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What we can learn from “pandemic thrivers”

April 14, 2021 - 7 min read
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What the data say — what helped pandemic thrivers thrive?

Why does it matter? Thrivers hold clues to navigating uncertainty

When I think about who I know that actually thrived during the pandemic, only my 3-year-old comes to mind. He got a bounce house for the backyard and mom and dad have been around a lot more - big boosts to daily life for him. For most of the rest of us, the past year did not seem to set us up well for thriving emotionally, physically, or socially.

But, as it turns out, the youngest among us are not the only ones who thrived through the most challenging time of recent history. 

In fact, a small percentage of the employee population fared better than most in their ability to preserve mental well-being through the pandemic. We call them “pandemic thrivers.” 

Who are these thrivers? Since the pandemic began, we have surveyed BetterUp members about their well-being in a pulse format. This means on average we have data on each person at a cadence of about once per month. Some individuals have reported that their general well-being is doing well, or very well, every single time we’ve asked. In other words, on any given occasion in the past year, these individuals were thriving from a well-being standpoint. Notably, there is no reason to inflate or veil one’s reply to this question because responses are anonymous and voluntary. 

This subgroup of thrivers amid a population that was more often struggling is extremely interesting. What about them is different from the rest of us? What skills, mindsets, or traits do they have that have allowed them to consistently experience high well-being during this objectively extremely difficult time?

What the data say — what helped pandemic thrivers thrive?

It turns out that pandemic thrivers are unique in 5 primary ways. 

  • Optimism. Thrivers were 19% more optimistic than others and held a more positive outlook for the future. 
  • Coaching others. Thrivers were 17% stronger in the skills needed to help others find their way, facilitate insight, and encourage enthusiasm. 
  • Strategic planning and forecasting for the future. Thrivers were 16% better able to envision desired future states and proactively work toward them. 
  • Growth mindset. Thrivers were 16% more able to see themselves as able to learn, adapt, and grow under changing circumstances.
  • Self-awareness. Thrivers were 12% higher in awareness of their own behavior and attitudes. 


Why does it matter? Thrivers hold clues to navigating uncertainty

Notably, three of the five differentiators are mindsets: Optimism, growth mindset, and self-awareness. The first two — optimism and growth mindset — suggest that pandemic thrivers not only saw hope for the future, but approached the challenges that arose with a sense of opportunity for growth and learning. 

Mindset and perspective are so powerful. The importance of mindset in how we experience life is undeniable. Combine these mindsets with high self-awareness and a person is going to be more likely to notice if  they start heading into a dark mental space and course-correct faster. Notably, optimism is also one of the top drivers of resilience

Also, being good at coaching behaviors like encouraging and empowering others and sense-making can help create a more positive and productive team climate — this skill benefits the individual and everyone else in that team. Knowing how to coach others effectively may also help us find a more productive inner dialog for ourselves as it reorients us from complaint to guidance. 

Finally, pandemic thrivers were strong in strategic planning, which reflects the ability to envision different future realities, identify potential blockers and contingencies, and work towards those goals. In a time when we faced so much uncertainty, being able to chart a course through the fog appears to have been uniquely helpful. Having plan B (and C and D) in mind can bring a sense of confidence and security both to self and others. 

Taking a step back, the profile of the pandemic thriver appears to be a pragmatic optimist. They were high in protective mindsets —  reflecting a positivity toward the future and toward challenges — but they were also distinctly strong in their ability to think to the future and help their teams work toward specific personal and professional goals. In other words, they were optimistic, but they did more than just hope — they made the future come to life. They made plans, they coached, and they didn’t lose themselves in an altered reality. 

The data suggest that pandemic thrivers did not discount the magnitude and gravity of the challenges through this last year. They recognized the challenges and created concrete action plans toward an envisioned future. But, they weren’t just tactical either. They retained an unshakable belief in the ability to overcome obstacles and reach success. This pragmatic optimism of the pandemic thrivers paid off — and in a very important way: it protected their mental well-being over a long, difficult time. New call-to-action

Published April 14, 2021

Erin Eatough, PhD

Sr. Insights Manager

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