Deloitte explains how crisis leadership with a human focus and personal intention builds resilience.
Deloitte article by Jen Fisher, Nicole Nodi and Brenna Sniderman
Stress overload can impact work and organizational success. However, with planning and human-centered responses, organizations can help build resilience among the workforce and enable them to adapt positively with the business.
Introduction: Contextualizing stress in times of crisis
The root causes of a crisis are often beyond our control, which can make stress—and its effect on the brain and body—more intense. However, people are typically not left with permanent psychological or physical damage; nor need crises define them in a negative way. By mitigating stress and building resilience, people can adapt and grow from challenging experiences. With personal intention and support systems, leaders can help build resilience as a bridge across uncertainty that will not only sustain the workforce through crises and help them manage stress going forward, but also lead people to surprisingly positive outcomes as they emerge on the other side of a crisis.
Organizations should play a vital role in relieving stress overload before, during, and after a crisis. After all, people typically spend more time at work than any other daily life activity, and the effects of stress can have a significant impact on work. Indeed, the toxic stress overload caused by a crisis can diminish individual and broader human capital. Beyond the visible impact of crises on personal health, family, and financial stability, sustained toxic stress can impact the part of the brain responsible for executive function. This negative impact can weaken working memory, attention control, cognitive flexibility, and problem-solving—the cognitive processes that make people capable and productive both in their personal and professional lives.4 Further, when a crisis is widespread, as with COVID-19 and other recent events, stress can diminish the broader well-being and productivity of a company’s workforce, leading to significant implications for the business as a whole.
In this article, we will focus on how leaders can help their workforce and organization adapt after crises by helping develop resilience in individual workers. This can enable a level of stability during crises and allow for the company—bolstered by the strength of a resilient workforce—to move forward positively and thrive in the future in a potentially changed world and business environment.
Whatever your business, with your workforce behind you, you can rally as an organization to create opportunities when the crisis has passed. Taking care of your people by helping them manage stress to build resilience protects the investment you have already made in them, which in turn can protect your investment in your business.
Bouncing forward: Stress mitigation and resilience development
Resilience is often defined as the ability to “bounce back” after adversity, but when it comes to toxic stress in times of crisis, a more forward-looking definition may serve us better. In building resilience, then, leaders may find it more effective to aim for developing within their teams the ability to bounce forward and exist in stability on the other side of adversity, or in the period known as adaptation, and beyond.
Resilience is an emotional muscle that must be strengthened to overcome short-term struggles and maintained to offset a lifetime of challenges. Even though building resilience may not always be the most pleasurable activity, it is something that can pay dividends when cultivated and maintained with intention. It can also be easier said than done: While many of us believe that we are highly mentally and emotionally resilient, data shows we may be overestimating our own resilience to stressful events.
Understanding the impacts of unchecked stress and the necessity of building resilience
The consequences of unmitigated toxic stress on workers who have not built resilience can be a short, slippery slope, which becomes shorter still as the stressors increase in magnitude and duration. For example, a lack of sleep triggered by stress can lead to rising blood pressure, cortisol levels, inflammation, and insulin levels, which over time can lead to cardiovascular disease, obesity, and diabetes. Sleep deprivation can also lead to cognitive impairment by causing atrophy of certain brain regions which can impact memory, attention, and executive function, along with the areas that regulate fear, anxiety, and aggression. This can hamper workers’ abilities to learn, remember, and make decisions and increase their levels of anxiety and depression.
The outcome of these negative impacts for organizations predominantly falls into two categories: productivity losses and direct financial impact. According to studies, distressed workers are significantly less productive than those who aren’t, spending a third of their scheduled work time hampered by “presenteeism,” or an at-work decline in productivity, and losing nearly an additional day each month to its better-known cousin, absenteeism. Customer service levels can also fall as stress rises. Direct financial impacts can include an increase in health insurance claims, short- and long-term disability, and costs related to increased employee turnover.