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Episode 1: From Surviving to Thriving (Transcript)

Sandra:                               Yeah, more or less. Okay, okay, I will do my best.

Sonia Kang:                       We are in the inner city of downtown Vancouver, where a team of outreach workers is providing support to people with severe mental illness.

Sandra:                               Mm-hmm. Of course, these days, everything is quite different.

Sonia Kang:                       Sandra [00:00:30] is one of the outreach workers.

Sandra:                               The people who I work with often struggle with risky substance use and addiction, live in poverty, and a majority of them are homeless or precariously housed.

Sonia Kang:                       To say that her days are unpredictable would be an understatement.

Sandra:                               We have to be ready to respond to any crises that might come up, which they often do.

Sonia Kang:                       It’s tough work, but Sandra is good at her job. She can usually handle the pressure. But then one day something really unpredictable happened.

News Reporter:                [00:01:00] Early Thursday, the World Health Organization declared the Coronavirus a pandemic. WHO’s director general...

Sonia Kang:                       It affected you, me — everyone. But what it really did was make the most vulnerable among us even more vulnerable, very stressful for them and for the staff providing essential services to them.

Sandra:                               Yeah, I think there’s just this fear that kind of a levy will break and then I’ll just be totally overwhelmed and I might not have the tools that I need or be as [00:01:30] practiced as I could be at coping with it

Sonia Kang:                       The tool Sandra is talking about is resilience. By changing the way many of us worked, the pandemic forced all of us to become way more resilient, and the need for that tool isn’t going away. Welcome to For The Love of Work, a brand new original podcast made possible by Rogers. [00:02:00] My name is Sonia Kang. I’m a professor of organizational behavior, and I study the psychology of people at work, and this, this is a series that explores what to do when you get stuck at work or when you just want to adjust the trajectory of your career. Most people experience these challenges at some point in their professional lives, and that might happen for a bunch of different reasons. Sometimes it’s stuff you can work on. Sometimes it’s an issue that your company [00:02:30] needs to fix, because as they say, “If you love your job, you’ll never work a day in your life,” but how do you get there? One way progressive companies are doing it is with the employee experience, an integrated approach to work design that prioritizes your needs. So, this is a playbook for navigating the employee experience. And that experience probably looks a little different now after everything you’ve been through with COVID-19. So I thought, in this first episode of For The Love of Work, let’s [00:03:00] look at what it takes to be resilient in the face of a pandemic or anything else work can throw at you.

Sandra:                               I think sometimes I lose perspective on how intense my work is with respect to the emotional toll and the difficulty of the work.

Sonia Kang:                       Sandra has a really hard job. The stressors are very intense, but as we’ll learn later, even [00:03:30] if our jobs look less intense from the outside, we all process work stress in kind of the same way. But when someone says, “I wish I was more resilient”, or “that person has so much resilience,” it isn’t always clear what they mean, beyond maybe the ability to just survive something. Like, just make it through another day at work and get home in one piece.

Raphael Rose:                   So resilience is essentially facing life’s stressors in a way that ultimately promotes growth [00:04:00] and enhances your experience, and that’s typically measured by how quickly one rebounds and recovers from a stressor.

Sonia Kang:                       Raphael Rose is a clinical psychologist and researcher living in Los Angeles.

Raphael Rose:                   Rebounds and recovers can mean physiologically. It can also mean psychologically and emotionally as well, and of course, behaviorally. We’re looking for people who welcome all kinds of emotions, not simply positive ones, but are okay with feeling sad ones and uncomfortable ones but can learn from them [00:04:30] to continue to pursue what they want in life.

Sonia Kang:                       So, resilience isn’t about getting to this place where we don’t feel the stress. It’s more about reframing how we interact with it, and working on becoming open and adaptable in the face of challenge and change.

Raphael Rose:                   Adversity is where we learn how we can kind of get better at things.

Sonia Kang:                       We’re talking to Raphael, because for the last 12 plus years, he studied what resilience looks like for employees who work in one of the most demanding professions.

NASA transmission:        [00:05:00] Go for main engine start… Ignition sequence star:. Five, four, we have ignition. Lift off confirmed. Copy lift off.

