Battling burnout: A conversation with resiliency expert Dr. Amit Sood

A leading voice on psychological resilience believes that humans are built to tackle crises.

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, nearly half of employees surveyed have reported experiencing burnout symptoms at work. WHO defines “burnout” as a syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress that’s characterized by exhaustion or lack of energy, job-related negative or cynical feelings, and reduced effectiveness. 1 As the world continues to grapple with the COVID-19 crisis, the emotional and psychological response to extended periods of uncertainty could have a significant impact on recovery efforts.

The good news is that psychological resilience can be learned, and research shows that people who report higher resilience are physically healthier, more productive, happier, and have closer relationships. 2 The fact is that while the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on people’s lives might feel new, resiliency in the face of adversity, thankfully, isn’t. As companies tackle the return to the workplace, offering the necessary support could be a top priority.

Amit Sood, MD, a leading expert on psychological resilience for more than two decades, is the executive director of the Global Center for Resiliency and Well-being and the creator and executive director of Resilient Option, an evidence-based framework to improve resilience and build a positive work culture. The COVID-19 crisis has brought years of Dr. Sood’s work and clinical trials to the forefront.

McKinsey’s Ashish Kothari talks with Dr. Sood about how people can tap their psychological resilience to combat the mental-health challenges of the COVID-19 crisis, strategies for maintaining well-being amid constant volatility, and what companies can do to support their employees. The following is an edited excerpt of their conversation.

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Adapting to growing uncertainty

McKinsey: Let’s start at the beginning. What is psychological resilience, and how does it help people adapt during a crisis?

Amit Sood: Psychological resilience is defined by the ability to withstand, bounce back, and grow—despite downturns. The COVID-19 crisis could be considered one of the biggest downturns of our lifetimes. Yet psychological resilience during the pandemic is actually ticking higher, even as burnout and other mental-health issues were reported by 42 percent of employees globally since the start of the pandemic.

What does this mean? Historically, stress has always been there. Every generation has experienced it through different events, from the Depression in the 1930s to World War I and World War II to the Cold War to 9/11—and many other challenges in between—and now the COVID-19 pandemic. Uncertainty and lack of control are not new. The stressors just keep changing.

But that’s not really the headline here; the headline is our increasing adaptation. We are a species that is very flexible at recalibrating our expectations. In the current climate, I believe we have dialed down our expectations. And that’s essentially how we are adapting. For instance, I asked a little girl at my daughter’s elementary school, “What makes you so happy?” She said, “I am happy because the grass is green. I’m happy because the swing sets work. And I am happy because the sky is blue.” She had come from a country where there’s so much smog that she had not seen a blue sky for the first eight years of her life. So it is all about meeting an individual’s specific set of expectations.

As we emerge from the pandemic, those with more realistic expectations may have a more balanced outlook on reality, which can then contribute to a happier perspective and sentiment and better position them to confront ongoing challenges.

As we emerge from the pandemic, those with more realistic expectations may have a more balanced outlook on reality, which can then contribute to a happier perspective and sentiment.

McKinsey: How is psychological resilience linked to overall physical and mental well-being?

Amit Sood: Psychological resilience and physical and mental health are all interconnected. As a physician over the past 30 years, I’ve seen a lot of struggle and a lot of pain and suffering. I started studying neuroscience and evolutionary biology to try to understand what brain mechanisms cause struggle. Why do most people want to be happy and yet struggle with being happy and staying happy?

I realized that the brain is designed as an instrument for survival and safety, not peace and happiness. And that is perhaps one of the proximate causes of struggle that was missing from many psychological and mindfulness traditions. Since then, we have done over 30 clinical trials on happiness and resiliency.

If I had to summarize the whole gamut of well-being research, it is simply this: you want to tell your genes and immune system, “I’m having a good time on this planet.” This type of positive outlook tells your genes to switch from inflammatory to anti-inflammatory actions and boosts your antiviral immunity. The opposite is also true: when we feel miserable or have a negative outlook, inflammation goes up, and antiviral immunity goes down. 3

Stress is not a creation of our own volition; it is a part of how the brain operates. By improving psychological resilience, we also can improve our physical resilience to be able to tackle whatever comes next. Mind you, if you are 5 percent more resilient, then you have a 10 to 15 percent lower risk of a mental-health diagnosis. 4 In our practice, we have seen success when we start by validating a person’s experience from a scientific perspective as a struggle we all face and then establishing “micropractices” that offer immediate reward and gratification.

