasing demands of this corona crisis, practicing new skills and identifying new resources can keep you regain equilibrium. You will feel it, and those around you will draw on your reserves.
Dave Ulrich is the Rensis Likert Professor at the Ross School of Business, University of Michigan and a partner at The RBL Group, a consulting firm focused on helping organizations and leaders deliver value.