Check in Regularly with Your Friends and Family

Dr. Jeanne Hurlbert: “Check in regularly with your friends and family”

Check in regularly with your friends and family. Don’t rely only on social media to stay connected with people. Reach out to friends, family, and neighbors by phone or video conferencing. Laugh with them, tell jokes, recount good times together. And don’t be afraid to ask them how they’re really doing. Share struggles or challenges that you may have encountered so that they won’t be afraid to share with you. Remind them that you’re here for them if they need you. This is how we can provide the expressive support that helps us avoid depressed mood.

Written by Ben Ari, Thrive Global


As a part of my series about the things we can do to remain hopeful and support each other during anxious times, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Jeanne Hurlbert. Jeanne is a sociologist who uses surveys to “read minds,” gathering unseen, unspoken data that companies need to optimize growth. An expert in survey research, her Team Touchpoints™ program helps businesses see behind the curtain of employee productivity, identify and resolve stressors for employees, and recognize opportunities to improve employee retention and boost the bottom line — even in challenging times.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?

Like most entrepreneurs, my path includes unexpected twists and turns. When I earned my PhD over 30 years ago, I anticipated spending my entire career in academia. I served as Professor of Sociology at Louisiana State University (LSU) for many years, teaching social science and survey methods to sociology and marketing students. I also ran a survey lab at LSU, where I fell in love with showing businesses how to get the data they really need — because typically, what they think they need to know isn’t what they really need to know. That’s ultimately why I moved out of academia to work with businesses full time. I’m privileged to wake up every morning excited to work with our clients, who are amazing people.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

Many, many books have proved impactful and I find it difficult to choose just one. But Willie Morris’ North Toward Home stands out in my memory. Early in my college career, I read Morris’ beautifully written account of growing up in the South of the 1950s and 1960s. Although I grew up in a small, wonderfully warm town in North Carolina, I don’t think I really had a consciousness of being Southern until I read that book. Through that realization, I recognized the role that place, with its attendant norms and structures, exerts on the way that we think and behave. That recognition played a pivotal role in my decision to become a sociologist.

Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. From your perspective can you help our readers to see the “Light at the End of the Tunnel”? Can you share your “5 Reasons To Be Hopeful During this Corona Crisis”? If you can, please share a story or example for each.

Anxiety arises for many of us at times like this and, as you note, anxiety can produce fear. We see uncertainty, anxiety, and fear in almost every disaster. But we don’t typically see widespread isolation and loneliness; in fact, as people band together to support recovery from a natural disaster, we typically see just the opposite, with individuals providing social support to disaster victims. That support can be instrumental — help getting things done — or expressive — the emotional aid that helps us cope with stress. Both types of support play a critical role in disaster recovery. One of the unique aspects of the Corona Crisis is that most of us find it much more difficult to reach out to others to get the support we need. That fact not only can create feelings of loneliness but also can affect our health.

But there are ways to maintain our connections, draw support from those ties, and even strengthen them during this challenging time. I find hope in 5 corollaries of that fact.

Our Social Connections Hold Immense Power — When I served on faculty at LSU, my colleagues and I studied another “Black Swan Event,” Hurricane Katrina. We collected data from New Orleans residents before and after the storm. I also served on the Inter-organizational Performance Evaluation Task Force (IPET) for the US Army Corps of Engineers, on one of ten teams that documented the scope and effects of the disaster. I saw New Orleans desolate, empty, and partially destroyed. I remember walking down Canal Street one morning trying to find someplace to buy a Diet Coke. There was none. But there was hope: hope that never died, hope that New Orleans would again become the wonderful, funky, vibrant city that we knew and loved.

Our research documented a key part of how New Orleans came back, by demonstrating the role that individuals’ social networks — not social media but our connections to one another in the “real world” — played in providing the social support that got them through. And what we learned can help us all get through the Corona Crisis.

Before Katrina hit, we surveyed New Orleans residents to predict what would happen if “the big one,” the long-predicted strong hurricane, hit the city. The data that we collected went to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to aid their planning. We re-interviewed many of those same individuals after Katrina, which provided a unique opportunity to compare individuals’ social networks, their social support, and their mental health before and after the event.

