The traditional definition of resilience as outlined in the Oxford English Dictionary is the capacity to recover quickly—or bounce back—from difficulties. Embedded within this definition is the assumption of a return to the status quo. While this notion may be true in the case of minor life disruptions, it diminishes the roles of proactivity, planning, and innovation in successfully adapting to more significant adversity. Nothing has underscored this more than the COVID-19 pandemic, which challenged us to pivot from “business as usual” at the personal, family, and organizational levels in order to survive and thrive.
The pandemic increased sources of stress for millions of people worldwide. Seemingly overnight, people feared losing their jobs, their financial security, and their loved ones. They worried about accessing medical care and basic life necessities. And they became socially isolated from their families, friends, and colleagues. This stress was exacerbated for those with preexisting mental health conditions or jobs focused on COVID response. Given the broadscale impact on practically every facet of life, why did some people appear to move forward virtually unscathed, while others struggled daily and for a long time? We may assume it’s because resilience is an immutable trait that people either have or don’t have. However, what we’ve learned is that personal resilience is more like a muscle that can be developed and strengthened. The people who were able to adapt successfully to their changing circumstances did so by reducing sources of stress and adding systems and tools for better managing their home, work, and family lives. For example, they developed habits that would support healthier thought patterns, including taking up new hobbies, practicing gratitude, and seeking out mental health support via teletherapy services or their employee wellbeing programs at work. They found ways to connect with and expand their social support networks, such as through attending virtual book groups, scheduling phone chats or socially distanced walks with friends, joining common interest groups on social media, and networking online with people in their career field. They also engaged in activities that aligned with their values and instilled a sense of purpose and meaning, including practicing prayer and meditation, attending virtual faith services, coordinating collections of money or resources to provide equipment for healthcare workers, and using their skills and talents for a greater purpose (sewing masks, for example). These actions served a protective function and have important implications for how we prepare for future periods of adversity. Perhaps most significantly, we saw that connecting with others in creative ways during the pandemic gave people a forum for sharing their fears, developing new perspectives, and cultivating needed optimism and hope. Furthermore, those who were able to develop support and find meaning across multiple spheres of their life, including athletic activities, volunteer work, religious communities, and school communities, had what Cross, Dillon, and Greenberg refer to as “dimensionality,” which provided additional opportunities to expand sense of identity and learn new interpersonal and coping skills. What all of these findings suggest is that it is worthwhile to invest energy in building support networks and relationships during times of prosperity as these meaningful connections will increase our resilience and buffer us from hardships that may arise down the road.
The COVID-19 pandemic also created enormous challenges for families whose existing household rules, expectations, and systems were upended. Many people lost jobs and had to drastically rework budgets to ensure basic life needs were met. This was especially difficult for families that did not have savings already set aside to cover emergency expenses. Other people maintained their jobs but had to move to fully virtual home office setups while their children simultaneously moved to home schooling. Families were thrown together in these scenarios, often without the luxury of dedicated workspaces. In addition, many school-age children struggled emotionally, socially, and academically with the transition to remote learning, requiring parents to play a more active role in offering support and oversight while still somehow performing their regular job duties. Then there were adult family members who worked in healthcare or other jobs connected to COVID response who worried constantly about becoming ill or bringing home illness to their families. According to John A. Davis, a professor and family program director, crises like the COVID-19 pandemic typically lead to either familial decline or familial renewal depending on a family’s ability to come together, adjust, innovate, and grow. Families that fared well during the pandemic were able to balance stability with adaptability, namely they made use of the resources already available to them and were willing to put new support systems in place. Many families took advantage of their newfound proximity by increasing their quality time together and creating what Dr. Alan D. Schlechter referred to as micro-moments—small instances of engagement, connection, and meaning throughout the day that compound to increase resilience. These activities included taking family walks, having more shared meals and movie nights, bringing new pets into the home, and making a concerted effort to do good deeds each day. Other families shifted the way they managed certain tasks, such as restructuring home spaces to better accommodate school and work needs, buying locally to reduce dependency on supply chains, and establishing clear handwashing and cleaning routines at home. Still more parents sought out tutors and mental health providers for their kids while at the same time establishing their own social support networks of other parents. These actions served to increase family cohesion, trust, and problem-solving and are a strong jumping-off point for how families can prepare for future crises in order to maximize resilience.
Much like a family, organizations are comprised of individual parts that work in unison toward a shared purpose or mission. How resilient the system is during crisis depends on how well it’s able to adapt and realign its parts—business processes, business practices, and sometimes even business model—to stay relevant and provide value in a changing world. We see this clearly demonstrated in the organizations, both large and small, that either succeeded or faltered during the pandemic. The companies that proved to be the most resilient had business continuity plans already in place that assumed business disruptions would occur at some point. These plans considered various scenarios—both short and long-term—and clearly defined the responsibilities of individual parts of the system to ensure business functions for the whole organization would proceed uninterrupted. An example is the video conferencing platform, Zoom. Prior to the pandemic, Zoom’s CEO predicted a long-term shift from audio-based to video-based communications and concentrated on improving video quality at various bandwidths. As a result, when the pandemic hit and need for video capability increased quickly, Zoom was well-positioned to meet the demand. When the organization did experience some unforeseen privacy and security concerns, they quickly addressed it and built it into future risk management planning. Resilient organizations also prioritized the psychological and physical safety of their employees by providing strategic and correct information; extending support resources such as counseling, childcare, and financial assistance; adjusting work responsibilities based on employees’ changing needs; and maintaining structure and dependability (honoring commitments, keeping scheduled meetings, etc.). Companies like Starbucks and PepsiCo continued to pay their employees for several months even after their stores and factories closed, while accounting firm PwC offered a vacation bonus to employees to incentivize them to take time off. Still other companies implemented mindfulness breaks, employee support groups, and “Flex-time Fridays” where no work meetings could be scheduled. Perhaps most notably, organizations that moved beyond recovery to grow and expand were willing to take risks like completely reinventing their business model or innovating with new products and services. Airbnb responded to the drop in distance travel by launching a “go near” campaign to offer more options for people who wanted to take advantage of day trips and other local travel destinations. Many New York City restaurants, which were very hard hit when people stopped going out to eat, constructed outdoor dining patios or partnered with meal delivery services to offer takeout service. An event planning company called T3 Expo helped transform a large convention center space in New York City into a makeshift hospital for COVID patients. Additionally, numerous clothing, handbag, and even auto companies shifted their manufacturing to produce masks and other protective equipment.
In the end, perhaps one of the most valuable lessons about resilience gleaned from the pandemic is the realization that the way individuals, families, and organizations operated prior to COVID-19 was not necessarily the only or best way. Some of the changes put in place as temporary measures will be lasting and offer opportunities to reimagine who we are and how we work. Ultimately, they demonstrate that we can rise in the face of challenging times using a combination of strategic planning, support networks, and creativity.