Sonia Kang:                       He studies astronauts.

NASA transmission:        We have lift off. We have lift off.

Sonia Kang:                       I can think of fewer people tougher than that. The theoretical and technical expertise you have to master, driving a spaceship, the nauseating speeds, no gravity, weird food and living alone for months at a time.

Raphael Rose:                   Yeah, I mean, it’s so funny. Yeah, we’re not astronauts, [00:05:30] but in the end, we’re much more similar to them than I think most average people would think. What stresses astronauts is the same thing that stresses us.

Sonia Kang:                       Weird food really stresses me out, too.

Raphael Rose:                   The things that astronauts report most stressful when they’re up at the space station for six, seven, eight months is worrying about their family, their partners, their kids, how they’re doing at school, interpersonal conflicts with crew members or people down on the ground… worries about finances, health.

Sonia Kang:                       Those worries might be similar, but there’s one big difference.

Raphael Rose:                   [00:06:00] They receive a ton of training for dealing with that. So in many ways, what we’re being asked to do is a lot harder.

NASA transmission:        Okay. We have a problem here… This is Houston. Say again, please… Houston, we’ve had a problem.

Raphael Rose:                   We don’t have the training that they get, but we’re being asked to do is really challenging.

Sonia Kang:                       It’s kind of amazing that the training that makes a difference on the space station, isn’t learning which space knobs to twittle, but it’s how to process the same everyday stress we experienced down on the ground. I mean, even dog [00:06:30] astronauts can do some of the technical stuff, right? But the point is human NASA employees get resilience training.

Bill Howatt:                       Resiliency is not something that you’re born with. It’s something you’re actually taught.

Sonia Kang:                       Bill Howatt runs an HR company that specializes in psychological health and safety.

Bill Howatt:                       And it’s very much like physical activity. It’s something that you need to do with intention and learn how to do it. So resiliency is a trainable skill.

Sonia Kang:                       The question then, is where does that training come from?

Bill Howatt:                       [00:07:00] The mistake lots of people think is resiliency’s something that the employee does alone, which is so far from the truth. Employers need to understand the formula to actually create resilient employees. And the part of resiliency is the employee experience. If it gets out of whack, it can drain employees’ resiliency.

Sonia Kang:                       According to Bill, your employer bears some responsibility for helping [00:07:30] you build resiliency.

Bill Howatt:                       One of the things I use is a simple metaphor of a battery. If I have a workplace where we allow bullying, harassment, if employees don’t know what their job function is, their value — that can drain the battery. The manager-employee relationship, that can drain the battery. Inversely, if you give praise and recognition and people feel they’re contributing and they feel welcome and they feel what they’re doing is valued, that can charge [00:08:00] the battery.

Sonia Kang:                       But as an employee, you can also play a role in building that energizing employee experience relationship. Both Bill and Raphael, the psychologist at NASA, are saying their resilience is a trainable skill. It isn’t something you’re necessarily born with, so don’t get down if you feel like you don’t naturally have enough of it. Because as long as you’re willing to put in some work, it’s something you can develop. And there are different ways to do that. So let’s start your resilience training. The first thing we have to do is get really stressed out. So, let’s start your resilience training. The first thing we have to do is [00:08:30] get really stressed out.

Sandra:                               It is a lot to support someone through frustration or depression or helplessness and powerlessness, and to feel like there’s little that you’re able to change.

Sonia Kang:                       There are many things that can cause stress and burnout, or as Bill Howatt says, drain our batteries at work. For Sandra, it can be feeling overwhelmed by the plight of the people she supports [00:09:00]. For others, it can be getting a tight deadline or friction with an unfriendly colleague. It doesn’t always have to be a big ticket stressor that does us in.

Sandra:                               I’m a bit concerned that eventually something sort of unpredictable will trip me up.

Sonia Kang:                       When it happens, we experience a pattern of physiological responses known as the fight, flight or freeze response, which evolved to help us react quickly to life-threatening situations. It starts in the brain in the amygdala, which is constantly processing the information [00:09:30] coming in from our senses, looking for danger.

