Empathy & Resilience in the Wake of the Coronavirus Pandemic

Sarah B. Brooks
Thinking Design
Published in
7 min readApr 10, 2020


In recent days, I’ve heard many moving stories of the ways in which people are calling upon their inner resources of resilience and creativity to adapt to the COVID-19 world. One friend had to downsize her company, one made unilateral decisions to keep people on, one found self-sacrificing ways to keep 65 percent of her staff, taking heat from higher ups who questioned the bottom line impact of “people first” decision making. Leaders are being asked to make tough calls under stressful circumstances, and having to live with those “best thing I could do given the information I had at the time” moments. Those keep coming and changing at a head spinning pace.

My own team is alternately anxious, distracted, focused, and restless at home (and it’s only week two of what will be a long haul). I see this across the organization where I work, and across my network at large. We are concerned for those in our families and communities who have lost their jobs or are on the medical and healthcare frontlines.

For those working at home, many may be simultaneously managing homeschooling efforts, negotiating college-aged kids recently returned home, taking care of elderly parents, suffering from or navigating support for those with already compromised immune systems or mental health issues. An invaluable resource, the Crisis Text Line, is available 24/7 if needed — text HOME to 741741 to get connected with a crisis counselor (85258 if you’re in the UK, 741741 or 686868 if you’re in Canada).

Although it may not be our first instinct, we have to attend to ourselves in order to be there for our loved ones and those who rely upon us. When the greater culture directive is “stay home,” for do-gooders who wish they could be “out there, helping more” this is especially counter-intuitive. The truth is, social distancing is the BEST thing we can do right now. The only way we can protect everyone, in particular the already overtaxed medical community, is by limiting contact. It’s not easy. We’re dealing with the unfamiliar, the uncomfortable, sometimes even feeling like we’re going against our basic natures, which requires us to build capacities each of us has, but may not have been asked to access until recently. In this article, I’m going to explore how you can help yourself and your team by using your empathy to cultivate resilience in this unprecedented time.

Empathy first for remote and distributed cultures

At IBM we diligently practice empathy for ourselves, our co-workers and our clients. It is a foundational principle of our global design community of 2,500+ designers, and goes a long way toward fostering trust between people and cohesion within teams. It looks like giving people the benefit of the doubt, or assuming positive intent; taking the time to get to know people on a human level, and truly caring about each other’s well-being. These things take time and build a culture where people feel that they can be their whole selves. That’s proving particularly relevant right now when pets, spouses, significant others, and kids are making appearances in our work meetings happening from home.

Check out How to Maintain a Human-Centered Focus in a Fully Remote World, a post by IBM’s Enterprise Design Thinking team that includes insightful tips for building effective remote and distributed cultures during these mandatory self-isolating times. And if you want a structured learning experience about how to utilize this empathy-first approach in your work, we’ve open-sourced a learning curriculum for Enterprise Design Thinking badging.

To support teams that find themselves suddenly forced into a new way of working, IBM is providing free access to all of their online Enterprise Design Thinking activities and courses.

In recent years, neuroscience has debunked the pessimistic view that human nature is innately selfish with mapping/imaging data to prove that the human brain is wired for empathy. Social Emotional Learning (SEL) studies promote empathy as a strength, and an asset for surviving and thriving in any environment. Social psychology studies show that people who are empathetic have stronger communication skills, which makes them more equipped to manage challenges and overcome difficult situations, underscoring the link between empathy and resilience.

Continual adaptation

Resilience is often defined as the ability to keep going in the face of adversity, to adapt well to change. C.S. “Buzz” Holling was a Canadian ecologist who developed and taught a model of adaptive change in the 1990s that he called the adaptive cycle as a way to understand ecological, biological, social, and biophysical systems that change. He depicted it as a loop that shows the process of creation in destruction and destruction in creation that is part of the life cycles of everything on the planet. To take an example: A forest fire may destroy trees and animals, as it also clears and makes way for a more vibrant, healthier forest where new types of plants and animals can flourish in the fire’s wake.

