Resilience is one of those ubiquitous buzzwords that seems to be doing the rounds in the world of work and business at the moment.
Heaven knows, our collective resilience has been tested to the max these past couple of years.
But how would you define it?
If you’re anything like me, you may have defined it as ‘the ability to keep on pushing through against all odds’ - which was very much my approach to work when I worked in the corporate world until 2016. Resilience was often worn as a badge of honour - the ability to endure prolonged periods of stress and pressure - ooh, yes, please!
The truth is, ‘pushing through at all costs’ is the very opposite of what it means to be resilient.
In its truest sense, resilience is the ability to bounce back and recover from adversity and challenges. The speed at which you recover from a bad day, if you will. More bamboo, less granite.
We all have different capacities for stress
There’s very little to be gained from comparing yourself to Mary in accounts who always just seems to ‘get on with it’ when the proverbial hits the fan. If you feel that similar setbacks seem to stop you in your tracks, berating yourself for your inability to cope is unhelpful.
The fact is, Mary may well have a different capacity for stress to you. Your lived and professional experiences, your genetics, socio-economic background and your daily circumstances will have a bearing on the size of your own ‘stress container’.
The trick is to learn how to identify when yours is filling up before it reaches the point of overflow!
Get to know your own stress response
How you and I respond to setbacks and challenges will vary greatly. The point at which your stress container will overflow will therefore also differ to mine. In fact, it’s likely that the speed at which your stress container fills will vary day to day; depending on a number of factors, such as the amount of sleep you’ve had the night before, how much you have on your plate, your diet, how much exercise you’ve taken that week, etc.
But thankfully, your body is a mine of information when it comes to telling you what you need. The problem is, many of us have lost connection with our bodies and we spend too much time up in our heads, caught up in our thoughts.
The power of the mind-body connection is well-documented but ignore your body’s tell-tale signs at your peril! Think of it as an ‘early warning’ system, sounding the alarm that all is not well; that we need to change things up.
Tell-tale signs you’re experiencing burnout or your resilience levels are low
You may well notice that you experience psychological, behavioural and physiological effects of stress.
We all experience them, to varying degrees. It’s worth reflecting on your own warning signs so that you can recognise them.
Such signs may include:
Lack of motivation
Lack of mental clarity / brain fog
Physical symptoms - hair loss, inflammation
Occasional stress can be helpful
Our bodies were designed to withstand occasional and low-levels of anxiety and stress; in fact, a little can actually improve our performance and cognitive function. But when that stress becomes constant and chronic, we force our bodies to operate with persistent and elevated levels of adrenaline and cortisol in our blood streams which can be catastrophic for our physical and mental wellbeing.
You’re designed for survival so if your mind detects a threat - such as the threat posed by a toxic boss and pressing deadline - your autonomic nervous system will respond by triggering your fight and flight response.
This response has evolutionary origins which helped you run for the hills at the first sign of danger. Blood floods to your muscles to help with the aforementioned running and leaves your prefrontal cortex - the part of your brain responsible for executive function. This is why it feels so hard to think clearly when you’re suffering from burnout or acute stress.
Top tips to boost your own resilience
The trick here is to increase the size of your own stress container. In turn, boosting your capacity for stress and your ability to bounce back from adversity more effectively. If you consider the analogy of one drop of ink in a small container in a glass of water versus the same drop of ink in a bath of water, you will see how increasing the size of your own container will help dissipate the feelings of overwhelm.
Get to know your own limits and create (and communicate) healthy work boundaries
Get enough sleep for you: 7-9 hours is the recommended amount
Practise gratitude: daily journaling can help rewire your brain to see the positives
Eat a healthy, nutritious diet as often as possible
Exercise: even if it’s a daily walk around the block. Join me on my @workhappy_walkhappy walk on Instagram!
Purpose: weaving more meaning and purpose into your career or business is proven to boost resilience, wellbeing and happiness
Pleasure: be proactive about incorporating more activities that bring joy into your week. This boosts your oxytocin levels which has been linked to strengthened immunity and reduced anxiety!
Peace: take time to relax, spend time in nature, meditate, practise yoga or breathwork, take a bath, listen to music to trigger your rest and digest parasympathetic nervous system
Connection: connect with others - we are social beings and not designed to exist alone
Consistent, baby steps create new habits that stick. There’s a reason the 'Couch to 5k' takes three months! Much like running, resilience is a muscle that you have to build over time. By building a work life, career or business around you and what makes you happy, you’ll boost your resilience, your wellbeing, your impact and your income.
But of course, if you feel your work environment is such that chronic, unsustainable levels of stress are unavoidable, it might be time to make a change...
Sarah Clarke is a partner coach with Careering into Motherhood.