Sandra:                               There are a lot of people who are very justly and understandably angry at the world, and you know, I’m not always the bearer of good news or able to help them in the way that they absolutely need to be helped.

Sonia Kang:                       When something is flagged as dangerous, the amygdala sounds the alarm and sends signals to another area of the brain, the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus works as a command center for the stress response, [00:10:00] sending instructions to the rest of the body. One of the areas that the hypothalamus puts to work are the adrenal glands. When they get the signal, the adrenal glands start pumping out epinephrine, AKA adrenaline, and that can cause a few different responses. You might freeze up and not be able to do or say anything, or the rest of the body gets ready to fight or flee. Your heart starts pounding to [00:10:30] move blood around your body, your muscles tense up so you’re ready to react and you get all sweaty so that you don’t overheat. Eventually, the second part of the stress response kicks in. The adrenal glands switch from pumping out epinephrine to pumping out cortisol, which can maintain the stress response over a longer period of time until the threat recedes. Once the coast is clear, the stress response gets shut down. Your body then moves from fight or flight, to the baseline state of resting and digesting and gets back [00:11:00] to working on digesting that burrito you had for lunch. If you want to build resilience, the most important part of this response is the part at the end, when your body goes back to baseline. When Sandra, the social worker, experiences stress the reaction can go one of two ways.

Sandra:                               Definitely stress can be very energizing for me, but if it’s a big, upsetting situation, sometimes I’ll just [00:11:30] sort of like feel overwhelmed and exhausted.

Sonia Kang:                       And that’s because we can experience stressors in two ways, either as challenges or as threats. Challenges can be motivating and keep you engaged in your work. This kind of stress is called eustress. But when we experience something as a threat, the stress eventually grinds us down. This is known as distress, and if it goes on for long, it can lead to burnout. So, part of building resilience is about reappraising [00:12:00] stressful situations as challenges, instead of threats. One of the biggest threats that we experience in our day-to-day lives is uncertainty. When we don’t know what’s going on or what’s going to happen, or when we don’t know how we should act. How can we get better at making sense out of uncertainty and downgrade it from threat to challenge, from distress to eustress, and what if we could do it before it became overwhelming?

Kathleen Sutcliffe:           My perspective is that moments of resilience [00:12:30] don’t simply come after challenging events, I think they come earlier.

Sonia Kang:                       Kathleen Sutcliffe is a professor of medicine and business at Johns Hopkins University. She studies how people and organizations make sense of change and different events.

Kathleen Sutcliffe:           My goal in the last couple of decades has been to understand how organizations can better manage for the unexpected. We know that when our world gets more uncertain, we’re oftentimes unsure what’s going [00:13:00] on, so we literally have to make sense. So in a nutshell, sense-making just means that we’re trying to figure out, okay, what’s the story. And once we have the story, now what?

Sonia Kang:                       For Kathy, sense-making involves examining a situation or circumstance that you don’t understand and turning it into something that you can explain explicitly in words. Once you have that explanation, you can use it as a springboard [00:13:30] into action. And if you can do that, it can build resilience.

Kathleen Sutcliffe:           Research has shown that it takes both anticipation, trying to understand what it is that we’re trying to accomplish, how that can go wrong, and how we might mitigate it from going wrong. But also understanding that things aren’t going to go wrong. And how can we be more resilient to be able to catch things and cope with problems as they’re unfolding.

Sonia Kang:                       This means catching things before they spiral out [00:14:00] of control and consume us. And that can only happen if we practice resilience. Because resilience allows us to deal with stressors and recover from them, instead of running from them. For Kathy, doing that partly comes down to awareness.

Kathleen Sutcliffe:           We can be a better sense-maker when we try to do something that we’ve labeled anomolizying. And by that I mean, when we try to hang on to surprising information, rather than trying to normalize [00:14:30] it by ignoring it or sweeping it into our day-to-day experience.

Sonia Kang:                       Kathy means that when we encounter anomalies, red flags, we need to pay attention, figure out what they mean and create a plan for dealing with them. We have to treat them as a challenge that we can overcome, not a threat that will overcome us. But that itself can be a challenge, especially in highly stressful jobs like Sandra, the outreach workers.

