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COVID-19 Reset & Recovery: Developing Resilience to Move Forward through Uncertainty to New Beginnings

The COVID-19 pandemic triggered both a global health crisis and an economic crisis. The two together brought into sharp relief other preexisting crises, including racial injustice; disparities and underinvestment in public education; climate change; homelessness; the fragility of supply chains; and weaknesses in health care systems. These crises have generated an extraordinary level of uncertainty, creating another crippling crisis and a considerable threat to employee well-being—anxiety.

We experience anxiety when our brain is constantly firing and emotionally hijacking our ability to remain calm, think clearly, and act effectively.1 According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics, 8 percent of Americans had anxiety disorders in 2019; as of September 2020, that number had jumped to 25 percent.2 Only 1.5 percent of Americans had been infected with COVID-19 as of September 2020,3 so the number of people who are anxious is 17 times the number of people who have caught it.

The solution to this rising anxiety epidemic is to develop our resilience. We define resilience as thriving amidst adversity. Resilience is not “bouncing back,” coping, or stress management. Instead, it is minimizing the need to bounce back.

We develop resilience by practicing specific behaviors that rewire the brain to make resilient behaviors our automatic responses to the constant bombardment of threatening experiences (see the Resilience Behavior Model in the figure below).4 In addition to improving physical and emotional wellness for individuals, developing resilience can result in improved business outcomes for the organization, including better product/service quality5 and higher sales performance.6 Furthermore, developing resilience across the organization can increase hard dollar performance. For example, researchers found that developing resilience skills among the 1,400 physicians of a medical center reduced burnout by 50 percent and produced $25 million in savings.7


We define resilience as thriving amidst adversity

Resilience Behavior Model

Source: Leo F. Flanagan, “Beating Back the Anxiety Pandemic: The Science of Resilience,” Human Capital Blog, The Conference Board, September 16, 2020.

To help develop a resilient organization, we provide 12 practical recommendations for leaders and employees as they strive to deliver a more impactful customer experience.

  1. Learn the science and benefits of developing resilience. COVID-19 has amplified the importance of resilience at all levels—personal, organizational, local government, national, and international. In fact, the European Union on September 14, 2020, announced that “strategic foresight” and resilience would be part of its future policy making.8 Accordingly, leaders need to quickly “get smart” on the subject by reading,9 taking an online course,10 or working with a coach. After dedicating a number of meetings to learning the science and benefits of developing resilience in their people and organization, the CEO and entire executive team of a fast-growing pharmaceutical firm decided to invest in training all employees to develop resilience skills.
  2. Acknowledge the personal and business toll of the stresses people are under. To convey true empathy, leaders should consistently recognize in their internal and external communications the personal and business stresses their employees face. Manny Chirico, Chairman and CEO of PVH Corp. (owner of Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein brands), regularly acknowledges through social media that each of the company’s associates faces a set of unique personal stressors.11 In addition, he openly shared his experience when he was diagnosed with COVID-19.12
  3. Share stories of how developing resilience benefits employees and the business. Storytelling is a powerful learned skill that can change workplace culture and help people envision themselves in the painted context.13 By telling relevant stories, leaders can connect employees to the higher purpose the organization serves. In addition, storytelling increases the emotional link to meaning and reduces negative emotions such as depression.14 Proctor & Gamble Corporate Storyteller and Chief Historian, Shane Meeker, suggests that leaders look to the movies for inspiration when creating short, compelling personal stories that inform and motivate employees. In his first effort, he used the epic storyline of Star Wars to inspire innovation within Procter & Gamble.15
  4. Model resilient behaviors. Leaders should demonstrate their own resilient behaviors to encourage adoption. Mark T. Bertolini, former CEO of Aetna, was severely injured in a skiing accident that left him with intractable pain. Bertolini became devoted to meditation to control his pain and improve his health. He not only widely shared his personal practice and the results, he then offered free meditation to Aetna’s workforce.16
  5. Recognize and reinforce employees’ consistent practice of resilient behaviors. Positive change occurs when positive actions are taken. According to our interviews, the technology leaders for one of the US’ top 25 banks applied day-to-day recognition to encourage their team members to practice resilient behaviors. The recognition was delivered in meetings, one-on-one conversations, emails, and internal newsletters using the following structure:
    • Here’s what I saw you do to build your resilience (specific observation)
    • Here is how that made me feel…
    • Your behavior will benefit our team by…and (the organization) by…
    After struggling for some years to deliver technology products on specification, on time, and on budget, within four months of adopting this new behavior, the technology group was consistently hitting all three of these key project metrics.
  6. Facilitate honest conversations. To help develop resilience, leaders should hold honest conversations where all stakeholders are represented and part of an open dialogue. These conversations allow participants to share their experiences and develop empathy for each other. For example, global human rights consultantRob Corcoran and his colleagues have perfected the development and facilitation of honest conversations in the fight for racial equality over four decades.17 Honest conversations take place in community meetings, conferences, historical walks, and at the Corcorans’ dinner table.
  7. Make returning to the workplace voluntary after a crisis. Research that The Conference Board conducted in September 2020 found that only 17 percent of surveyed employees who have been working remotely think that returning to the workplace will be voluntary.18 However, we believe that organizations should consider making returning to the workplace after COVID-19 voluntary. Individuals who feel pressured to return to work are more likely to feel anxious. One highly anxious person reentering the workplace can spread anxiety through emotional contagion, the transfer of emotions from one person to another.19 For example, in the aftermath of 9/11, a global investment and wealth management corporation headquartered adjacent to the World Trade Center buildings decided (surprisingly, for 2001!) that its employees would have the choice of returning to the workplace or continuing to work from home. Anecdotally, leaders attributed their renewed success a year after the crisis to that specific decision.
  8. Train all employees to develop their personal resilience skills. At a minimum, employees should receive training on focus, pragmatic optimism, and empathy.20 Focus is the ability to concentrate and decrease distractions while increasing productivity and quality. Pragmatic optimism is the belief that the future will be better, in part because of the individual actions each of us take every day. Empathy is the ability to perceive what other people are feeling or experiencing from their point of view; it builds closer, more supportive relationships. While many companies are just now investing in developing resilience skills, others have been at it for quite some time and have proven the business value. Satya Nadella, Microsoft’s CEO since 2014, personally models empathy by explaining how he experiences the world. He attributes innovation at Microsoft to empathy: “If I look at the most successful products we [at Microsoft] have created, it comes with that ability to meet the unmet, unarticulated needs of customers.”21
  9. Train leaders at all levels in fact-based decision making and agility. Under pressure, our tendency to make decisions based on biases rather than facts increases. Paradoxically, this tendency especially increases for those with the deepest expertise and experience. Techniques like skillful discussion22 and strategic assumptions surfacing and testing23 block the effect of these biases and cause individuals to build decisions grounded in facts. Agility provides multiple options for action, with each option having been evaluated against the same objectives or criteria. A digital media company identified 24 potential ways to increase growth, then selected six ways to close a revenue gap in the second half of 2019. The executive committee completed the analysis and made the decisions in a single day, rather than over the course of many weeks and meetings.
  10. Suggest that employees share information and training about resilience with those at home. COVID-19 has reinforced our understanding that none of us live in a vacuum; we are all part of a larger system. If employees can share what they know about resilience with their family and friends, the anxiety of those in their systems should also be reduced. The importance of this sharing was again identified in the aftermath of 9/11 for the global investment and wealth management corporation. As part of the workplace reentry strategy, employees were asked to share with their loved ones at home all the facts shared with them, as well as the measures the company was taking to ensure their safety. Subsequent surveys found that employees who returned to the workplace did so with much greater confidence when the people at home believed two things: returning to the workplace was safe and the work was important.
  11. Weave resilient behaviors into your interactions with customers. Employees who can instill resilient behaviors into their relationships with customers will be more successful. A global asset management corporation saw the power of this strategy when financial advisers were taught how to build empathetic relationships with their clients. The training received powerful feedback and was linked to an especially strong financial ROI within the first quarter after the training was provided.
  12. Support your customers in developing their resilience skills. The same global asset management corporation conducted six one-hour training sessions to help their clients develop their personal resilience and the resilience of their teams. Some 800 clients took advantage of this opportunity, and the corporation has tracked a strong ROI from this investment.

