Updated: Mar 23
The leaders I work with, as a leadership consultant and burnout keynote speaker, often ask me for an easy way of explaining resilience to their teams. I tell them to use the analogy of jet lag.
Jet lag is one of those things that our body is not evolved to cope with. Most will know the experience of being broken for days after arriving in a far flung destination. This is because our circadian rhythms take time to adjust. We're temporarily turned upside down, as night time process happen in the day, and day time processes kick in at night.
Similarly, our nervous systems have not evolved to cope with a an uncertain and complex environment. Our flight, fight, freeze response is pinging like the notifications on a phone, when it really should be reserved for the ancient arrival of a predator. High performance work environments create a mild version of jet lag every day.
There's a huge difference whether jet lag lasts for two days or an entire week, just as there is a huge difference whether we are mostly fine or really destabilised by the pressures of daily life.
That difference is down to your practices.
For jet lag, there are some basic practices such as staying hydrated, but of course many of us do the exact opposite and drink too much on the plane to deal with the boredom. Similarly, we make the rookie mistake of staying up late staring at our screens and numbing with booze and processed foods to deal with the equivalent pain of our daily lives. This compromises our capacity over time.
As a burnout keynote speaker I often remind my audiences that the first step to becoming resilient is to resist temporary coping mechanisms that only make things worse for yourself. These coping mechanisms exist at the level of addiction, which will be coaxed with stress. That's why it's hard for the majority to get our of the starting blocs when it comes to resilience.
When you do more research into overcoming jet lag, you realise you have way more control over your own suffering. You can progressively go to bed two and then four hours earlier (or later) the nights before the flight so you make the adjustment in stages. At the departure lounge, you set your phone to the local time and fast for the duration of the flight, only eating when it's morning time upon arrival. This, along with morning light, propels your circadian clock forward.
Similarly, there are a host of clever resilience hacks that make stressful environments much easier to deal with - which I always share with my audiences as a burnout keynote speaker. Breathing techniques for rapidly soothing your nervous system, embodiment practices to clear the build up of negative emotion, visualisation techniques to prime the brain for optimism, etc. These make adversity much more tolerable.
Of course, these are all individual capacity building responses. The more meaningful move as a leader is to make your working environment not feel like your people are travelling to a far flung destination every day. Create psychological safety and ask people to speak up when they feel they are going beyond their limits.
This piece was originally shared as a post on my LinkedIn and inspired by day-to-day insights from my own experience with burnout and my work as a burnout keynote speaker and resilience strategist.