Sandra:                               There’s a delicate balance in [00:15:00] this work where you certainly need to develop a thick skin, but at the same time, there’s always a risk of a kind of normalizing effect or a resignation.

Sonia Kang:                       A job like Sandra’s does require a thick skin, but in general, Kathy says that distancing ourselves from stress, by not paying attention to it or normalizing it, blocks us from an opportunity to build a resilience. So, if you find yourself in uncertain or otherwise stressful situations, like if you have no idea what a long [00:15:30] cryptic email from your boss means, break it down into pieces you can deal with and put those into your own words. From there, move forward with a plan and make sure to give yourself the chance to recover before you move on to the next piece. And most importantly, when you get stuck, don’t be afraid to ask for help. Back to Bill Howatt for a sec.

Bill Howatt:                       Think about a vase, vase falls off, even the most resilient person sometimes on their own, can’t figure out how to get the vase together. And I think we’ve got to remember that because that’s what scares [00:16:00] me about this resilience conversation. Sometimes you’re supposed to always supposed to be able to do this by yourself. No, that’s not true. Part of resiliency is your environment by times, asking for help and getting support is critical.

Sonia Kang:                       You can ask for help with making sense of things from your colleagues, your friends and family or from a therapist. But at work, Kathy says that sense-making should really be an organizational dialogue.

Kathleen Sutcliffe:           I think it’s very important for organizations to create speak up cultures, [00:16:30] but I also think that it’s equally, if not more critical, that it’s not just the front lines who are encouraged to speak up. It is leaders who should be encouraged to inquire of people on the front lines. Leaders need to show that they want to know what people are seeing.

Sonia Kang:                       Sense-making works because it helps us to clarify uncertain situations [00:17:00] and act on them. Bringing down problems into manageable pieces and stating the problem in words is key. Basically it’s an exercise and explain like I’m five. Once you can explain it, you understand it. Once you understand it, you can make some progress toward a solution. And that allows us to practice challenge rather than threat stress responses. Then we can recover from stress and build resilience. If you can make sense of things, it can help with the next aspect of resilience we’re going to explore.

Bill Howatt:                       [00:17:30] Resiliency in my mind is the intentional focus on improving and maintaining your mental health. If I asked you what the algorithm is for mental health, you might pause and go, “I don’t know.”

Sonia Kang:                       If only someone knew, right? What Bill Howatt is suggesting here is that resilience is built through focused hard work on developing your overall mental health or hygiene. Putting in that work is a good way to [00:18:00] lay the foundation for resilience because you’ll be more grounded if something stressful happens. And taking a holistic view of mental health is especially important these days. Every year, one out of every five of us will experience mental illness or a mental health issue, but Bill is thinking about this in a proactive way. We all have mental health that needs protection.

Bill Howatt:                       One, is a physical health mind, body connection. We do know it’s important.

Sonia Kang:                       Basic stuff, your diet, how much you sleep, not drinking too much, [00:18:30] exercise. Sandra has that covered.

Sandra:                               Definitely running home from work is hugely therapeutic for me. It gives me mental space to reflect a little bit on my day and to maybe challenge some of my thought distortions.

Bill Howatt:                       The next one is mental fitness. Mental fitness is a combination of two types of coping skills, their developmental coping skills and their sustainability [00:19:00] coping skills.

Sonia Kang:                       Developmental coping skills include things like emotional intelligence, emotional awareness, self esteem.

Bill Howatt:                       Then you have what are called sustainability coping skills. We have 40 to 60,000 thoughts a day. And if we’re not paying attention to many of them could be negative and not processing your days through journaling or have anxieties and the diaphragmatic breathing. If you’re not doing different micro techniques based on your needs, then what happens is you could be eroding your mental health. And the last [00:19:30] pillar is social connections. People need people. The people factor’s critically important for our mental health.

Sonia Kang:                       Regularly paying attention, in this case to your thoughts, is similar to Kathy Sutcliffe’s sense-making. But another expert we spoke to makes the case for less focus.

