Stress and Renewal: experiences from the Covid lockdown


It’s a time for high stress all around, not least for business leaders. Firstly, they are working harder than ever to keep their businesses operational within the physical constraints that Covid has mandated for us. Then there is the omnipresent worry about the very survival of their jobs, their teams and even their organisations. To this, are added concerns about prolonged uncertainty, and the inability to separate work and personal life. While some amount of stress is beneficial to performance –a concept called Eustress proposed by Hans Selye, beyond a threshold, it can push individuals into distress. And many leaders find themselves on that brink today. Much has been written about the effects of all this on mental health!  In this context, the idea of restoration and renewal has never been more relevant.

Renewal is to stress what immunity is to corona -or any other virus. It mitigates the negative effect it can have on us. Stress makes demands on our energy and sense of well-being. One must develop and preserve paths to refresh and replenish one’s  capacity to calibrate the harm stress does, preventing a dive into distress. In our recent work-from-home study, ~50 leaders shared their personal approaches to self-renewal in this time of crisis. We supplemented this with our insights from our work with senior leaders over the last 5 years to develop a simple framework to think about renewal practices.  Leaders must embrace these and make them regular practices to make their professional demands personally sustainable for themselves.

Physical renewal

Focus on physical well-being, health and safety accomplished through adequate sleep, exercise, appropriate food and hydration. This is renewal at a most basic level and the first one to get ignored under stress. While one or two of the leaders surveyed mentioned that they missed the opportunity to exercise and play as usual and the benefits of home food, most did not mention this aspect of stress-recovery at all. Physical exercise releases the stress held in the body, it releases endorphins and serotonin (the happy hormones). For this, physical renewal is the building block on which the rest of the superstructure of energy can stand and needs to be the top priority for anyone who wants to run the leadership marathon.

Reflection: Do you feel energetic when you wake up every day? What is your primary fall-back to restore physical energy?

Socio-emotional renewal

This refers to the ability to stay calm, centered, doing things to manage/channel anxiety, anger, sadness and other non-generative emotions.  There are three ways to do this – (a) practices to manage the emotional roller-coaster such as meditation, journaling etc., (b) spending time with family and friends – basically people who energise you, and (c) spending time with nature

As Divya Dhall of Colgate shared, “Building resilience through Mindfulness practice helps me transition through the day from a Super HR to a Super Mom and back again. It provides me inner strength and helps me recover very quickly from anxiety or difficult emotions”.

Nithish Nagori of HDFC feels he has developed more empathy and humility through this lockdown. Another senior banker who has been working at a location away from home said she is planning to quit her job to be with family. For Kartik Padmanabhan, AVP at an Investment Banking firm, the office environment including quick coffee breaks with colleagues are a huge energizer. Jyoti Vaswani of Future Generali feels that watching nature around her has been quite refreshing and thought provoking.

Reflection: When are times you feel calm? What triggers you? What usually helps you feel calm?

Mental renewal

This means focusing on how the mind processes information for better decision-making, bringing the whole brain to bear on problems, staying curious, agile and learning continuously.

For Rituparna Dasgupta of Mindshare, this has been an opportunity to activate the right brain. “I am singing, painting, and indulging in more creative activities. I realize i have an equally dominant right brain as my left”. 

Being aware of what keeps you mentally alert and in good fettle is important. For someone it could be solving an intricate problem and for another it may be reading something new or listening to music. For example,

Raghu, MD at a global consulting firm felt that the travel that goes with his work helps him get into a good mind space. “…am missing the small and big adventures that come with the travel. They are a very central part of what I seek from life and work” he shared.

Reflection: What do you feel curious about? What helps you focus?

Being the best we can requires us to be effective on different levels. Ensuring that you have channels to renew yourself on all three fronts – physical, mental and socio-emotional – will help you manage your energy. When you have energy to spare, it is much easier to be creative, purposeful and lead others in a compelling manner.

Other reading you may find interesting:

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs

The making of a corporate athelete by Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz