Is Resilience All It's Cracked Up To Be?

By Terry Streather | Mental Health

Nov 02

Resilience: Probably becoming one of my least favourite words. Not for what it is, but for how it is understood.

Say the word and images of SAS soldiers charging up mountains and enduring unspeakable hardship spring to mind. Hero's battling and triumphing against insurmountable odds. Grit. Gumption. The right stuff. Anything less is "weakness".

It's ingrained in our culture. During the second world war for example, pilots who could not fly due to poor mental health were labelled "waverers" who "lack moral fibre". The consequences of not "manning up" involved demotion and even dismissal.

In the workplace, showing resilience seems to be prized above almost all else.

"She will go far, doesn't matter what's thrown at her, never grumbles, first one in and the last one to go home..."

Never switching "work mode" off has become the norm, compounded by technological developments and moves to "agile/home or flexible" working.

In this climate of endless restructures and redundancies you could be forgiven for taking on too much, not stopping for breaks or lunch.

It seems that the way to get ahead or keep your job is to go the extra mile, grin and bear it, stiff upper lip and all that blah... because that's what winners do. If I show how what I’m made of it will get better…

But don't kid yourself...coming back day after day for more of the same expecting a different outcome, is not resilience. I think Einstein called it insanity.

It’s all in our biology.

“Resilience is about how you recharge, Not how you endure.” Shawn Achor.

It’s in the recovery that we get stronger.

Homeostasis is a process by which our brain continuously tries to maintain a constant internal environment. When we are overworked or stressed your body responds by spending energy to try and get the balance back-depleting your energy even more.

The best athletes and trainers around the world understand that rest and recovery are essential for elite performance. Doing high intensity workouts all day every day will cause your body to break and injury and illness will surely follow.

Why do we expect our brains to be any different?

"There are so many people fighting for the same position, if I take a holiday it will look bad"

Recently I wrote about “Karoshi”, the Japanese phrase for "work death". In that blog I shared a statistic that 40% of UK workers don't take their annual leave.

The reality is that more work does not equal more success.

 In fact, Project: Time Off, a study from America suggests the opposite. It found people who took holidays were more likely to get pay rises or promotions.

And not taking your leave actually means you are giving yourself a pay cut. Think about it. Your contract says you can have 20 days paid leave in the year… but you don’t take it, therefore work and extra 20 days for free. Hmm…

IF YOU CAN'T TAKE THE HEAT- GET OUT OF THE KITCHEN!"- but should the kitchen be that hot in the first place?

This week the government published “Thriving at Work”, a review into mental health in the workplace.

In it we learn that 300,000 people loose their jobs every year because of their mental health state, and that poor mental health costs the UK economy £99billion. That amount of money is, to my mind at least, totally incomprehensible.

In their introduction, the authors lay out "their vision" that the UK will become global leaders in reducing stigma, improving mental health and productivity. In ten years time they say:

 "employees in all types of employment will have "good work", which contributes positively to their mental health, our society and our economy."

It seems they do not agree that mental health is the new "bad back", and they are not alone.

The best companies understand the benefits of getting this right.

Companies like Huffington Post, TED Talks and Adobe all shut down their office for one whole week, twice a year. That way, everyone HAS TO have a break, and no one feels that they will be missing out!  

It doesn’t have to be that extreme of course, and I’m certainly not suggesting the “Ryanair” approach.

Daimler for example, have brought in a tool to deal with the huge mountains of email that often await staff on their return from holiday.

Before going on leave, staff set up an auto-responder that thanks the sender for their message, tells them they are away and will be returning on X date and contact details of a colleague if it’s urgent.

IT THEN DELETES THE EMAIL. Nice. Inbox zero…

"I GET KNOCKED DOWN, BUT I GET UP AGAIN!" But how?

The more mental effort we expend, the more recovery time we need. And I don't just mean shutting down the laptop and laying on the couch.

Just resting does not equal recovery.

To really maximise our recovery and therefore our resilience, we need to have a sense of perspective. Where do these stresses fit into the bigger picture?

We are more than just the job we do. When we only focus on prioritise one aspect (work), we compromise our ability to be more resilient by depriving ourselves of what we need to thrive.

Do you know what brings you energy in your life? What gives you your sense of balance? Because if we can identify and do more of that we will experience a deeper level of recovery which will enable us to deploy greater resilience.

Reader participation time:

I want you to think about how satisfied you are with your current circumstances? The amount of time you spend at work? Your income relative to outgoing? Fun time? Family time? How often you see friends and family?

To help with this exercise, download this template and print it off (it’s free and I don’t even want your email address).

1.      On a scale of 1 to 10 (one being the least satisfied and 10 being the most) rate your current level of satisfaction with the aspects of life. Then join the dots for a very visual representation of where you are at.

2.      Now turn the sheet over and fill in the back.

3.      Identify one axis you are most unhappy with, and come up with a way to move the score up just one point. Taking on the whole sheet at once and trying to move from a 3 to a 10 is unrealistic and will probably demoralise you.

So, to sum this all up then…

In a desperate attempt to show how strong we are, we often break ourselves. “Wellbeing” is so much more than whether your employer has a cycle to work scheme or “Fruit Friday”.

Understanding that people are not just employees, but fathers, wives, dance instructors, carers, devoted friends and more, with mental ill health conditions or not, would be a great start.

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About the Author

Terry is Director and Head of Training at Oakwood. He helps clients promote a proactive, rather than reactive approach to both personal safety and the positive mental health of their staff. He has over 12 years teaching experience in these areas, and advises organisations in the development of appropriate risk assessment and policy.