The Power of Emotional Resiliency on Workforce Performance

How can we best take care of our mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic, and how can business leaders support the emotional wellbeing of their employees? Harvard clinical psychologist Luana Marques and wellbeing and performance leader Bill Duane offered some solutions in a recent CNBC@Work livestream.

Ellen Murphy April 15, 2020
Image placeholder

The evolving crisis we find ourselves in causes feelings of uncertainty, which can manifest into stress, anxiety, and fear. A world-wide public health catastrophe unlike anything we’ve experienced coupled with an associated economic downturn, makes operational and personal resiliency more important than ever. 

A recent @CNBC live stream, "Leadership and Management Amid Crisis,” sponsored by Workday, included a mental-health focused session on building resiliency and improving wellbeing and performance. 

Luana Marques, a clinical psychologist and Harvard Medical School professor (photo above), and Bill Duane, a former wellbeing and performance leader at Google, discussed how anxiety and stress impact productivity and offered solutions on how to cope. 

They also talked about how business leaders must embrace emotional intelligence and cohesion in the workplace in order to build the resiliency that powers positive transformation. 

Understanding the Neurological Response to Crisis

It’s easier to understand what we’re feeling if we know why it makes us feel the way we do. In today’s environment, whether we consciously recognize it or not, we’re experiencing one of the most basic of human responses: fear.

Marques shared, “When there’s a real threat—and right now all of us are facing a real threat, COVID-19—our body goes into fight or flight.” This fear response happens “naturally and quickly” in our limbic system, the emotional part of our brain. 

The consequence of the fight-or-flight response is, “our thinking brain decreases, and we can't focus.” Right now, each one of us is trying to be as productive at work as we were before this crisis, but we don't have as much brain capacity to focus on work since a considerable portion of it is focused on staving off a genuine threat.

Duane added, “If you've been feeling anxious, you're having a natural and reasonable response to economic distress, to health distress, to relationship distress,” and assured listeners, feeling stress is “not a character flaw.” Rather, it’s an innate human response. 

Choosing What Feels Good

To down-regulate a stress response, doing whatever makes you feel good is the right answer. That can be exercise, sleep, meditation, or cooking, as examples. Duane advised, “The list is really long about what works. The key is to find what works for you.”

Marques shared that to soothe our heightened response, “anchor in a new norm, and that new norm has to be a baseline on what you did before.” For example, if getting dressed in your work clothes made you feel good before, you can't let that go now that you’re working from home. Anchoring daily habits brings more dopamine into the brain, which will lead to feeling happier.

“Most importantly, don't turn your fear and anxiety into another arena for beating yourself up. Meet your difficulty with kindness and softness and not self-harshness.”

Bill Duane

Finding Resources to Support Behavioral Health 

There are many credible and accessible resources to support behavioral health, but the key, Duane said, is to “find the resources that work for you.” 

Some resources they recommended include Anxiety and Depression Association of America and Google’s emotional intelligence program, which is available via a nonprofit called Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute. Since media exposure also impacts behavioral health, uplifting media sources can be helpful, such as Some Good News with John Krasinski, David Byrne’s Reasons to be Cheerful, and Dolly Parton’s Good Night with Dolly

Additionally, many companies offer behavioral health resources for employees, but these resources are often underutilized. “My hope is that the difficulty people are experiencing leads people to access these resources,” Duane said. 

“The key takeaway is to find something that uplifts you and then do it,” he added. And choose something that’s truly most important to you—not something you think you should do. “Most importantly, don't turn your fear and anxiety into another arena for beating yourself up. Meet your difficulty with kindness and softness and not self-harshness.”

Supporting Employees with Empathetic Leadership

Functioning during a crisis includes managing emotions skillfully. Every employee is facing anxiety and stress differently based on their situations; some employees are caring for elderly relatives, taking on homeschooling their children while working full-time, or dealing with the challenges of being with roommates 24/7. 

For leaders to support employees and help them feel like they are part of a compassionate team, Marques said, “It's crucial to listen, validate, and normalize the emotional experience.” She added, “In chronic stress, you have a lot of emotions. Allow those emotions to exist, and reach out to people” because pushing emotions away will make them much worse.

Duane added that work teams need “calm, clear reasoning, trust, and compassion,” and added, “we have a big crisis to get through with the possibility of making real positive, systemic change.” To do that, “we need to accommodate challenging emotions and not suppress them.”

Valuing Employees’ Emotional Wellbeing Isn’t Optional 

In the workplace, historically, emotions like anxiety and stress were considered complexities that needed to be removed, and wellbeing and sustainable performance programs were viewed as nice-to-haves, not necessities.

But it’s clear now that to be well positioned strategically for what’s to come after this crisis, placing high value on emotional intelligence is mandatory. The future is radically unknown, but companies that encourage emotional intelligence will be better prepared to manage a complex system. As Duane emphasized, not only is it the right thing to do, “it's good for business.” 

“We're having a global experience of interdependence and interconnectedness; we're seeing that some of our key systems are quite brittle,” said Duane; “we're going to need an effort after this crisis part is over, that's going to make the Marshall Plan look small.” 

He added that to accomplish what’s needed in the future, “we have to harness our emotions and be ready to step into that world of positive change.”

More Reading