To assess mental health, we used a seven-item index of depressed mood. Although it does not tap clinical depression, it measures an emotional state and correlates highly with an often-used measure of clinical depression. It asks how many days in the last week individuals have experienced each of seven symptoms:

  • Felt they couldn’t get going
  • Felt sad
  • Had trouble sleeping
  • Felt everything was an effort
  • Felt they couldn’t shake the blues
  • Felt lonely
  • Had trouble focusing on a task

Think about those seven things for a minute. If you experience one or more of those symptoms frequently, you’re suffering. Your ability to function, to perform the daily tasks that have suddenly become complex, will be impaired.

Early in the Corona Crisis, a Baylor College of Medicine physician said that he feared the mental health effects of this crisis would equal the physical health effects. Our findings from Katrina suggested that he would be correct: Eighteen months post-Katrina, depressed mood still stood at twice its pre-Katrina levels.

That wasn’t true across the board, though; people with better social support did significantly better. Nearly half — 49% — of people who said they had enough people to help them only “some” of the time reported a high level of depressed mood, but that percentage fell to 23% among those who said they had enough people to help them “most” of the time and to 19% among those who said they had enough people to help them “all of the time.”

Here’s what that means for us as we navigate the Corona Crisis: It’s critically important to remain engaged and connected, to do everything you can to get the support you need and to provide support to others. That’s how you move most effectively toward the “light at the end of the tunnel.”

The Mental Health Effects of the Pandemic Are Dramatic, But We Can Help Mitigate Them — In working with companies to help them support their teams through the Corona Crisis, we’ve used some of the same measures that we used after Katrina to “take the temperature” of teams. We’ve seen the stressors clearly: Nearly one-third of our respondents are experiencing work stress, 70% struggle to meet both work and personal responsibilities, 41% feel isolated from friends and family, and 39% wish they enjoyed a stronger connection to their coworkers.

Not surprisingly, that stress is manifesting itself in depressed mood. More than 40% of the employees we surveyed had trouble sleeping three or more days in the week preceding the survey; over one-fourth had trouble focusing three or more days; and nearly one in five (18%) reported feeling they couldn’t get going, feeling sad, and feeling lonely, respectively, at least three days in the week preceding the survey. Research has shown that these symptoms can result in worse physical health and decreased productivity.

But as our Katrina research shows, there are ways to combat these effects. Three types of interventions prove particularly effective:

  1. Providing online counseling to individuals who need it, to help them cope with stress more effectively,
  2. Helping individuals to access the social support that has been demonstrated to reduce levels of depressed mood, and
  3. Identifying structural changes — such as changes in work schedules and access to resources that reduce competing demands — to reduce employees’ stress.

One of the things that gives me hope right now is that I see companies and organizations making herculean efforts to provide these supports.

We Can Rebuild Our Social Networks — In recent decades, sociologists have documented a decline in close social connections — strong ties. That trend carries important implications because our strong ties to close friends and relatives tend to provide the emotional support that plays such a vital role in helping us cope with stress. One of the ironic consequences of the Corona Crisis is that it offers us an opportunity to reverse that trend by renewing our connections not only to our families and friends but also to our coworkers, our customers, and our neighbors — even when we’re physically distant.

Social gathering via Facetime on phone

We’re Finding Ways to Connect — Interestingly, the very technologies that researchers often blame for our decline in close ties — such as social media, cell phones, and the internet — have now become the tools with which to revitalize our close personal connections. Since March, I’ve participated in a weekly family call that brings together cousins from around the country. We’ve sung “Happy Birthday,” kept up with each other’s children, and shared much laughter. Although we’ve always felt close to one another, it took a crisis for us to become deliberate about coming together. That’s an example of how we can harness the power of technology to strengthen our connections to each other. Making the effort to connect with friends, family, coworkers, and neighbors regularly can do much to keep us supported and healthy.

Rebuilding Our Personal Connections Can Change Our Society — Strengthening our connections to one another can not only make us healthier but also make our society healthier. Much has been written in recent years about the decline of social capital, the network of relationships that binds us together. Social capital makes our institutions and our very society possible. If we rebuild our social connections on a widespread basis, we can reverse that trend, to replenish our supply of social capital and regenerate the trust that has declined so precipitously over the last decades. Achieving that transformation doesn’t require herculean effort or rare genius. It just requires us to return our focus to the most basic element of our society, our connections to one another.

From your experience or research what are five steps that each of us can take to effectively offer support to those around us who are feeling anxious? Can you explain?