McKinsey: From your vantage point in working with organizations, what can employers do to help ease and improve workers’ mental health overall and, in turn, increase psychological resilience in their workforce?

Amit Sood: I’m very impressed with the depth of the COVID-19 response from many employers. Many are adapting holistically, looking at pandemic-related mental- and behavioral-health problems in their entirety—from preventative, therapeutic, and rehabilitative angles.

From a preventative aspect, I see leaders embracing new ideas and emphasizing employee equity throughout the process. They are looking at setting up “safe rooms”—places for safe conversations—and removing stigma as best they can. I’ve seen preventative programs range from meditation to mindfulness to weight-loss coaching. Employers are adding supportive services, such as telecare for mental health, and putting programs in place to make sure people have days off for family needs and childcare support, as well as appropriate insurance coverage.

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A holistic approach to employee mental health

From a therapeutic aspect, I see many employers beginning to offer or already offering treatments for mental-health diagnoses—including counselors, coaches, therapists, and psychiatrists. These programs, when offered freely, help remove stigma and allow people to come forward.

Last, from a rehabilitative perspective, only a small percentage of people really get into a very difficult situation where they need prolonged rehabilitation. If they do, many employers have support or referral programs in place. But the biggest emphasis has been on prevention.

McKinsey: Some employers are grappling with a transition back to the office. What advice would you have for them to make this transition less stressful and more successful for employees?

Amit Sood: I would tell them to continue to keep looking at mental and behavioral health holistically, focusing on prevention, treatment, and rehabilitation. Instead of focusing on productivity, focus on purpose, cultivate compassion, and give employees the agency to make decisions.

Helping employees find their purpose and meaning can drive productivity. And people who are compassionate and caring tend to learn skills better and become more competent. Also, the more autonomy employees feel, the more likely they will blossom in what they do, and the more engaged they will be.

It’s important to keep in mind what makes employees tick. What really keeps them going is a sense of control and a sense of purpose. And if you give them both, it can help combat the cognitive overload that we may all be feeling.

McKinsey: People, for the most part, are social beings that tend to thrive in communities, but ongoing restrictions may be damping social relationships. What strategies can help people reconnect and deepen relationships?

Amit Sood: When it comes to connection, wearing masks and physical distancing has created some separation, but the crisis also has brought us together in new ways. There are several techniques that can help deepen connections.

One approach is based on having perspective. We have a practice called “kind attention,” where you assume that everybody is struggling in some form or another. With that awareness in mind, it can help bypass judgment of others and, in its place, produce a sense of empathy—a silent good wish—even before you get to know the person. Doing that preemptively creates a stronger connection and bond with another person.

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Reconnecting with shared purpose, kindness, and gratitude

There is also a lot of support for transformation through gratitude. I believe that when gratitude and kindness become part of our breadth, then the physical distancing and the mandates matter less because the potential to feel connected to the person you’re talking to remotely can be just as strong as it would be talking in person. If you’re dealing with a difficult transactional or potentially adversarial meeting at work, you can preemptively try asking yourself, “Why am I grateful to the person I’m going to meet?”

The other part that connects us is a common purpose and recognizing that we are all in this together. The more we connect through common purpose, the more we will transcend these short-term distances that are artificial.

McKinsey: Reflecting as a medical professional, what has been the biggest lesson or moment since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic?

Amit Sood: First, the COVID-19 crisis has broadened and deepened me as a medical professional because of how the pandemic evolved. It replaced norms at every level and presented new ways to connect with people globally on the topic of psychological resilience, happiness, and mental health.

Fifteen years ago, if I were talking about resilience to healthcare professionals or attorneys, I would most likely have been treated with cynicism by about a third of the people. That’s no longer the case. It has been very powerful to connect with people authentically and know that we are on the same page when it comes to applying some of these ideas.

Second, I’ve become much more aware of children who are struggling. The struggles we’ve seen children face include sudden loneliness, loss of parental attention, parents being too much “in their face,” and parents with excessive stress. And most children don’t know how to cope with this sudden deluge of stressors in their lives.

As a result, we developed a neuroscience-informed and resilience-empowered approach to help elementary-school kids with three skills: breathing, focusing, and feeling. We have completed five pilots of the program, called HappiGenius, and have 40 trainers teaching it.

Overall, I have been impressed by the level of human ingenuity and adaptability through the course of the COVID-19 crisis. The uptick in psychological resilience seems promising as we become more comfortable with things being less controllable. And with lesser stigma related to mental-health issues, I hope we can preserve our growth as we emerge fully from the pandemic by validating each other with gratitude and kindness.

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