3 Evidence-Based Strategies to Help Leaders Cope With Pandemic Stress

abstract image of woman climbing over gap representing pandemic stress concept

The COVID-19 pandemic has taken a significant toll on people’s physical, mental, emotional, and social wellbeing, both personally and professionally.

For some, the struggle centered around workplace disruptions, such as shifting to remote work and creating new norms and expectations during a period of enormous uncertainty. For others, the struggle centered around unexpected changes in personal life circumstances, such as increased isolation and sedentary behaviors due to quarantining, increased responsibilities at home, and a complete change in how to approach daily activities.

After witnessing the significant challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic firsthand, our research team wanted to explore one struggle in particular that many individuals have faced over the last year: pandemic stress.

We wanted to explore the prevalence of pandemic-specific stress and how it relates to 3 important outcomes for leaders: burnout, job satisfaction, and overall wellbeing. Critically, we also wanted to explore potential strategies for how to effectively manage pandemic stress in leaders, including both strategies that individuals can use and strategies that organizations can use to support their people.

What Is Pandemic Stress?

Before we define pandemic stress, it’s worth noting that even before the arrival of COVID-19, stress and burnout were on the rise — in fact, before the pandemic began, the World Health Organization identified burnout as a global syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress. The spread of COVID-19 across the globe compounded this issue, as thousands of leaders were forced to navigate unknown and unprecedented territory.

Pandemic stress can be defined as stress and anxiety specifically related to the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s one way to examine the culmination of the unique, pervasive, and intrusive nature of the pandemic in people’s lives.

In our research study conducted with nearly 300 leaders across the globe, we considered 3 specific components of pandemic stress that were likely to impact leaders in the context of their daily work life:

  • Compulsive checking and reassurance-seeking behaviors regarding COVID-19 worries (e.g., checking your body for signs of infection).
  • Experiencing traumatic stress responses to COVID-19 (e.g., having difficulty concentrating because you keep thinking about the virus).
  • Feeling threatened by the virus (e.g., worrying that you or people you love will get sick from the virus).

Perhaps unsurprisingly, we found that leaders who reported higher pandemic stress also tended to report higher burnout and lower job satisfaction and overall wellbeing. However, there is hope! We found evidence that 3 strategies may help alleviate pandemic stress.

How to Help Leaders Cope with Pandemic Stress

3 Research-Based Strategies

Based on our findings, we believe the following 3 strategies may help alleviate the damaging effects of pandemic stress:

1. Support building resilience.

At CCL, we define resilience as “responding adaptively to challenges,” and view it as a whole-self effort that draws on physical, mental, emotional, and social areas of wellbeing. Our COmprehensive REsilience (CORE) framework includes 8 evidence-based practices that can help leaders strengthen their resilience, and that can be integrated into leadership development programs.

As outlined in our article on resilient leadership, the 8 practices include:

  • Physical activity
  • Sleep
  • Mindfulness
  • Cognitive reappraisal
  • Savoring
  • Gratitude
  • Social connection, and
  • Social contact
Infographic: 8 Practices for More Resilient Leadership

To help manage pandemic stress, we encourage leaders to incorporate at least one of these 8 practices into their daily routines. While change can be daunting at first, the documented benefits of these practices make such an investment worthwhile. 

2. Cultivate gratitude.

In addition to engaging with resilience practices, generally speaking, our study also assessed one specific resilience practice: gratitude.

Gratitude reflects being thankful for what we have, and can be both felt and expressed. Researchers have found gratitude to be related to many forms of wellbeing and greater life satisfaction.

We feel gratitude when we realize that a (tangible or intangible) benefit has been given to us that we didn’t necessarily do anything to earn. It’s considered a complex social emotion because it requires us to be aware of the role that others play in our lives.

Researchers have found gratitude to be related to many forms of wellbeing, including higher self-esteem, boosted physical health, better sleep, and greater life satisfaction. It’s also been shown to be an effective protective mechanism during times of crisis, disaster, or trauma and has been linked to decreased burnout.

To help manage pandemic stress, we encourage leaders to think more intentionally about the role that gratitude plays in their lives.

In the workplace, gratitude is particularly important during times of change, precisely because change can’t be done alone. Learn how giving thanks will actually make you a better leader.

3. Increase your tolerance of ambiguity.

Tolerance of ambiguity reflects how accepting people are of uncertainty. Those who are more tolerant of ambiguity are more comfortable with lack of clarity and certainty, whereas those who are more intolerant of ambiguity have a higher need for closure and certainty.

Research has shown that people who have higher tolerance for ambiguity fair better adjusting to change, suggesting that cultivating the ability to tolerate uncertainty and ambiguity could be a valuable approach to helping manage pandemic stress.

Tolerating uncertainty and ambiguity has been more important than ever over the course of the pandemic. Shifting business strategies, working across cultures, navigating virtual teams, and taking on new assignments all demand that leaders face at least some degree of uncertainty.

There are a number of strategies for cultivating tolerance of ambiguity. A particularly effective strategy is to engage in cognitive reappraisal, a resilience practice in which you challenge the accuracy of your initial assumptions about a situation.

For example, if you have the thought “I can’t cope with this uncertainty,” you may ask yourself whether that thought is true (e.g., ask yourself whether you have shown in the past that you can, indeed, cope with uncertainty and anxiety). Consider viewing the uncertainty as a welcome challenge or opportunity for growth, rather than an obstacle, and focus on the elements of the situation that can be controlled.

Findings from our study confirmed that resilience, gratitude, and tolerance of ambiguity all have the potential to help mitigate the damaging effects of pandemic stress on work-related outcomes.

Dive deeper into 8 practices that keep you healthy, focused, and functioning with our book, Resilience That Works: Eight Practices for Leadership and Life.

What These Findings on Pandemic Stress Mean for Leaders and Organizations

For many leaders and organizations, the pandemic has continued to impact workplace wellbeing, and leaders who report feeling higher levels of pandemic stress are suffering more than others.

These findings suggest that now is the time to double down on resilience, as it helps buffer against stress and burnout. Leaders can utilize a variety of resources to focus on cultivating their own resilience (e.g., by engaging with evidence-based resilience practices such as gratitude), and organizations can support leaders in their cultivation of resilience by offering resilience programs or resources and providing protected time for resilience activities.

With intention and attention to regular, reasonable, and researched energy management tools and tactics, we can create replicable routines and rituals that build resilience.

When you equip your leaders with the tools that can help them fend off stress and burnout, you can build a culture that values resilience and gives employees permission to take care of themselves and recharge. They can bring their best selves to work (and home) with greater frequency, fend off burnout, and create conditions to “burn bright” instead.

Ready to Take the Next Step?

Combat pandemic stress at your organization with our resilience-building solutions, which will help your leaders avoid burnout — and burn bright instead.

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May 21, 2021
Leading Effectively Staff
About the Author(s)
Leading Effectively Staff
This article was written by our Leading Effectively staff, who analyze our decades of pioneering, expert research and experiences in the field to share content that will help leaders at every level. Subscribe to our emails to get the latest research-based leadership articles and insights sent straight to your inbox.

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