Leadership Priorities: Wellness, Well-Being, or Resilience?

The 21st Century Leader is required to wear many hats, the most critical one being that of the coach of their team. These multiple responsibilities are not necessarily accompanied by an increased salary (or magically more hours in the day) but are deemed leadership essentials given the looming mental crisis. Suddenly, we see an increase in the implementation of employee assistance programs and terms like ‘wellness’, ‘well-being’, and ‘resilience’ have become second language in the corporate environment. However, prioritization of the employee experience is extremely challenging with as many as five generations (each with different perspectives and needs) working side by side in a world that is proving to be more volatile, uncertain, and complex than ever.   

While accelerated adaptation is crucial, leaders risk missing the mark completely if the end-goal is unclear – or if the end-goal is clear but the plan of action to get you there remains ambiguous. The relevant terms ‘wellness’, ‘well-being’, and ‘resilience’ may seem transparent, but do we fully understand what is meant by each, and can we clearly distinguish between them? This distinction may be pivotal to developing clear and effective guidelines to ensure that our workforce remains high-performance-ready and that our leaders don’t burn out in the process.

Positioning resilience (vs. wellness and well-being)

The Oxford Dictionary describes wellness as ‘the state of being healthy, especially when you try to actively achieve this’, and well-being as ‘the state of being healthy, happy, or prosperous; physical, psychological, or moral welfare’. The discrepancy seems to indicate action versus result – where wellness is the everyday pursuit of achieving emotional, physical, and psychological well-being. These ‘acts’ of wellness comprise daily rhythms of key behaviors and cognitive and emotional orientations that drive a baseline relaxed physiological state: a state of calmness, low stress, and high cognitive performance capacity. In this state, your brain functions at its optimum, using less energy to achieve more significant results in the face of any challenge. These so-called ‘neurobehaviors’ enhance brain performance from basic to sophisticated (from brainstem to prefrontal cortex) and include foundational drivers like exercise, nutrition, sleep and mindful meditation; social emotional drivers like belonging, entrustment, and empathy; high performance energy-boosting states like gratitude, enthusiasm, and optimism; and higher order drivers like curiosity, learning, and cognitive flexibility.   

Resilience, on the other hand, is conceptualized as the capacity to cope successfully in the face of stressors or adversity. Successful coping involves both ‘absorption’ (‘bouncing back’ from a challenge) and ‘adaption’ (‘bouncing forward’, wiser for it). Resilience is not grit or tenacity. While determination and perseverance may help you to overcome a challenge, resilience is the inherent capacity of a biological organism to overcome, return to a state of calmness, and – having gained valuable lessons from the experience – perform at a higher level next time a challenge is encountered. From a biological systems perspective, the recovery phase is vital. If you cannot effectively move back to a state of calmness, you risk going into chronic stress and potentially burnout. The baseline relaxed physiological state is also the point at which leaders, teams, and organizations can jump into high-performance mode with elevated problem-solving capabilities and innovative and creative capacities.

Ultimately, resilience represents the foundation on which well-being is built. Resilience is deeply unconscious and therefore we don’t necessarily ‘feel’ it, while a sense of well-being includes elements that can be subjectively observed. Although ‘acts’ of wellness (neurobehaviors) directly impact your resilience capacity, additional factors also play a role. Resilience is described as a multifaceted phenomenon determined by many neurobiological, developmental, and psychosocial factors and a person may be resilient in one area of their life (e.g., physical health) but have lower resilience in another area (e.g., cognitive, problem-solving skills). Mental resilience – the resilience of psychological experience – taps into all areas and comes down to mindset. Mindset also provides the stepping stones from resilience to thriving.   

A mindset that thrives

Resilience and thriving are not the same. Although overall resilience capacity is essential to thriving, thriving is described as an “elevated level of functioning” and does not necessarily include the concept of adversity. In other words, you don’t have to be ‘bouncing back’ from a challenge first before you can thrive. However, without resilience, there will be no sustained thriving. Of course, it is becoming clear that no employee well-being program will suffice without a resilience component, especially if the ultimate leadership goal is towards team and organizational thriving, beyond simply coping.

What are the core tenets of thriving? Yes, they do include the prerequisites for resilience and well-being: prioritizing key daily neurobehaviors. But there is another, deeper layer to cultivating a mindset that thrives. Interestingly, studies on the so-called ‘Blue Zones’, regions in the world thought to have a higher than usual number of people who live much longer than average, indicate that all of the different cultures identified had one thing in common: a sense of purpose and belonging. It is deeply embedded into our DNA that our chances for survival are significantly higher when we function in groups, feel like we belong, share resources, and make meaning together. Although the concepts of meaning and purpose can become sort of conceptually tethered, meaning relates to making sense of the world as it has happened or is happening, where purpose is the aspiration to accomplish something that is ahead of you. Studies show that a sense of purpose makes you more adept at overcoming challenges, predicts greater income, and even makes you more attractive to others.

Our sense of collaboration in groups enables us to make meaning. Then, consciously relating that meaning within the context of a greater purpose enhances our belonging (social safety).  This drives a state of calmness, makes us more resilient, provides a sense of overall well-being (even including financial well-being) and, concomitantly, creates a springboard for thriving. So, where do we start?

Systems connectivity drives great (self-) leadership

Leaders need to stay ahead of the curve by understanding and driving systems awareness within their teams. Everything affects everything in a living system. Key neurobehaviors intrinsically enhance problem-solving and innovation and each one has a unique role to play in the chain of events that lead to resilience, well-being, and high performance. It is also clear that high-performing (thriving) people have an innate unconscious capability to reprioritize the most critical behaviors that will keep them resilient under stressful circumstances, including the necessary mindset shifts that internally motivate behavioral change. The COVID-19 landscape has proven just how dynamic the recipe for resilience can be and data shows how the predictors of resilience have shifted before, during, and after the pandemic.

Transformational leadership leads by example: it drives a company culture of belonging, meaning-making, and shared purpose. Enhancing connection and self-awareness is at the core of this. By mindfully cultivating daily rhythms of behaviors and mental states that continuously move you to a baseline relaxed physiological state, while underpinning each (personal and team) goal within the context of a greater purpose, we will be able to continually adapt to the evolving pressures and build a resilient, deeply connected, and high-performing workforce.

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