Srini Pillay:                        We all know that focusing is great and distraction is not great. But I think what a lot of people don’t realize is that strategic unfocus [00:20:00] is another way to actually help your brain become energized.

Sonia Kang:                       Srini Pillay coaches executives using brain science at a company called the NeuroBusiness Group.

Srini Pillay:                        Throughout the day, using either napping, doodling, positive constructive daydreaming.

Sonia Kang:                       You’ve probably heard of companies that have built nap rooms for their employees. Research has shown that five to 15 minutes of napping can produce one to three hours of extra clarity back at your desk. [00:20:30] And doodling on a pad of paper during conference calls has been shown to lessen anxiety and improve focus. The last thing Srini mentioned, constructive daydreaming is like a meditative visualization.

Srini Pillay:                        Do some kind of low level activity. Something like walking or knitting or gardening. And while you’re doing this, you allow your mind to just float away by imagining something positive and wishful, [00:21:00] like lying on the beach or running through the woods with your dogs. But just anything that you think is positive or wishful and this form of brain revitalization can actually be extremely helpful.

Sonia Kang:                       In the same way you brush your teeth every day, Bill and Srini are suggesting you practice mental health hygiene every day, sort of like brushing your brain. But this is just a start. Mental fitness puts you in a better baseline for stressful events. But [00:21:30] there are other things you can do when they actually happen. Srini Pillay has developed a system he called CIRCA, C-I-R-C-A. We’ll go through this letter by letter.

Srini Pillay:                        C is chunking, which means when you get a stress, rather than thinking that this is some kind of endless problem that you’re not going to know how to react to, you literally use self-talk to tell yourself you need to chunk this down into what you’re going to be doing immediately, what you’re going to be doing in the next week, and then in the next month, and in [00:22:00] the next few months.

Sonia Kang:                       This is something Sandra, the outreach worker, already does.

Sandra:                               For a time we were told that essentially the whole program might shut down. The only way I could cope was just thinking like, okay, I just have to take everything day-by-day and moment-by-moment and I will figure that out when I get there.

Sonia Kang:                       Next after C is the I in Srini’s CIRCA system. That stands for “ignore mental chatter”.

Srini Pillay:                        Everybody always assumes that the more you talk about something, the [00:22:30] better it is. But when it comes to negative things during the day, to remain more resilient, you should actually avoid debriefing, because debriefing is what I call hippocampal hammering. And the hippocampus is a part of the brain that’s responsible for processing parts of memory. And what we know is that if you keep on saying to yourself over and over again, “This was the danger. This is what happened at work.” It may feel like a relief, but in fact, you are imprinting those memories in your brain.

Sonia Kang:                       [00:23:00] But how do you stop or ignore the chatter?

Srini Pillay:                        For those people who are open to it, being able to sit by yourself for 20 minutes, twice a day, ideally, and focus on your breath, but bring your attention back to your breath every time you notice that your mind is wandering. Then there’s the R, which is “reality check”.

Sandra:                               I second guess myself a lot or I will feel like I’m not good at my job because they don’t get something right immediately.

Srini Pillay:                        So using [00:23:30] self-talk, you can help reassure your brain by saying whatever this period is will actually come to an end and life will transition to a more normal phase.

Sonia Kang:                       Stating the obvious might seem too obvious, but when your emotions are under siege, a reality check is a good idea. Okay. Next in Srini’s system is “control check”.

Srini Pillay:                        Simply identify the things that you can control and the things that you can’t control. And then the A, in CIRCA is “attention [00:24:00] shift”. How can I shift my attention from the problem to the solution?

Sonia Kang:                       This refers back to sense-making. Pay attention to the situation, try to understand your circumstances by being explicit about them and devise a plan of action.

News Reporter:                COVID-19 can be characterized as a pandemic.

Sonia Kang:                       But what about during a pandemic, when our whole nervous system goes into lockdown.

Raphael Rose:                   The pandemic situation is a chronic stressor. It’s not like [00:24:30] there’s something we can do to fix this right now. We’re doing our part and what does that mean? That you have to find meaning in that.

Sonia Kang:                       This is Raphael, the NASA scientist, again.

