Five ways to boost your resilience

In our always-on work culture, resilience is an essential part of our armoury, as Liz Loxton explains

Resilience has been defined as a capacity to bounce back and recover quickly from difficulties or setbacks – but, in our always-on, always-connected culture, demanding conditions are a near-constant. So, resilience has evolved from a quality that might, for instance, have once marked you out as a person with leadership potential to something closer to a skill set that all of us need to cultivate and draw on.

“Resilience is important,” says Annie Slowgrove, workplace coach and MD of Fearless Engagement, “because it enables us to keep on track until we reach our goals, allows us to deal with difficult situations, and helps us grow and develop by encouraging us to look at the positives and to manage stress.”

It is fortunate then, that resilience has become a focus of neuroscientific research amounting to thousands of studies over five decades, research that confirms the notion that it can be learned and developed. Fortunate, too, that, although building stores of resilience can help us deal with workplace stress more effectively, not all forms of stress are bad news. In fact, a degree of stress can actually help us increase our resilience.

The stress response – or fight-or-flight sensation – that challenging events or conditions generate is, of course, an inheritance from much earlier societies, as John Ratey, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, reminds us.

“There is,” he explains in Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, “an ever-widening gap between the evolution of our biology and our society. We don’t have to run from lions, but we’re stuck with the instinct.”

 Although building stores of resilience can help us deal with workplace stress more effectively, not all forms of stress are bad news 

Continual stress can result in a chronically stressed state, whereby the brain locks into repeated patterns marked by pessimism, fear and retreat. However, a degree of stress builds up our capacity to cope with challenging events or conditions, a phenomenon referred to as stress inoculation.

“What’s gotten lost amid all the advice about how to reduce the stress of modern life is that challenges are what allow us to strive and grow and learn. The parallel on the cellular level is that stress sparks brain growth.

“Assuming that the stress is not too severe and the neurons are given time to recover, the connections become stronger and our mental machinery works better,” Ratey writes.

So, how can we build our inner reserves of resilience?

Divide and conquer

Since repeatedly hitting personal targets ups our resilience, getting things done is of primary importance. Productivity and personal effectiveness experts agree that giving structure to our days by compartmentalising tasks and scheduling blocks of time to address different types of work activity – emails, project or strategy work – is the way forward.

According to research from the American Psychological Association, switching from one task to another can reduce productivity by as much as 40%, as it can take considerable time to refocus ourselves on the task in hand. It follows that minimising those switches from one type of work task to another boosts productivity – a sure-fire way of controlling that key work stressor of not getting enough done.

Take breaks

In busy times, keeping our heads down and soldiering on is a common response. But research has shown that the intervals of time over which we can count on strong energy levels mental clarity are limited.

Most people are familiar with the notion that each day will be dominated by the cycle of sleeping and waking. However, within our waking hours, we typically operate in response to shorter ultradian rhythms and experience around 90 minutes of activity followed by a short period when we need to rest, talk to a colleague or freewheel a little.

Ignoring the cycle can lead to burnout and reduced effectiveness, while paying attention to it and focusing our efforts into those 90-minute periods helps us maintain energy and clarity throughout the day.

Build a support network

The links between social isolation and increased risks of poor mental and physical health are well established, as are the reverse: strong social networks both within and outside the workplace help us to shore up our defences.

Friends, colleagues and managers can be a great source of support, providing us with sounding boards and much-needed alternative perspectives on difficult situations or tasks. When workloads increase or when conflicts emerge, these resources can prove invaluable.

It is worth stating that our support networks are best established before times become difficult. Don’t forget that the ACT’s mentoring programme, MentorMe, can provide a sympathetic and understanding guide to listen and help members and students with their work issues, as well as with broader career development.

Practice mindfulness

Large companies – Apple, Google and Procter & Gamble among them – have made headlines by providing workers with access to meditation rooms and mindfulness coaches, and with good reason.

The link between mindful meditation and improved physical and mental health is compelling. Mindfulness, the practice of consciously focusing on the present moment, has been linked to better problem solving and cognitive flexibility, both good qualities that stand us in good store in terms of building resilience.

Cultivate belief in your abilities

There is no doubt that building a strong sense of confidence in our abilities boosts self-esteem and optimism around work and life challenges. As executive coach Amanda Bradley, writing in The Treasurer, puts it, confidence is knowing what we’re capable of and using that understanding as fuel to drive us on.

In the face of pitfalls and setbacks, confidence can prove a fickle beast, however. Focusing on the positive, replacing any negative judgement – and that includes our own internal ones – with positive statements around our abilities is a tried and tested means of reinforcing self-confidence, leading to improved resilience.

About the author

Liz Loxton is editor of The Treasurer

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