Reverse Culture Shock, Hypervigilance, and Stress Fatigue: What Does 2020 Hold for Our Sense of Togetherness?

This past week I went to a neighbor’s 50th birthday party at a new steak house in town. At the door of the restaurant, I was ushered in by a hostess in a black mask. I was asked several health questions and she proceeded to take my temperature. It was evident that patrons in the restaurant were seated at a social distance and I was led back to a private dining room. Guests were greeted with appetizers and drinks and great friends. It was…amazing…and strange at the same time. I’m sure many of you who have ventured out (with 45% of the workforce still not having announced a return to work date) have felt the same thing. The joy of re-entry, but the realization that things have drastically changed in our collective psyche. I will never take for granted visiting with friends at a public table, not having to cook, and being served a beautiful glass of wine. Still… along with that was an awkwardness of trying to maintain some kind of social distance and reacclimating to the “new standard”.

Much of what I am hearing from clients, colleagues, and friends is the same. There are some real “awakening” moments that each of us has had in the last 90 days. Realizing we can work differently, valuing things (such as bike rides or drive-in movies) that we had somehow lost sight of, being more diligent with how we spend money or coming to terms with our feelings about race and politics. All of those are the silver linings of what we have experienced. However, I also sense some of the undercurrents in our current environment and want to normalize and bring some awareness to some of the difficulties many are experiencing as well.

Feeling afraid, anxious, alone, uncertain, and overwhelmed – these are all words that come up when I ask leaders what their workforce is struggling with. Then pile on top of that the gaps in socioeconomic status, political affiliation, life experiences, science, religion, and core ideology – all of which are becoming more and more exaggerated at this time. Honestly, people seem to be more brittle and more reactive than they ever have been. I’m wondering how many of you our members of your team are feeling the same way. My hope is that some of the concepts presented will help you understand what exactly is going on in the workforce and potentially have a positive impact in reframing it for either yourself or someone else.

Reverse Culture Shock
Recently, I’ve been speaking to various associations about the psychological impact of what we have experienced over the last several months and its effect on the workforce. One concept that is relevant is “Reverse Culture Shock”. Historically speaking, reverse culture shock has been when individuals were deployed or traveling overseas for an extended length of time and then “re-entered” into their home culture. Getting reoriented to what used to be familiar is often a shock. That, essentially, is what has happened to us collectively over the last several months. We’ve emerged from our quarantine status into a world that is so different than when we all withdrew into our homes. Post-pandemic, many people will be staring at a foreign landscape, their circumstances — work, finances, lifestyle — changed beyond recognition.

The Cost of Hypervigilance
To better understand what happened to us during quarantine where, in fact, we were isolated, imagine going back in the tribal world of our ancestors when our very existence hinged on securing a sense of belonging. What happened if a member strayed from their tribe, or got stranded among a group of unknown and potentially dangerous outsiders? At the first sign of isolation, the stranded individual’s sympathetic nervous system would go on alert, triggering fear, and immediate preparation to fight or flee the situation. The body would respond with a surge in hormones such as epinephrine and cortisol, which would course through the body, causing the pupils and airways to dilate and for blood pressure and sugar levels to be elevated and the immune system to kick in. In this sense, our bodies read being disconnected, or even the threat of disconnection from others, as an emergency. It invoked hypervigilance and physical stress on the body that was not actually sustainable over long periods of time.

Over the millennia, this hypervigilance in response to feelings of disconnection or isolation became embedded in our nervous system to produce the anxiety we associate with loneliness. When we feel lonely or disconnected, our bodies still react as if we were lost in the tundra, surrounded by wild animals and members of alien tribes. When loneliness persists, the same stress hormones that surged to provide short-term protection instead begin to produce long term destruction as they increase cardiovascular stress and inflammation throughout the body. In a sense, any time we feel out of synch, alone, and disconnected, it is impacting us on a level physically that we may not even be aware of.

Stress Fatigue
Another relevant concept I’ve been speaking on is “Stress Fatigue”. So many societal changes at once from the pandemic to economic instability to protests for the Black Lives Matter movement can take a toll on our body, mind, and spirit. Without a doubt adjusting to changing working conditions, school upheaval, a lack of socializing and convenience, concern for our fellow man, seeing violent images on TV, having daily disheartening updates on the pandemic, seeing our 401k moving in a negative direction, uncertainty about our leadership at a state or federal government…all of these add stress (therefore increased cortisol) to our lives. And today’s stresses aren’t going away quickly so the stress is sustained longer. Layer on top of that, grief around some of the losses that many of us have experienced whether it be death, jobs, routines, a lack of connection, or security and it becomes even more intense. One thing the research is clear about is that uncertainty is the most troubling for us humans to take. Fatigue is the expected effect of sustained stress, grief, and uncertainty.

Togetherness is a Fundamental Need and Our Only Way Forward
Over thousands of years as humans developed, evolutionary pressure for the value of connection was easy to see – there was strength in numbers. Cooperation and connection made it possible to plan for the future. The division of labor became feasible. Connecting in groups provided a way for tribes to multiply and helped safeguard their survival by extended families sharing the responsibility of parenting and protecting the tribe’s children. Connection also increased the rate of human innovation and creativity by using the group to share in problem-solving. And, maybe most importantly, connectivity gave us emotional knowledge.

We, as humans, have encoded our experiences in stories, music, rituals, and art. We pass this emotional knowledge down generation to generation. This “storytelling” helps us understand who we are. It gives meaning to our struggles, and comfort us when we are suffering or afraid. Our common struggle and the story of survival is what brings us together. So, we can surmise that if we are able to connect in meaningful ways, all of these issues we are continuing to face could be flipped to a positive, right?

Well, here is where we are at…with about 68% of companies saying they will adopt more flexible work from home policies, more technology than ever being deployed, increasing economic disparities, a very polarizing political environment, and research indicating that empathy is actually down 40% since 1980…what does that mean for us as a society?

I truly believe that we as leaders have to understand all of the concepts above and take action. We have to acknowledge that people are struggling on a much greater level than maybe we can even comprehend. We have to realize that the last several months have taken their toll on our workforce. We have to make room for new ways of thinking and operating. We have to have a growth mindset and encourage deep discussions within our companies about what is working well and what isn’t. We have to realize that we are privileged to be in the position that we are in and extend our ears to listen and our hands to help in a meaningful way. We have to emerge from our foxholes and foster that sense of connection, empathy, and healing. We have to lead the way into a new frontier of work, understanding that nothing will be the same, change is good, and that isolation is the opposite of what history and research indicate is the best way forward.