Raphael Rose:                   Meaning can be in very simple things like washing your hands or staying away from an elderly parent because you don’t want them to get sick. Or wearing a mask when you go out in the community because you care about your community. And in addition to that, people who are resilient have great social support systems. You find ways to connect with meaningful people in your life.

Sonia Kang:                       This is another way [00:25:00] to build resilience, by training yourself to tolerate uncertainty. Not by making it go away because you can’t. But by trying to reappraise the situation and find meaning in whatever small things you can control. At the beginning, Raphael Rose, the psychologist, said astronauts get resilience training for exactly the same things that cause stress for us earthlings. So how do they practice mental fitness and brain refueling way up there on the space station?

Raphael Rose:                   The number one thing that astronauts [00:25:30] do on the space station to deal with stress, is they go to the cubicle that has a sort of a beautiful window outlook and that they can see earth. And what do they do there? They take photos. To me that begs the question sort of, is just taking photos of earth relaxing. I mean, it’s probably beautiful. It’s probably kind of all inspiring, but I would have gathered that the things we talked about earlier are probably more important.

Sonia Kang:                       If you think about it, they’re taking a moment to focus on the big picture, the biggest picture [00:26:00] in a way, you and I will never get a chance to do, an immediate shot of humility. But many of the exercises we’ve learned in this episode will help you to do the same.

Raphael Rose:                   It probably has a way of connecting them with where they’re from, with what’s meaningful to them, friends, family, etc., that are down on earth. And on top of that, all of these astronauts asked to be there. They’re all pursuing probably the most meaningful thing that can think of doing, and that’s space exploration.

Sonia Kang:                       When [00:26:30] stressful events or crises occur, there are three hoped for outcomes. The first one is basic survival. You want to get through it intact. Then there’s resilience, which our guests so far have explained is a learned skill that you can actively build and maintain. And then if you’ve been diligent, if you’re successful, there’s a third experience or state of being, it’s called thriving.

Kathleen Sutcliffe:           Thriving is an individual’s experience of vitality [00:27:00] and learning at work. If you think about it, contrast it with languishing, the experience of being stuck. I know sometimes in my career I felt like that. So when people are thriving, they feel like they’re growing. In the sense of, they’re increasing their knowledge. They’re increasing their understanding. They feel alive.

Sonia Kang:                       That’s Kathy Sutcliffe again.

Kathleen Sutcliffe:           Thriving, it’s a positive, psychological experience and it doesn’t necessarily have to occur in the face of adversity like resilience. So [00:27:30] in order to thrive, I always think about deeply embedding yourself in your work and exploring new ways of doing things. So you’re really deeply attentive to what you’re doing.

Sonia Kang:                       During times of uncertainty, our lives can seem to lose meaning and purpose. Many of our goals are frustrated, so we can’t pursue what we once valued deeply. We never quite know what will happen next or what we should be doing. Being able to return [00:28:00] to your values in these situations, to remember your deeper sense of meaning and purpose, will help you build resilience.

Raphael Rose:                   I really encourage people to think about this as a lifelong process of pursuing meaning and valued action. And I think that’s going to give you the motivation to become more resilient because when you fall short or you face a challenging situation, you’ll have the motivation to keep doing it because it’s worth it to you. It is something you stand for. It’s something you want to experience more in your life.

Sonia Kang:                       [00:28:30] We’ll take a much closer look at values and meaning in an upcoming episode. We’ll also be covering other workplace culture subjects like new approaches to professional growth, how to contribute to a psychologically safe workplace and strategies for standing out wherever you work. In the meantime, let’s continue to work on resilience. Look at stress as a physiological phenomenon and practice sense-making. Also practice mental fitness and brain [00:29:00] refueling because at some point, we will all face something that requires some resilience in our toolkit to help us work through uncertainty and come out the other side. In the next episode, we dive deeper into the employee experience, to look at an issue affecting all workplaces — diversity and inclusion — how it can strengthen teams, and create a sense of belonging for all employees. That’s next on For The Love of Work, an original podcast made possible by Rogers. Until then you can find us at — “for the love of work dot c-a” — I’m Sonia Kang. [00:29:30] Thanks for listening.