Stress management expert Dr. Lisa Penney always thought that burnout was a gradual process that slowly builds up over time as a person deals with growing responsibilities, relationship issues or other life changes. Then, COVID-19 hit—and served as her personal wakeup call.
Dr. Penney, an award-winning researcher and professor at the Muma College of Business at the University of South Florida, was looking forward to working on a special project over her Spring Break. Then, COVID put an abrupt halt to those plans. Suddenly, she was getting multiple emails a day about how she now had to teach her courses online for a week—then an entire semester—while meeting new criteria and without losing any quality in her lessons.
“I went from super highly engaged and super passionate—probably the peak of my career—to completely burned out, crash and burn, hit the wall—in four days.”
COVID has been a collective trauma that has affected us all in different ways, whether it’s isolation, the loss of a job, caring for a loved one at home, increased workloads, or working at home all while monitoring kids’ e-learning. As we continue to experience the effects of COVID-19 in our own unique ways, we must develop the ability to recover, be flexible, and keep moving forward amidst the changes and uncertainty this pandemic brings.
That’s why FirstPerson invited Dr. Penney to deliver our Week Two closing talk at RESOLVE Increments on How to Fuel Resilience in Yourself and Others.
Here are my takeaways from Dr. Penney’s insightful RESOLVE Increments presentation. To watch her talk in full and grab all her helpful resources, get exclusive access here.
A certain amount of stress is actually good for you.
When researchers first began studying the effects of stress in humans, they acknowledged that there’s a certain amount of stress that’s good for us. Stress relates to the demands that we face, and a certain level of demands are necessary for us to perform at a high level and be happy.
Low levels of demands are called our “comfort zone.” It’s where we’re not being challenged. We don’t have a lot going on, or if we do, it’s something we’ve done many times before and has become routine.
“What happens when we’re bored—when we’re in a rut, when we don’t have enough going on? It’s not a place where we usually want to stay, so we tend to increase our challenges. We tend to look for new things to do: new projects, new opportunities, new hobbies, other things to make things more interesting and this is where we start to really shine.”
When we’re challenged, we tend to perform at a high level and feel more satisfied. Penney calls this our “challenge zone” or “learning zone.”
When our demands get too high and we enter the “high risk zone,” we run the risk of burnout and exhaustion.
“What we’re finding in the pandemic is that demands we face have really increased at a level beyond what most people anticipated. When our demands outweigh our resources, that’s when we end up in the high risk zone.”
Reacting to stress in a healthy way involves balancing our demands with our resources.
According to the Demands/Resources model of stress, staying healthy means balancing the demands that we face with our personal resources.
“In order to meet those demands, we need to bring resources to the table,” Penney says. “Those resources can be stuff that we have available to us. Are we taking care of ourselves? Have we gotten enough sleep? Are we eating right? Our experience—the training and skills that we have—are resources that help us meet the various demands that we face.”
This model applies to us as individuals, as well as the organizations we work for. “Managers being able to listen to their employees authentically and with honesty and openness can be a tremendous resource because that helps them to identify other resources they might need to help them meet the various demands that they face.”
Resilience is a fluid process.
Penney says that we move back and forth along the zone continuum (comfort zone, learning zone and high risk zone) every day. She notes that when you’ve been stretching yourself in your learning (leading a webinar, for instance), you need to take some time afterward to recover in your comfort zone rather than continuing to stay in your challenge zone too long.
She notes the terms “stress” and “resilience” are borrowed from physics, so they should call to mind the concepts of absorption and flexibility. For example, we can imagine that when you squeeze a Memory Foam mattress, it absorbs the pressure and regains its shape.
“Real resilience is flexible. It implies fluidity and has this malleability quality to it. It’s recovery—that you can press on to something and recover. It’s not rigid, but the challenge is that when we are under stress, we have a tendency to get really tight, to get rigid and to get really tunnel-vision-focused on things that we think are really important or whatever happens to be right in front of us at the moment.
“To be resilient means to recognize this tendency that we have to tighten up, and to find a way to loosen and relax with the challenges—to not deny the fact that we feel intense, but to recognize that. To loosen up so that we can be a little more elastic and a little more fluid.”
Cognitive and emotional responses are lightning fast, and we’re often unaware of them.
When we’re faced with a demand or stressor, we can choose to react in many different ways. But what we don’t realize is that between that new stimulus and our reaction are both a cognitive appraisal (how we think about it) and the emotion we feel as a result of it.
“Emotion is the closest predictor of behavior and emotions are the body’s way of energizing us to approach something or to avoid something,” Penney says. “We’ll approach something that is positive and fight or flight something that we want to avoid. What triggers our emotions isn’t necessarily the event itself. It’s our cognition—our appraisal, our perception—about what that demand is that really determines our emotion.”
For example, if you hear that your company is part of a merger, you could:
- Feel fear that the merger will bring unwanted changes, which you cause you to actively resist the merger, or
- Feel joy at the new possibilities, such as career advancement, that the merger could bring.
“The challenge really is that this process in the middle—that cognition and appraisal—happens lightning fast, automatically usually outside of our conscious awareness.”
Stressors like COVID makes us tend to dwell on the negative.
Events like COVID come into play in this lightning mental process, Penney says.
“When we’re under stress, we have a bias toward the negative. That is, we tend to tell ourselves a negative story, appraise things in the most negative way possible—which increases our negative emotions. And negative emotions such as anxiety, frustration, anger, stress and tension—you notice when you feel stress or tension you have a tendency to want to go fast. That’s our fight or flight. It says move quickly. Make a decision. Take action.”
Unfortunately, that action we might take could be premature. We might not have a full understanding of what we ourselves or our team are facing so that we can bring to bear the right resources or strategies to help us manage the demands and become more resilient.
Managing stress is all about your ABCs.
The good news is that we can teach ourselves to take a pause when we’re under stress so that we can feel those negative emotions and recognize when we’re in fight or flight.
Here’s the ABC model Penney shared on how to fuel resilience through curiosity:
Notice when you feel tense.
A deep breath disrupts fight or flight, while opening your focus and your mind.
Ask yourself questions like:
- What’s happening right now?
- What’s the story I’m telling myself?
- Is it true? What does the evidence say?
“We don’t like to pause when we’re under stress,” Penney says. “But if we take a breath, then suddenly it opens up the aperture. That breath is that exhale, that relaxation. So instead of being rigid and tight, exhaling allows that softness, that fluidity to return.”
Breathing also helps us to slow down and consider other alternatives than the familiar ones that tend to accompany fight or flight.
“Taking the familiar paths work when we’re in familiar territory. I think we would all agree that we are several county lines away from familiar territory right now with the challenges that we’re facing around COVID. So going fast doesn’t necessarily work. Taking a breath will slow your brain down. It tells your body that you’re safe. It disrupts your fight or flight response and allows you to engage that part of your brain that can think critically.”
So, what now?
To watch Week Two of RESOLVE Increments, fill out the form below and gain exclusive access to the full replay and resources we shared throughout the session, including SHRM credits:
All eyes on equity.
Now that we’ve learned how to reimagine the workplace of the future, we’re shifting our focus. Next on RESOLVE Increments, we examined the timely and critical topic of building equity in the workplace.
Get diversity and inclusion expert Angela Smith Jones’s recap on Going Beyond D&I to Build an Equitable Team.