Heartstyles blog

Character in crisis: Rethinking wellness in the light of Covid-19


Sandra Bullen – Former Marketing & Communications Director

While the current pandemic has wrought all kinds of turmoil across the globe, it's also inspired acts of courage, compassion and kindness; neighbours taking to their balconies to join in song, veterans going to great lengths (quite literally) to raise funds, and the phenomenon of 'caremongering' to name but a few.

This instinct to pull together and protect those at risk has been just as present in the corporate context. As leaders race to find new ways of supporting their people, wellness has rocketed up the agenda.

As a result, we've seen a proliferation of advice on how organisations can help alleviate some of the strain that comes with living under lockdown. To a large extent, this has involved thinking around the ways existing resources can be delivered to employees while self-isolating.

While these steps are undoubtedly valuable, we'd argue the crisis provides an opportunity to think beyond the status quo and start addressing a missing piece of the wellness puzzle: Character.

Another way to wellness

For a long time, we've been making the argument that wellness programmes should be leveraging the power of personal development tools. After all, the vast majority of wellness outcomes are driven by individuals' behaviours - and those behaviours are determined by character.

Even at the best of times, you can't push people into wellness. It has to be chosen. That's even truer when contact is remote. The question is, how do you help people make better choices?

Defining character

Giving a brief, airtight definition of all that character encompasses isn't easy, but the following comes fairly close:

Our character is the sum of our best intentions and deepest values. When we strengthen our character, we're better able to select behaviours that reflect those intentions and values - even in stressful situations.

This question of stress is important. Acting in a way that embodies our values isn't straightforward - even under normal circumstances. At times of extreme stress - such as most are now experiencing - it becomes much, much harder. As a result, we're increasingly likely to fall back on coping mechanisms.

Exactly what those mechanisms look like depends on the individual and their past, but they share one important thing in common: they are always driven by either pride or fear and always geared toward self-preservation.

This is problematic from a wellness perspective as there is so much more to wellness than self-preservation. As the WHO point out, even the more narrow term 'health' should be understood as meaning:

[...] a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.

With this in mind, we start to see why character is so crucial to wellness. Through strength of character we're able to put our behaviours to the service of higher goals (such as wellness - both our own and that of others). By contrast, coping mechanisms prevent us from orientating around those aims.

Why? What does that look like in practice?

Some examples

John leads a department - a department that he (with some justification) fears could come under particular pressure as a result of the Covid slowdown. Desperate to keep performance high, John starts to fall back on highly competitive and striving behaviours, setting higher targets and demanding that his team outdo all others. Blind to the damage it's doing, John asks more and more of his team, hampering their wellness.

Lydia, meanwhile, has a tendency to respond to uncertainty and stress by turning to approval seeking behaviours. Anxious that her teammates should agree with her decisions, she increasingly creates Zoom meetings to discuss each and every point of their work. To show her commitment, she sends emails well after hours - sacrificing time with her family to do so. As a result, she begins to wear on her team and hurt her connection to those around her.

In both these examples - just two of the endless number we could draw on - there's a pull towards what we call 'below the line' behaviours. These behaviours negatively impact wellness (not to mention business performance) and have a tendency to trickle through teams - and entire organisations. Fortunately, effective behaviours are just as influential...

Leveraging leadership

Our behaviours clearly impact wellness. But so do a lot of things. What makes character worthy of focus for those looking to promote wellness at this time?

At heart, it comes down to the level on influence those behaviours exert. If you have just one leader whose strength of character suffers due to the strains of the current situation, the likelihood is that they'll impact the wellness of every person working with or under them within the organisation. Likewise, if you are able to support a leader in a way that keeps them and their team 'above the line', the effect will be felt far and wide.

Engagement is one of the key hurdles to wellness. The beauty of being exposed to leaders with the strength of character to act from love and humility - even in the face of crisis - is that the benefits are unavoidable. We have no choice but to interact with our leaders, which is precisely what makes them so valuable when they're at their best.

How do you start building character in your organisation?

If you want to incorporate character into your ways of working, there's no time like the present. (In fact, there's never been a time like the present and - hopefully - never will be again). In recognition of the challenges we all face, leaders from across the Heartstyles team are collaborating to create content around the question of character and its role in crisis - with a special focus on all kinds of wellness, including:


To find out more about this content, and the actionable steps you can take to start promoting character watch our 15-min broadcasts on strengthening character and maintaining wellness


Ready to start your own Heartstyles journey? Contact us.