Op-ed: How to build resilience and thrive in a COVID-19 world

Craig Dowden
Craig Dowden
Editor's Note

This article originally appeared in the spring edition of OBJ’s HR Update. Click here to read more practical workplace solutions for Ottawa employers.


COVID-19 has made an extraordinary impact on our personal and professional lives. One topic that has received significant attention is individual and organizational resilience – our capacity to bounce back during challenging events.

This leads to a powerful question: How can we exhibit more resilience?

A common question people ask is whether resilience can be learned. Many people believe you are either born resilient or you’re not. While each of us comes into life with a certain predisposition towards our level of resilience, research is also very clear that it is a skill that can be developed. However, just like a physical muscle, resilience requires consistent and deliberate practice to grow.

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One of the most transformative ideas I have come across was developed by the Center for Creative Leadership that highlighted the difference between pressure and stress. Pressure represents the extent of the demands that our external environment places on us. Stress, on the other hand, is our internal belief about our ability to manage those demands.

This distinction perfectly illustrates why two people who seem identical can have entirely different stress responses to the same situation. In one case, an individual – let’s call her Tara – feels completely capable of managing the pressure. She survives, and even thrives, in the situation. Paul, on the other hand, cracks under the pressure, as he does not feel capable of handling it.

There are a couple of crucial takeaways:

  • Pressure is external. Stress, conversely, is internal. While many people believe that stress happens to us, it is our interpretation of the situation that leads to the emotion. Being aware that we have the power to influence our stress response is critical to building resilience.
  • This distinction provides us with the key to a thriving future. Specifically, the difference between Tara and Paul lies in their confidence to deal with their situation. Research also shows that those of us who take a more resource-based approach to our situations engage in more adaptive coping.

Here is a short, yet powerful exercise I use with my clients:

  1. Think about the area(s) in which you are feeling the most stress right now.
  2. What resources/information do you need to raise your level of confidence that you can deal with those demands?
  3. Take the steps to acquire those resources.

Here’s one example that highlights the power of this framework. Let’s assume someone is highly stressed about their financial situation – a common concern during times like this. That is step one.

Moving on to step two, the most important question to ask is: do I have a budget? Knowledge is power. Without it, we have no idea what necessary expenses we have or our capacity to deal with them. Linking it to our current pandemic, the top recommendation is testing, testing, testing. How can we create a strategy without knowing how many cases of the virus we have? As experts continue to point out, we are lost without that baseline knowledge.

Let’s also assume that as a result of creating a budget, our individual recognizes their reserves will run out in three months at their current spending levels. Looking at their budget, they recognize they spend approximately $20 a month on Starbucks coffee. They also subscribe to Netflix, Crave and Amazon Prime. These all represent possible options for reducing expenses should the financial crunch continue.

What if you don’t have a budget or don’t know how to create one? What resources are available? You could speak with your financial advisor. You can download various budget or financial planning apps. You could take an online course or watch a YouTube video.

It is essential for us to face our fears and take a realistic assessment of our situation. This comes from understanding where we feel under-resourced and then identifying pathways to change our trajectory.

The key to adapting and even thriving during this pandemic is to shift our mindset. Using the techniques above, we can move into a more adaptive view of our situation and navigate our challenges more effectively.

Craig Dowden is an author, speaker and executive coach. His first book, Do Good to Lead Well – The Science and Practice of Positive Leadership was published by Forbes in early 2019.

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