Covid Sustenance: Your resilience lies in your core strengths

COVID sustenance: Your resilience lies in your core Strengths

By Dries Lombaard

At any given moment, we are strongly influenced by our thoughts, feelings, and actions. It may be more accurate to say we ARE these three aspects, all the time.  Our actions are observable.  Our thoughts are knowable.  Our emotions are expressible.  But, for most of us, none of these are always that comprehensible.  Not within ourselves, and even more so, not within others.

In a time of crisis of any sorts, our patterns of thought, feeling and behaviour are what defines us.  Watching the behaviour of people around us often causes us to say something like, “What was she thinking?”, or on the more positive side “How on earth did he do that?”  

When it comes to the thoughts and emotions of others, it may seem more difficult to grasp, and less observable.  Unless, of course, people express their thoughts and emotions clearly, something that is strongly indicated currently in protest actions all across the globe. 

One thing is undeniable, not since the last world war have we lived in such unprecedented stressful times. A psychiatrist friend of mine remarked that she has been busier in the last three months than in the whole of her twenty year career. Almost all her current cases are related to anxiety and stress, linked to the effects of the current COVID-19 pandemic. 

But what if some real and immediate stress relief is right within your grasp?  What if you can pinpoint, and describe the patterns of thought, feeling or behaviour that forms a recurring pattern within you?  What if you can give a definitive word to your frustration or irritation, and, what if the mere fact that you understand its origin will bring you relief?

This is where the development and management of you strengths become important. But what am I talking about when I refer to strengths? And how do we distinguish between a Talent and a Strength? 

Consider this:  Talent reflects how you’re hard-wired. That’s what sets the concept apart from that of knowledge or skills. Talent dictates your moment-by-moment reactions to your environment — there’s an instinctiveness, an immediacy implied. Talent results in consistently recurring patterns of thought or behavior.” (Sorensen and Crabtree, Gallup Business Journal, 2000). 

During the past two decades, Gallup accelerated their research into human talent.  Where talent is generally understood to be “ability” or “skill”, Gallup explored the connection between our unique individual “hard-wired” patterns that result in the way we think, feel and behave.  They defined this as talent, and, even more revealing, they explored the ways in which we can develop these “raw” patterns of talent into “mature” patterns, which then becomes our unique combination of “Strengths”.

My point is this: If you know your distinctive set of most dominant talent patterns or “Talent Themes” you can do more than simply understand where specific thoughts, emotions or actions originate.  When you are able to develop and manage your Talents, they become your sustainable Strengths. 

When you see your Strengths as unique patterns that explain “what is right with you”, and not “what is wrong with you”, you engage into the powerful journey of Strengths-based development. Most of all, if you manage your Strengths well in the work place, you are better able to manage your stress levels, and will become more resilient and adaptable. 

The best part is that it is not complicated or academic (even though my introduction may seem a bit theoretical in nature).  Gallup developed the CliftonStrengths Assessment, which ranks your strongest talents up to the unique combination of 1 in 33 million!  Thus, the chances of somebody else having exactly the same combination of talents than you do, are one in thirty-three million!  

All this said, how would this assist you in navigating the stress and challenges related to the current COVID time?

I will explain this by using some of my own, most dominant talents as an example.  A few of my strongest talent themes are described as “Ideation, Input, Intellection, Adaptability and Deliberative”.  The first three, indicate that my personal pattern of thought, feeling and behaviour is strongly linked to my thinking. I am inclined to come up with new and fresh ideas, love to research and gather meaningful information, and think deeply about the world around me. I am also very responsive to the moment, and I have the tendency to be very careful and deliberate in my actions.  

It is important to realise that these talents are not necessarily my Strengths yet – they can simply be raw indications of thoughts, behaviour or feelings.  But, since I have dedicated most of the last fifteen years of my life and career to develop my own talents (and those of others) into mature strengths, I know that I can rely on them as an accurate indication of my own state of being.

Each of these Strengths can be well-managed or mismanaged.  It is up to me.  If I mismanage them, they will be to my detriment.  If I manage them well, they become my strongest asset in my response to my circumstances, in a work context and my personal life.

The knowledge that I tend to research and gather information (Input), provides me with the insight that I should manage this pattern when faced with the COVID challenge of constant barrage of news and information, and not become enslaved to all the informative news channels and apps all day.  It may satisfy my “Input” Strength, but if I do not set boundaries, I will become overloaded with negative information. 

