What if COVID Was Ebola and You Lived on a Dollar a Day? In 2014, Sierra Leone was facing the Ebola epidemic, a deadly virus with a 50 percent mortality rate. Worse, it's a place with next to no resources, where people lived on one dollar a day. Sounds like a culture where hope should be dying at a rate higher than 50%. Instead, a group called Prosocial began teaching and shifting the culture to help survival, change, and hope take hold. Prosocial taught the people of Sierra Leone principles based on an idea called psychological flexibility. Many studies inside and outside the workplace have shown that this principle builds resilience, directed purpose and yes, hope in the face of difficulty. Psychological flexibility is about facing reality well, not painting a happy face on it. It’s about igniting the deep values that truly make us who we are. More than just bringing comfort in tough times, these techniques have been used to transform workplace cultures into positive, productive communities. It helped Sierra Leone do what it need to do to overcome the epidemic.
Our Current Challenge is Psychological Too We need psychological flexibility more now than ever. Even before the chaos of COVID, our workforces by all measures were faced with some grim statistics. 25.2 percent of the working population are facing clinical depression or anxiety (adaa.org, nimh.org). 30 percent of the workforce attest to feeling major stress. And now we face the sudden possibility of mass unemployment, layoffs, and an uncertain future that no experts can predict. This will undoubtedly ratchet these numbers up to near 100 percent of our teams feeling stress. This stress leads to the huge unseen cost of four times greater absenteeism, and even worse is “presenteeism” where those stressed out at work reduce productivity 1.5 percent more than being absent! (The Mindful and Effective Employee Paul Flaxman PhD)
Be Happy or Be Real? So, enough dark news. How do we pivot away from this? Ironically, it’s by learning to face it. Yes, the more we try to avoid the feelings and thoughts surrounding a crisis, the more they drag us down. A good analogy given by Steve Hayes, PhD (A Liberated Mind 2019) is quicksand. The more you fight and struggle to get free from quicksand, the more it sucks you down. If you accept it and lay back into the mire, you can save yourself. This first pivot is mindful awareness. Three things can be encouraged in this first pivot. Speak your thoughts, out loud if you can. “I feel out of control." Speak your emotions. “I feel full of fear.” Again, out loud if you can. And third, Identify your bodily state. "I feel a tightness in my gut." This process of openness and curiosity is the first pivot towards developing psychological flexibility. Awareness and mindfulness actually bring us a sense of control, rather than being controlled by what we observe.
I Am Not My Thoughts The next pivot is to defuse from these thoughts. These are just thoughts or feelings, they are not the essential you. You are observing these things your mind is seeing, perceiving them. But they are not the essential you. One exercise that helps with this is to see these thoughts and emotions as being placed on leaves in a river (Hayes 2019). In your mind, place them on a leaf and watch them float away. No thought or emotion is eternally present for any of us, and this exercise can help us make that connection. Another powerful tool in defusion is to write thoughts or feelings down on a piece of paper (Hayes 2019). See them as something outside of yourself. You can carry this paper with you to acknowledge that it has been with you in your journey, but it isn’t you, and that paper doesn’t make you who you are or determine what you will do. There is much more that can be done to help us defuse from the difficult experiences. The key point is that we are not denying them or numbing out to not feel them. Feelings are felt, but not given the status of defining our core being or determining our actions.
Move Towards My Deepest Self The final pivot is moving towards our core self. What are your core values? This engages our actions toward our deepest desires. Instead of reacting to negative thoughts and emotions, we choose an empowering course that fulfills our deepest values. We believe that these values stem from loving connection, and we call this the ultimate why that drives us all as people. Values like giving, making a difference, doing a good job for others, bringing joy to others, supporting our families, being there for our coworkers. When we focus on these deep values we set ourselves on a direction in life. Values are deeper than goals. Goals should be informed and inspired by values. Goals should be in alignment with our deepest self, which is defined by our values. This pivot ignites positive, hopeful action. A Story of Light in the Darkness Victor Frankl, who wrote one of the ten most influential books ever written, “Man’s Search for Meaning,” was confronted with having all of his potential goals stripped from him. He was an Austrian Jew who was placed in a concentration camp. His life’s work, a manuscript of a book, was destroyed and he was forced to do menial labor in hellish conditions. Yet he realized his values were not taken from him. He could still choose to act in love, the core of who he was. His daily “goals” were dictated to him but the how and the why he chose to live on was, ultimately, his alone. He didn’t turn from the pain and reality of holocaust around him. He faced it with reality, but didn’t let it define him. He acknowledged, defused, and acted on his values. He endured with hope and became a living testimony to us all that we too can face the worst that life has to throw at us and still inspire. When we live facing reality, with a determination to live from our values, we are truly alive with hope. Let's Choose Life My desire is that these challenging times will inspire us all to live in a way that will show us to be a generation that came together and lived well in the midst of a crisis that strikes but once a century. That we would realize that psychological flexibility is a key to thriving in crisis. And that we can make a significant difference by giving our workforces the tools to not just endure but thrive in these challenging times.