Last week I attended a 1-day conference themed around the idea of Resilience. While we were casually sipping our morning coffee, one of the first speakers asked the audience to raise a hand if they knew someone who had experienced depression – a forest of hands shot into the air – pretty much everyone in the packed conference hall. That surprised me and so did many of the statistics that followed. So, here, I will present a snapshot of what was discussed to help raise awareness a little. I will also distil some of the key recommendations to help you and those you care about build some resilience ahead of time.
In the Australian workplace only 24% are actually engaged whilst 60% are not engaged and 16% are actively disengaged. Moreover, 12% report being highly stressed every day. Apparently, 45% of Australians will have a mental health issue in their lifetime and one in five will actually be experiencing a mental health issue at any given time. Look around you. Worryingly, 86% of us prefer to suffer in silence.
Why is this happening? It seems to be a combination of the turbulence associated with transformational change, a continual pressure to do more with less, an increase in complexity associated with the operating environment and unreasonable expectations of the “I want it all and I want it now” variety. Our predisposition to avoid bringing our concerns out into the open is mirrored by a cultural expectation that the expression of certain emotions is inappropriate. Of course, driving them underground does not make them go away but it does make them harder to treat. Asking for support should be seen as a sign of strength. Being ‘confidently vulnerable’ and seeking feedback to adapt and grow should be encouraged and supported.
Everyone’s life will have ups and downs. Life is not fair. Life can be tough. The best way to deal with this is primarily centred upon building resilience reserves now so they can be called upon in times of need. In addition to creating that reserve, it is wise to practice critical behaviours daily and avoid a descent into the pit altogether. Stuart Taylor has developed a ‘death spiral’ model that descends through confused, disengaged, withdrawn, vulnerable, distressed and finally depressed. These liabilities are countered by resilience assets based around mastering stress, energising the body, engaging the mind, training the mind and entering a state of flow. An asset-liabilities ratio of three to one is recommended.
Regardless of the model discussed, the primary areas of resilience-building focus seemed to converge on similar ideas across three domains: the individual, the team and the supporting ecosystem (operating environment).
At the individual level there are the various familiar elements of well-being – mind, body, spirit and relationships that all need to be functioning strongly. Keeping fit, eating well, continuing to learn and apply our knowledge, living authentically and building strong support networks and individual relationships will all boost our resilience. Seligman’s PERMA model extends this idea further and they both dovetail with Stephen Covey’s notion of ‘sharpening the saw’ in these same areas. Additionally, the ability to maintain perspective and remain calm (or at least calm down quickly – fighter pilot’s get 5 seconds…) so that one can continue to function effectively is a critical skill that warrants practice. Deep exhalation exercises, positive memory anchoring and a well-rehearsed routine can help here. ‘Charging the battery’ with positive emotions every day can also have a significant impact on our ability to resist or recover from adversity. Practical gratitude (incl. journaling) is regarded as particularly useful in this respect and the benefits stemming from regular meditation are very well documented.
At a team level, it is important to remember that every interaction influences the emotions of the others involved and emotions beget behaviours. With that in mind, some of the core recommendations include: establish and maintain mutual accountability, foster a learning and adaptive culture, provide mutual support and encourage a culture of self-care with regular ‘temperature-checks’. In particular, aligning capabilities and values with shared goals and objectives will help optimize resource allocation and keep morale high. It has been shown that team members who use their top five strengths every day will be six times more engaged and three times more satisfied with life. But don’t forget to take breaks – proper breaks (away from the desk!) can result in more than 50% better decisions.
At the level of the supporting ecosystem, it can be helpful to set some rules (or policies) around emotional intelligence that include a broadening of the scope of what is acceptable to be discussed. This should be supported by leadership role models that help create a safe environment (for example, naming emotions and sharing experiences). Leading from the bridge instead of the engine room and communicating the vision to stimulate engagement and collective problem solving were seen as key enablers. At the same time, positive reinforcement is particularly important. Engagement through stories based upon case studies of success can help underpin the message.
It has been shown that it takes three positive events to neutralise each negative one because negative emotions linger much longer than their fleeting positive counterparts. It will, therefore, take some conscious effort to maintain a favourable balance but it will be worth it.
It has been shown (HBR) that a positive mood increases productivity by more than 30% and increases creativity by more than 300%. Moreover, Barbara Fredrickson has shown that positive emotions broaden our minds and outlook, enhance relationships, improve health and build resilience. She has also shown that this ‘emotional bank account’ persists beyond the situation in which it was acquired so it pays to keep investing.
At the end of the day, resilience is a learned ability and is about behavioural choices based on realistic optimism. Given some trigger event, behaviour is a product of both capability and motivation and both of these must be nurtured ahead of time. Look at the statistics. Look at yourself, your team and your loved ones. Is there something more you could be doing?
“You cannot stop the waves but you can learn to surf.” – Jon Kabat-Zinn
Acknowledgement for much of the material discussed above goes to the following speakers: Graeme Cowan, Kathryn McEwen, Rachel Green, Peter Fitzpatrick, Richard Pace and Stuart Taylor.