It seems as though I am writing this article on day 3000 of the pandemic, and it’s hard to believe we have only been going through this for just over a year. I think a lot of people would agree with the sentiment that this year has simultaneously felt like the longest and shortest year of their lives. We have all experienced a lot of obstacles this past year, and it only seems to be getting more challenging.
Like most of you, I live in Ontario, and I’ve noticed the severity of our third wave weighing on me.
It seems like just weeks ago we were optimistic for spring, for vaccines, and seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. Only to have that quickly turn to ICUs at full capacity, children home from school, and another lockdown. Now, I am not saying we still don’t have reasons to be optimistic. Spring has arrived, Ontario set a record for vaccinations yesterday, and every day we inch closer to ending this pandemic. With all that having been said though…. It’s been exhausting!
At Gallagher, our Gallagher Better Works approach to Organizational Wellbeing acknowledges that people, organizations and COVID-19 are complex. The lines between work and home are increasingly blurred, stress levels are high, and organizational and employee financial pressure is high. A holistic approach to wellbeing helps to create a resilient workforce. While everyone responds differently to stress, resilience is something that can be learned or cultivated over time with discipline and guidance.
Leading this effort at Gallagher is Dr. Mike Mousseau. I spoke with Dr. Mike about why these lockdowns have been so hard for people, some of the things we can do to cope with all of the changes in our lives, and some things we can do to re-energize! Dr. Mike is a Neuroscientist and our goal is to cover these topics from his perspective…. So as I am sure everyone has heard a million “tips” for a happier pandemic, but Dr Mike will explain the Neuroscience behind the most important things for us to consider.
Hello Dr. Mike Can you quickly explain who you are and what you do?
I’m Dr. Mike Mousseau and I lead Gallagher’s Wellbeing & Engagement practice here in Canada. I have a PhD in neuroscience and aim to bring a unique and scientific perspective to supporting every organizations greatest asset, their people.
Change is hard for people….. Why is that? It seems like this recent third wave has really taken its toll on everyone, why was this one harder than the last?
Even when faced with a life-threatening situation, people tend to resist change despite knowing the repercussions. Think about the concept of heart disease for instance, patients who had undergone bypass surgery are often told that if they do not change their habit in life they would perhaps have to have the surgery again - it turns out only 9% of patients modified their behavior.
Changing a habit or embedding a new behaviour takes effort and focused attention. If we’re under pressure, tired or distracted our brain can’t keep us focused and we relapse to earlier behaviours and habits.
As humans, we look for ways to create certainty in all situations- we are hyper-vigilant to detect and act on changes in our environment—and we like to get back to what is familiar as soon as possible. Though the pandemic’s ebbs and flows are becoming inherently more familiar, they are threatening our stability.
As such, when a person’s social environment changes, it challenges their sense of stability or more specifically, our brain’s. If the brain decides the change is, in fact, threatening, then it will resist or avoid the change as much as possible—“fight or flight” mode as it’s often called will kick in. This is our brain’s innate defense to change. Our fear centre of the brain starts firing and we revert back to certainties, healthy or not.
What are some things we can do to counter those things you described, how can we cope during the recent third wave?
Changing a habit or embedding a new behaviour takes effort and focused attention. This can feel physiologically uncomfortable and quite literally painful to over-ride habits.
The science of neuroplasticity is helping scientists explain how to train ourselves to be more productive, happy or in this case willing to cope with the changing demands of our lives. In fact, your brain is a dynamic environment and constantly is rewiring and forming new connections to assist with these processes.
So, how do we bypass old habits and train our brains? How do we go about creating new neural pathways or new thought patterns that help us to grow as individuals? It turns out, we can learn a lot from the field of neuroscience to train our conscious mind to recognizing our old thought habits and patterns and how to create new ones - but it will take a concerted effort on our part.
Think of your thought pattern in context of an analogy of driving through snow or a field. If I drive my 4WD truck down the same track every day that track will get deeper and more open and be easy to drive down while the others will have too much snow to get through. Our neurons work in the same way. The more we drive down one particular path the easier it becomes – whether that path is effective or ineffective.
This represents a thought, or a belief you’ve held for a long period of time. And let’s face it, not all of our thoughts and beliefs are creating the life we desire.
It may take effort initially to choose to drive down a new path – it is deep with snow, and takes more concentration, especially when we are under pressure. But, with a bit of effort, we create a new path that is easy to navigate. Our neurons fire together quicker and with time they become embedded as habits. Once this happens less effort is required to maintain focus and attention and we can regulate our emotions and behave, decide and perform more effectively.
This is how we grow our minds; by learning how to think differently, create new habits, develop greater resilience to stress, and generate more positive outcomes in our lives.
What can we do to re-engage and re-energize as we come into the summer?
Much of this comes down to the mindset we adopt for ourselves and how that affects the way we lead our lives. That is what Stanford Psychology Professor Carol Dweck has shown through research since the 1970s. What she discovered is the power of two different mindsets — she coined them the “growth mindset” and the “fixed mindset”.
A growth mindset means that you believe your intelligence and talents can be developed over time. A fixed mindset means that you believe intelligence is fixed—so if you’re not good at something, you might believe you’ll never be good at it.
Fundamentally, it’s a battle between “How will I be judged?” (fixed) and “How can I improve?” (growth).
However, it is also important to note that none of this is binary and none of us is led by only one mindset. We all are mixes of the two, depending on the situation we are in, the people we interact with or the challenges we are about to confront.
This mission is about developing a growth mindset. But, having a growth mindset is not an “easy button” solution to any problem and it will not automatically cause this pandemic to end. What it will do is make it easier and more enjoyable to work toward your goals and give you the confidence and resilience you need, even through these most troubling times, to endure and stay positive.
Here are three general approaches to growth mindset we can all start today:
1. Cultivate your self awareness: Become aware of your talents, strengths and weaknesses; gather feedback from those you know best and create a holistic view of yourself.
2. Embrace challenges: Know that the journey to accomplishing anything worthwhile will have many challenges – prepare yourself for facing these and even failing sometimes. But be tenacious and get right back up if you fall.
3. Inspire and be inspired by others: Envy of others who succeed is tempting, but will not help your journey. Instead, commit to being an inspiration to others and use the success to others to inspire you as well.