We become human when disaster knocks to our doors and demands attention. What happens when we close the door and we feel safe again? And what can this mean to the work-force once they return to full action?
As Italian who has been living abroad for over 20 years, I’ve been viscerally touched by how the first moments of panic in the population have given space to new forms of human response. From people singing together on balconies, to countless neighbours helping each other, volunteers visiting houses of people over 65, or donating grocery shopping for the ones who cannot afford it. Pre-pandemic feelings of loyalty, unity, kindness, hope, that were repressed have surfaced all around, driven by a rediscovered sense of community and tribe-ism.
The current situation has obvious similarities to the human response to natural disasters, which has been researched extensively for decades. Take the work of sociologist, Charles Fritz. After looking at disaster sites and interviewed over 9,000 survivors, he noticed that “calamities didn’t lead to anarchy and social breakdown. People caught in the eye of the storm became much more likely to help each other and their communities.”
Emile Durkheim, French sociologist considered as a principal architect of modern social science, was the first to notice a counter-intuitive fact based on his research at the end of the last century. The positive impact that even war can have on mental health. Every time France went to war, its psychiatric hospitals became less crowded. The same effect was later observed in other contexts like civil-war in Spain, Algeria, Lebanon, and Northern Ireland. Suicide also becomes much rarer during conflicts. The Irish psychologist H.A. Lyons wrote in the Journal of Psychosomatic Research in 1979, that his findings “suggest that people will feel better psychologically if they have more involvement with their community.”
That’s because disaster simplifies things and return people to a more natural way of living, to our true essence as human beings. During hardship, we recognize how our survival depends on cooperating with others. Studies confirm that stunningly it takes at least 25,000 years for a species to genetically adapt to a new environment. As a result, even though we live in industrialized and technologically complex societies, we’re deeply hard-wired to live in tribes.
Therefore, even though individualism, competition and material wealth has allowed us to lead more comfortable lives, our nature craves the kind of communities in which our ancestors lived. The expensive bill that we have been paying for this mismatch was clear even before the pandemic: pathological loneliness, stress, and depression are afflicting western societies marking them by the highest levels of mental illness in the history of humanity.
Our newly found vulnerability is simply reconnecting us with our true essence. Leading us to rediscover the importance of social cohesiveness and of being part of something bigger than ourselves.
In this moment in history, we have the unique opportunity to reassess what is at the core of human potential and how can we tap into it. Despite competition and individualism being the cultural norms, it is becoming clearer and clearer that our innate nature requires more to thrive and be happy.
We should be cautious of is the moment of return. What we learn from history is that as we return to the “pre-crisis society”, solidarity disappears and usual hierarchies are reinstalled, living people disconcerted and anguished. Even though leaders across the world are currently using statements as “we are all in this together”, leveraging on the powerful sense of belonging, of a condition that requires us all to cooperate to survive. We could easily forget everything as we close the door behind and feel safe again.
In his book Tribe, Sebastian Junger, talks about several examples of how former tribe prisoners experience a sense of confusion and desolation as they are freed and have no interest in rejoining their original families. In fact, European colonists often left their colonies behind and went back to the systems that kept them “captive” as deeply missing the tribal lifestyle, the sense of freedom and support that it’s typical of a communal living.
Several other studies have shown that a lack of social support doubles the risk of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). Even with military veterans, studies have unveiled that it’s not just war itself that scars many soldiers. More often, it’s their experience of normal life to blame.
As a result, we now recognise that communities come together and forget their differences in trying times as people are often more purposeful as they revive social bonds. But that doesn’t last once peace is restored. Individualism replaces solidarity, and many suffer the effects of loneliness and isolation.
The invisible complications are not within the hardship but what comes after it. The going back to “normality”, the impact of the lost connection from people, from the sense of working towards a purposeful mission, of being visible and needed, it’s what is truly damaging.
The exacerbation of the already existing pre-pandemic workplace disorders – disengagement, mental health issues, presenteeism, absenteeism, high turnover – is easily predictable.
Even though, this global pandemic has forced us all to halt and realise the solidarity deficit we have been living in and the impact that the overly celebrated individualistic nature that is having on our well being, it easy to go backward.
As some country’s restrictions are gradually being lifted, we are already witnessing the first signals of how we swiftly tend to go back to pre-pandemic habits. Like a pulled rubber band that goes back into position. A position where we forget the impact that our behaviours have on others. A position where we become quickly individualistic again, where we infuse energy into conspiracy theories and we-against-them thoughts are predominant. Where we self-isolate once more. This time in a self-imposed quarantine of which we are not even aware of belonging to.
Tragedy and hardship bring people together in a way modern society and organisations cannot. As people go back to work, they will find themselves in situations where individualism will mostly prevail again. Where competition is the norm and there won’t be that sense of togetherness and slower pace recently rediscovered. It’s our responsibility to recognize in advance what impact this can have on mental health, engagement of the work-force and be prepared to redesign the existing models.
Models where personal growth, success, development cannot be isolated, vacuumed into a sealed bag as we are ultimately all part of a hyper-connected system. I believe there is nothing wrong about individualism if done as a form of self-expression to reach personal freedom. However, it should be clearer that there is no point in developing ourselves in silos. Individualism needs to be redefined from materialist individualism to true fulfilment of human potential.
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Building trust and resilience depends on our ability to connect, the individual to the tribe. The single employee to the organization. The very local to the global. To make people feel they are essential. Essential to the accomplishment of a shared mission. As when we feel essential we are unstoppable.
Modern companies and society have made us feel like we are easily replaceable. The one thing I hope this pandemic will do; it’s putting the focus back where it belongs.
Introducing measures that not only address individual mental health but offers a proactive approach to social well being – an element intrinsic in our human nature and that this pandemic is showing us necessary to thrive.
The “me” needs the “we” to thrive. The individual is no king and if there is one thing that you can do to future-proof your business is to recognize the importance of promoting ideologies that emphasize the collective dimension, find ways of creating a sense of belonging and social well being.
Solidarity and the power of a common purpose, have been seen as holding progress back, while in fact, they could be at the basis of unleashing the true essence of human potential.