Interview with Buzz Holling in Alliance magazine. Image credit from his model.

Ever notice how there’s a spectacular spring wildflower bloom in the season following the fall devastation of raging wildfires?

Image credit Renata Harris.

It’s a bit of a paradox, but you can kind of map it to the way we often refer to the necessity of failure to learn and grow. Essentially, life is an ever-shifting dynamic between stability, disruption and re-configuration.

Decelerating for resilience

In this moment of great disruption are the seeds of re-configuration. How exactly we reconfigure our systems and rhythms of daily life into a new normal once we’re through the thick of this first wave of the pandemic is up to us to envision and design. Emotional intelligence, such as empathy, feels like a powerful well to draw upon for inspiration.

We are living in forced deceleration from the pace at which we were moving through the physical world. In slowing down, there is an opportunity to employ the ancient social technology of meditation. Meditation helps us to connect more deeply with ourselves as the prerequisite for connecting more deeply with others. It can help us take a pause rather than be fueled by our anxieties and uncertainties or behave reactively. Perhaps you can use a few minutes of time you might have previously spent commuting to explore this practice. There are many on-ramps to meditation, including talks given by Thich Nhat Hanh, Lions Roar Journal, the mindfulness resources of Michael Yellow Bird, and Black Zen’s guide to wellness, as well as the Headspace Meditation app.

The Headspace Meditation app teaches meditation and mindfulness skills in just a few minutes a day.

What might this look like day-to-day?

During these past few weeks, examples of people spontaneously expressing their caring for others and desire to support can be found all over the place; in public gestures like YoChef Jose Andrés’ tireless efforts through World Central Kitchen. And in enterprises on Zoom and WebEx conferences and Slack channels, where people are setting up virtual lunch hours, happy hours, dance parties, and impromptu check-ins to stand in for those moments of spontaneous casual connection we are missing. As we get to know people’s homes, families and pets, I’m hearing many people comment on how much they are appreciating the new level of connectedness our physical separation is bringing.

With a boost to our own inner resources, perhaps you can create personal structure that is supportive of your mental, emotional, and physical health. As the wave of time spent looking at screens crests right now for so many of us being on video all day, why not experiment with a few ways to pace yourself?


We’ve been complaining about the inefficiencies of meetings forever. Here’s an idea: cut back hour-long meetings to 45 minutes, and allow 15 minutes for a stretch, a lap around the apartment, a cat video.


Are you somewhere where you can get outside while maintaining safe social distancing guidelines? Remember when we learned about Forest bathing? Nature is healing! Even watching nature on a computer can shift your mindset. Take a break from a screen and listen to something like YoYo Ma posting his #songsofcomfort, or comedy podcasts. Go back to your first love: join illustrator Wendy MacNaughton’s 10am PST daily drawing classes on Instagram live.

Adapting management style

Buzz Holling’s observations on adaptive systems are super handy. The leaders who’ve been shining through this crisis acknowledge the toll this is taking on everyone around them. Adjusting expectations is key; understanding that people may perform differently than they were before there was a global pandemic is realistic. Managers can be a source of reassurance to their teams by staying up-to-date on any new or amended policies an organization has implemented to help people juggle their personal and professional responsibilities while working from home.

Springing back

The thing I’m trying to do the most during this time is remember to go easier. On myself, my husband, my family, my colleagues, my community. Being human and seeing everyone else as humans doing our best under really challenging circumstances, I’m finding, is helping make EVERYTHING feel more, well, humane. I’ve begun to see this as a welcome reminder and an opportunity to practice basic kindness. Resilience is also defined as the ability to recover from a crisis. I believe we can emerge from this with deeper awareness of ourselves, each other, the world, and our capacities to spring back. When we greet our post-Corona lives, they may not resemble what came before, but perhaps we may be better versions of the people living them.

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Sarah B. Brooks
Thinking Design

Service Designer. Practical Futurist. Inner World Explorer. IBM Distinguished Designer, Strategic Foresight. @TheRSAOrg Fellow. Opinions my own.