The knowledge that I tend to respond well to the moment (Adaptability), and could be reactive to the here-and-now, gave me the insight that I could strongly lean into this specific Strength during lockdown by simply taking it one day at a time. 

By the way, this was a benefit to me in comparison to my wife, who has the Strength of Futuristic and not strong Adaptability. Her tendency to always plan far ahead into the future became a real challenge to her in these times. Insight into the fact that there is nothing wrong with her, but that she only need to temporarily “turn down” her Futuristic needs, helped her to also rely on my Adaptability more, and go with the flow during the frustrating lockdown period.

Each one of us has unique strengths.  This is not mere skill and ability.  It is the patterns that guides our thoughts, emotions and actions.

If you know what your strengths are, you have a powerful advantage in self-management.  You can lean into some of your strengths, or intentionally “turn down the volume” of some other strengths.  This is do-able.  

The even bigger advantage of knowing your strengths, is being aware of the strengths of people who are close to you.  Family, colleagues or friends.  If you know their Strengths, you can lean into their patterns of thought, emotion or action when you need to do so, and you can offer up your natural Strengths as support to them.

Remember: You might need help, but you are also exactly the help someone else needs.  

Dries is an experienced Strengths-based Coach, Leader and Team Facilitator and Trainer of  Coaches in Strengths Coaching.  His more than 7000 hours of active leader and team Strengths Coaching experience, makes him one of the most sought-after Strengths Coaches and Facilitators in the world. View Dries Lombaard biography

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When Burnout becomes the Elephant in the Office

Burnout: The Elephant in the Office

by Thérèse Fensham

“When people feel inspired, motivated and supported in their work they do more work, and that work is significantly less stressful on their overall health and well-being.” 

Ben Wigert, Gallup Online Magazine

When birds become ill, they try to stay upright as long as possible. Should they show any signs of flopping down, they become immediate prey to opportunistic vultures. Likewise in the corporate field, most employees are hesitant to admit to prolonged ill health, chronic lack of motivation, or fatigue. And once one is back at work, you are expected to be fully present and productive. Thus, there is not much space in today’s competitive environment to be booked off regularly with continued health challenges. 

In many cases, it is not only about the response of our colleagues or managers, but our own disappointment in not fulfilling our aspirations of moving up the economic ladder. It could mean losing that promotion you worked so hard for, or worse, being medically boarded on a meagre disability grant. But most of all, it is our innate assessment of ourselves which becomes the worst stressor of all, our internal voice telling us we are failures when we struggle to keep up with our work load. 

For some time now, before the start of Covid-19, big corporates have established Employee Assistance Programmes to support staff. But as more and more employees struggle with performance due to poor physical or mental health, this is no longer enough. A more systemic organisational solution is needed to address these issues. Neither is it only about the bottom line. Companies realise the importance of finding a balance between “profit” and “people”. 

Yet, it remains almost impossible to maintain equilibrium with the high on-the-job demands brought on by Covid-19. Additionally, many employees would rather still avoid using company support services than being perceived as not coping at work. With Covid-19 in the mix, an already pressurised environment has become fraught with difficulty, especially on the back of massive global retrenchments, the extreme stress of lockdown, remote working, and the threat to many livelihoods. Ironically enough, as a result of the pandemic’s devastation of the global economy, it is now more than ever paramount to stay healthy and productive in order to remain employed.

What is Burnout? 

The original source of the word “burnout” cannot be more relevant for our Covid-19 times where healthcare workers are stretched to their limits. In 1974, Herbert Freudenberger, a German-born American psychologist, became the first researcher to publish a paper using the term “burnout” in a psychology-related journal. 

Freudenberger observed healthcare workers in high-pressured clinics in the 1960’s.He characterised burnout by “a set of symptoms that include exhaustion resulting from work’s excessive demands as well as physical symptoms such as headaches and sleeplessness, quickness to anger, and closed thinking”. He observed that the burnt-out worker “looks, acts, and seems depressed” 

From there, burnout research gained traction, and it became clear that it existed in many work contexts, not only in healthcare. Thus, the concept of “occupational burnout” became an accepted term in the work environment.