1 For more information on managing employee well-being in a crisis, see Marion Devine and Robin Erickson, Human Capital Management during COVID-19: Support for Well-Being and Mental Health, The Conference Board, 2020.

2Indicators of Anxiety or Depression Based on Report,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Health Statistics.

3COVID-19 Dashboard by the Center for Systems Science and Engineering (CSSE) at Johns Hopkins University,” Johns Hopkins University of Medicine, Coronavirus Resource Center.

4 For a summary of the neuroscience explaining how the brain can be rewired, please see Leo F. Flanagan, “Beating Back the Anxiety Pandemic: The Science of Resilience,” Human Capital Blog, The Conference Board, September 16, 2020.

6 Peter Schulman, “Applying Learned Optimism to Increase Sales Productivity,” Journal of Personal Selling & Sales Management 19, no. 1 (October 2013).

7 Tait Shanafelt, Joel Goh, and Christine Sinsky, “The Business Case for Investing in Physician Well-being,” JAMA Internal Medicine 177, no. 12 (2017): 1826–1832.

9 Frederic Flach, Resilience: Discovering a New Strength at Times of Stress (New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1988).

10 For an online course on developing resilience, see “Learning to Build Individual, Business & Community Resilience: Thriving in a Pandemic World,” The Center for Resilience.

11 Manny Chirico, “I am so appreciative of our retail teams,” LinkedIn post, 2020.

12 Manny Chirico, “Anyone who knows me knows I value accountability,” LinkedIn post, 2020.

13 Craig Wortmann, What’s Your Story? Using Stories to Ignite Performance and Be More Successful, (Kaplan Business, 2006).

14 Martin E. P. Seligman, Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment (Free Press, 2002).

15 Shane Meeker, StoryMythos: A Movie Guide to Better Business Stories (Speak It to Book, 2018).

16 David Gelles, “At Aetna, a C.E.O.’s Management by Mantra,” New York Times, February 27, 2015.

17 Rob Corcoran, Trustbuilding: An Honest Conversation on Race, Reconciliation, and Responsibility (Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 2017). 

19 Sigal Barsade et al., “Emotional Contagion in Organizational Life,” Research in Organizational Behavior 38 (2018): 137–51.

20 Flanagan, “Beating Back the Anxiety Pandemic.”

21 Michal Lev-Ram, “Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella Says Empathy Makes You a Better Innovator,” Fortune, October 3, 2017.

22 Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2011).

23 Ian Mitroff and James Emshoff, “On Strategic Assumption-Making: A Dialectical Approach to Policy and Planning,” Academy of Management Review 4, no. 1 (1979): 1–12.



Leo F. Flanagan, PhD

Distinguished Principal Research Fellow
The Conference Board


Robin Erickson, PhD

Principal Researcher, Human Capital
The Conference Board


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