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Elite athletes and their coaches understand the importance of offsetting intensity with recovery. In the workplace, we’re beginning to realize that performance with care for self and others is not fluffy wellness knowledge — it’s a critical driver of productivity and engagement. Without clearly defined rhythms, bad habits — like multitasking, mindless busyness and hypervigilance — become the default. Then, instead of a foundational nervous state of calm, employees habituate to a baseline of fight, flight or freeze.
For those who have made “stress“their default, it is critical to punctuate the day with deliberate practices, such as relaxation techniques and quality sleepto downregulate the nervous system and avoid chronic distress.
Remember, our ancestors activated the stress response in sharp bursts, when dealing with direct threats to their survival. Now, every day, we are confronted by thousands of virtual lions and tigers in the form of news feeds, social media posts, inboxes, ambiguity and continuous disruption. A vast majority of news is negative because it is more likely to attract eyeballs. Those who do not deliberately disconnect and recover are likely to spiral toward overwhelm, fatigue, distress, languishing and burnout.
Understanding what high performers do differently
I’ve always been fascinated by the tools, techniques and rhythms practiced by the most resilient people. My team at the Resilience Institute decided to embrace the pandemic as an opportunity to research the exact combination of skills that are most important when dealing with extreme adversity.
We measured 60 factors of resilience across a global cohort of 23,990 professionals. Our 2022 Global Resilience Report five critical success factors that differentiate the most from the least resilient individuals. Organizations and leaders seeking to mitigate the risk of disruption, talent loss and volatility will benefit from integrating these learnings into their human growth and development strategies. The five critical factors are as follows.
Over the past two years, sleep quality has become the defining factor for high overall resilience, leading to better mental health and well-being. How often do you wake up feeling refreshed and ready? In a world wash with bright lighting and push notifications, the boundaries between work and rest have all but dissolved. Left to chance, a good night’s sleep may never happen. How then, does a leader secure quality sleep?
My simplest recommendation is to turn off bright lights and avoid screens in the last two hours before bed. Watch Netflix if you must, but do your best to create an environment conducive to deep rest. Your melatonin levels will remain high and you’ll be more likely to fall asleep and stay asleep. If you wake up with a busy mind, use long exhalations to shift from fight, flight mode into a state of calm.
As companies struggle with “The Great Resignation,” fulfilment is critical both to individual well-being and talent retention. Loss of key talent is accelerating as millions of employees and professionals are using the disruption caused by the pandemic to seek more fulfilling work.
One of the main reasons for this dissatisfaction is that conventional leadership does not create an environment for personal happiness and fulfillment. Organizations that clearly articulate their purpose and consider the impact of business on all stakeholders are more likely to build a mission-driven, fulfilled workforce.
Bounce is the foundation of resilience. When we confront adversity, it triggers awareness, learning and adaptation. In most cases, research demonstrates that even in severe adversity, there is post-traumatic growth. Thus, “bounce,” as a learned set of skills, allows us to recover quickly after dealing with change and disruption.
At the end of 2020, I worked with Texas A&M University to conduct as study that measured the impact of resilience training on engineering students. We found that an eight-hour virtual course, delivered over four weeks, resulted in a 53% increase in bounce capacity, plus significant gains in well-being factors. Resilience can be learned.
The pressure to perform mixed with anxiety, self-critical thinking, anger and perfectionism create an explosive cocktail of distress symptoms in today’s work environment. Relaxation activates the parasympathetic nervous system, enabling calm, connection and focus.
Modern leaders should both model and emphasize the importance of punctuating each day with moments of deep relaxation and recovery. Recognize and reward those who take micro-breaks, walk outdoors at lunch time or practice meditation. When explaining this concept, refer to tennis players and the regular micro-breaks they take to reset and rejuvenate. This is performance with care.
Focus has consistently tracked in the top three factors as a differentiator for high levels of resilience. In a sleep-deprived and digitally invasive world, our focus — or attention span — has been fragmented. The average adult switches attention every three minutes, and the average young person switches every 18 or 19 seconds. Focusing on a clear goal is a pre-requisite for flow state and the 500% productivity gain that follows.
When interrupted by an email, tweet or notification, it can take 30 minutes to regain the focused engagement required for flow. If productivity is the goal, focus is the enabler. Encourage and model deeply focused work, followed by rest and reflection. The first hour of each day is usually wasted on email. What if your team used that first hour — likely to be their peak alertness for the day — for the most important rather than most urgent tasks?
Be the change you want to see
As a leader, you are the change you want to see in the business. Emotions are contagious and left unchecked they quickly create chaos within a team. A leader who models distress, fear or anger signals to the team that the environment is not safe.
Humans naturally seek safety, so team members may withdraw, the distressed leader, or seek safer pastures. The great resignation may, in fact, be a response to distressed, fearful leadership.
What then, is the priority for leading through turbulent times? Simply relax, rejuvenate and model the success factors of sustainable performance: sleep, fulfillment, bounce, relaxation and focus.
Secure your oxygen mask before tending to those around you. You will be a better leader and your team will notice.