Global pandemic

In 2019, after the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared burnout a global pandemic, it was officially recognised as a syndrome specific to the work context, and included in the 11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD11).  It was defined as “chronic work-related stress when an employer’s expectations and employee work load exceed the individual’s perceived ability to cope”. 

The WHO describes occupational burnout as a syndrome resulting from chronic work-related stress, with symptoms characterised by “feelings of energy depletion, increased mental distance from one’s job, feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job, and reduced professional efficacy.”

According to a recent Gallup survey, 76% of employees experience burnout at least some of the time. Employees who experience burnout are 63% more likely to visit a doctor and 23% more likely to visit an emergency room. What is more, it would seem that burnout is becoming more and more prevalent amongst younger generations, like the millennials and Generation Z, and is no longer limited to middle-aged employees. Thus, organisations stand a chance of losing the very employees they invest in the most for long-term sustainable productivity and results.

In South Africa, a study PPS conducted in 2019, indicated that burnout was already a serious issue amongst top professionals. Conditions that develop as a result of the constant pressure are depression, anxiety, alcoholism, addiction to dependency-forming medication, as well as gambling, internet, drug and sex addictions. 

Surprising Causes of Burnout

Gallup’s research signifies that it is not the longhours of work that causes burnout, but rather how people experience their work load. Thus, employees’ perceptions of whether they feel valued, and their ability to self- actualise, are more important than the hours they work. 

Gallup’s study indicated the top five factors of burnout as unfair treatment at work, an unmanageable work load, lack of support, as well as unclear communication from managers, and unreasonable time pressure. 

With the onslaught of Covid-19 these factors have intensified. Add to that the fight for racial and gender equality, destabilising world affairs, as well as environmental crises, and the workplace has become an even greater contentious space.

According to Josh Bersin, an independent analyst and founder of Bersin by Deloitte, the cost to replace an employee is somewhere between 1.5 and 2 times their annual salary. Thus, the average cost for voluntary turnover in an organisation is somewhere between 40 and 54 percent of the organisation’s payroll. Burnout only increases this cost. 

Under the siege of the coronavirus, burnout numbers can well climb to crisis proportions, especially in South Africa with its already struggling economy. By February 2021, the perpetuated Covid-19 lockdown had already cost 1,3 billion job losses according to advisory firm PwC. 

How to stem the tide? 

The role the larger organisation plays in supporting their staff has now become more crucial than ever. This means support not only for middle management and below, but also top executives, who have to deal with a different kind of extreme stress. In these unprecedented times, senior teams have the near-impossible task of keeping the ship afloat under siege of the global economic backlash. 

Gallup’s research has indicated that sources of stress in an organisation are often systemic and structural rather than employee-based. A study conducted by Ahola, Toppinen-Tanner and Seppanen indicated that a two-prong approach of implementing systemic organisational interventions, as well as individual support strategies, works best to mitigate occupational burnout.  

This would include re-evaluating policies and how it supports employees. Here talent management is of the greatest importance. Factors impacting employees are the clarity of expectations from the top down, the efficacy of reporting structures, job clarity, performance management approaches, increased adaptability to role changes due to rapid global change, but most of all, creating an environment where employees feel psychologically safe.

Systemic Strategies to ensure Psychological Safety

Permanent systemic strategies should be built into an organisation’s culture by evaluating major work stresses, including employees in the process, and implementing work-life balance measures. This means that a culture shift is necessary from ‘always on’ to increased balance between work and recovery time. 

Some good news is that since the start of Covid-19, mental health issues have been far more in the public awareness, and negative perceptions are ever so slowly eroding. This might mean that employees are more inclined to look for support.

Yet, companies still need to walk a mile for employees to feel emotionally safe. More drastic measures are necessary to maintain a healthy, productive work culture. This includes recognising burnout as part of organisational culture to remove the stigma attached. 

More importantly, if the necessary skills and competencies are not learnt, embodied and operationalised in the context of the organisational eco-system, burnout is inevitable. Time, space and curiosity are necessary to build such capabilities. If not, the economic fall-out of burnout in the business sphere might well overtake Covid-19 in its pandemic proportions. 

Thérèse Fensham is a freelance journalist, content writer and Project Manager at Mitra Consulting, a BBBEE and Seta-accredited Organisational Development Consultancy, focusing on Organisational, Leader and Employee Well-being. 

Learn more about our Burnout Recovery, Resilience-building and Organisational Culture Change Processes:

Coach to Thrive 

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