Check in regularly with your friends and family. Don’t rely only on social media to stay connected with people. Reach out to friends, family, and neighbors by phone or video conferencing. Laugh with them, tell jokes, recount good times together. And don’t be afraid to ask them how they’re really doing. Share struggles or challenges that you may have encountered so that they won’t be afraid to share with you. Remind them that you’re here for them if they need you. This is how we can provide the expressive support that helps us avoid depressed mood.

Keep in close touch with coworkers, clients, and strategic partners. Here, too, phone and video play important roles — don’t just rely on project management systems or Slack. Stay as connected as you can to your coworkers. Ask them about any challenges they may have with work or projects and provide any help that you can. This is how you offer the instrumental support that reduces stress by helping them get things done. And here’s a bonus: Our research shows that individuals who count coworkers among their important social connections enjoy higher job satisfaction. Reach out to strategic partners to see how you can support them in surmounting challenges and where you might use synergies to create new opportunities. Talk with your clients to see how you might be able to support them. Keeping all of these relationships strong can help us all emerge well on the other side of the Corona Crisis.

Listen deeply. Unfortunately, listening — truly listening — has become increasingly rare in our society. Provide the gift of listening to friends, family, coworkers, neighbors, and others with whom you interact. Looking for opportunities to help others? Listening to them will show you if they need support, whether it’s help getting things done or greater emotional connection.

Watch for signs of trouble. Remember those seven symptoms of depressed mood that we listed above:

  • Feeling as if you can’t get going
  • Feeling sad
  • Having trouble sleeping
  • Feeling everything is an effort
  • Feeling you can’t shake the blues
  • Feeling lonely
  • Having trouble focusing on a task

As you check in on people and listen to their stories, watch for signs that they might be struggling with one or more of these seven symptoms. Remember, too, that these symptoms may not abate quickly: Eighteen months post-Katrina, this depressed mood index still stood at twice its pre-Katrina levels.

Offer to help. A friend of mine who serves as clinical director of a tele-mental health company says often that “when the world is darkest, we shine the brightest.” Think of people who might need help getting groceries, doing yard work, or who might struggle with isolation right now. Make concrete offers of help and make it easy for them to accept. Even if they don’t accept, the offer itself serves as a form of support.

What are the best resources you would suggest to a person who is feeling anxious?

Recognize and acknowledge anxious feelings and practice being tolerant of uncertainty. If anxious feelings persist, consider accessing online counseling. Limit media and social media; set time limits for the amount of media you consume each day and watch your reactions to what you are watching or reading. If news causes you to feel anxious, consider consulting one reliable news source once or twice a day. Pursue your hobbies or begin new ones. If you have a spiritual practice, focus on it. Spend time in nature as often as possible. Practice self-care through such things as deep breathing, meditation, and ensuring that you eat and sleep well.

Start or maintain daily physical activity through such things as online workouts or yoga, biking, or walking. When I stopped going to the gym a few months ago, I began biking again; I not only enjoy the activity but also look forward to waving to many of my neighbors out walking or biking each morning. If you have pets, enjoy spending time with them.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?

“I define connection as the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship.” 
― Brené Brown

Brené Brown reminds us in many ways of the importance of connection (and she wears really cool cowboy boots). I grew up nurtured by the kind of community she describes, in a small farming community in northeastern North Carolina. I remain connected to a number of people whom I have known since childhood, relationships that I treasure. My father, who served as a banker in the community, knew virtually everyone in the county. I enjoy vivid memories of him greeting customers in the bank, talking with them, and really listening to them. Deeply, with interest. From the time I was five, he taught me to do three things when I met someone: shake his or her hand (“firm handshake, Jeanne — no limp dishrags”), look them in the eye, and listen carefully to everything they said. I’ve carried that lesson with me because, if you can do those three things, you can make a meaningful connection with almost anyone.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Sometimes the most powerful movements emerge from the simplest principles. If I were to begin a movement, it would demonstrate the immense power of our connections to one another — power that can heal wounds, promote resilience, and multiply our impact. That movement would focus on rebuilding our connections to one another, rekindling the trust that binds us together, and through that, reweaving the social fabric of our society. A movement like that could prove transformative at every level.

The power of connection is what gives me hope right now because in the end, I think maybe we find the “light at the end of the tunnel” by looking in someone else’s eyes.

What is the best way our readers can follow you online?

Connect on LinkedIn or Facebook.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!

Contact us, to let us help you navigate through this unique time.

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