Resilience: why you need it and how anyone can build it

November 1, 2022

Matthew Moore

Marketing and Digital Production Manager
A team climbing up a snowy mountain together

Benjamin Disraeli said that “change is inevitable” – in recent years, change seems to be ever-present. As the world lurches from crisis to catastrophe to disaster and then back to crisis, resilience has become much more than a buzzword or part of a list of nice-to-have attributes – it’s a necessity.

That is true of organisations and people. Just as a business must build the fortitude to withstand turbulent times, so too must we as individuals. This is possible because contrary to the opinion of some, resilience is not a fixed personality trait – it is “a dynamic process that fluctuates based on a variety of factors”. As such it can be developed with practice and honed with experience. For some, it may need small adjustments – others may require a complete reframing of perspective and expectations.

In a professional context, there are two key areas of focus for building personal resilience: the organisation’s role in providing an environment that helps individuals be resilient, and what the individual can do personally for themselves. Whilst both are important, for this blog we will deal with the latter: what you can do to make yourself more resilient.

What is Resilience?

There are many definitions of personal resilience, but most revolve around two aspects: the ability to react positively to setbacks and challenges, and the determination and ability to perform consistently over a period of time regardless of stress and pressure.

Some people deal with these things better than others, that is true, but everyone can improve their personal resilience. At IDG, we view Human Performance through the prism of Behaviour, Wellbeing and Capability and believe all three can and should be worked upon simultaneously as part of someone’s professional (and personal) development. Resilience is a part of that, and whilst it does take time, there are some quick wins you can work on immediately. Some may seem obvious, others less so – think of this as a good place to start.

1. Get better – not just more – sleep

Margaret Thatcher and Winston Churchill famously got by on just four hours sleep a night, but most of us are literally not built that way: recent research suggests that people who are able to exist on such little sleep have a genetic mutation (and Winston cheated by having a long nap in the afternoon). Most people know their optimum amount of sleep, and that they perform better when they get it.

What you may not consider however is the quality of your sleep. Sleep is considered poor quality “if it takes you longer than 30 minutes to fall asleep, if you wake up during the night more than once, or if it takes you longer than 20 minutes to drift back asleep after waking up.”. People with less than 92% sleep efficiency (percentage of time in bed actually asleep) are 5.5 times more likely to catch a common cold than those with 98% or more efficiency.

Sleep is so important to physical performance that elite football clubs have introduced ‘sleep pods’ at their training facilities and have ‘sleep consultants’ on the payroll who are responsible for helping players get good quality sleep. From a mental health point of view, research shows that being sleep deprived is the equivalent of drinking two large glasses of wine before going to work. Not many people make their best decisions after two glasses of wine, despite the fact that at the time we probably think we do!

Again, we all know what we need to do to get a good, uninterrupted night’s sleep – wind down properly, stop looking at digital devices well before going to bed, cut down on caffeine, create a calm and restful environment to sleep in, and get some physical exercise. Which leads us on to our next point.

(Find out more on getting to sleep and sleeping better)

2. Unplug and get physical

Doing some form of exercise during the working day helps with sleep because it tires the body out, particularly relevant in our desk-bound working lives. But it also helps in other ways: the obvious body health benefits of keeping fit through physical exercise, and the hugely positive mental effects of getting away from our desks, computers and mobile phones.

Taking a break and getting your body moving can be a huge help with resilience, recovery and performance. Even a relatively short walk will get the blood pumping, the endorphins flowing and can provide a fresh perspective. It’s not about becoming a marathon runner or gym rat: it’s about getting a consistent, healthy respite.

3. Practice emotional self-care

Many leaders assume they are expected to be bullet-proof, and see any kind of attention to emotions as being a sign of weakness, so decide to ignore and bury them. We know of course this results in a build-up of pressure that has to be released somehow, and people have all kinds of ways to relieve that pressure, not all of which are productive, healthy or even effective in the long-term – hence why burn-out is a thing.

Much easier is to practice regular and conscious emotional self-care. That is, being mindful of your own emotional state, processing those emotions and allowing yourself to feel them without letting them control you. It requires self-compassion, building positive beliefs in your abilities and generally being kind to yourself – whilst also being honest about your deficiencies.

There are many tools you can use to ensure you practice self-care: you could make regular time to reflect on yourself, download an app such as relaxation app Calm (MacOS, Android), meditation app Headspace (MacOS, Android) or mood tracker Reflectly (MacOS, Android), engage with a counsellor or therapist, or utilise your social support network. Talking of which…

4. Stay connected to your support network

How is a healthy social life important for resilience? Surely it is just a distraction, a comfort blanket that helps with relaxation but can’t help someone perform more consistently or make better decisions?

The truth is a support network is vital simply because it is a distraction. Time away creates the space for reflection that allows for reframing, recentering and recharging energy levels – all of which are vital in overcoming obstacle and challenges.

Additionally, our support networks tend to be one of the things we neglect when we get really busy – and this in itself could be incredibly negative when it comes to family life by creating additional stress.

5. Develop Flexible Thinking

Finally, a skill that can be developed and is particularly useful in developing resilience is an ability to change our thinking approach depending on the situation. This is done in a number of ways. Firstly, by being aware of our habitual ways of thinking, the modes that we automatically switch to that we have picked up over a lifetime. Examples would be black and white thinking, generalising and catastrophising. These styles are our reflexes, and although they can be useful and applicable in some situations, they frequently are not.

A flexible mindset allows us to recognise the rigidity in our thinking and step outside the limits they impose. It also acknowledges that our moods can affect our reactions – if we are feeling happy, we tend towards broad and open thinking. By observing when we are likely to default to our habits – and when that might not be appropriate – we can avoid getting stuck, or stressing over something. A flexible thinker will recognise that it is a time to try something different: for example, by changing our environment, perspective or mood.

You can read more on flexible thinking here and here.

However, these thinking habits often don’t give an accurate assessment of the situation and tend to lead to inflexible thinking patterns, causing poor responses to situations. They also recognise that behind these thinking styles are often limiting beliefs which drive how they think, feel, and consequently how they behave. This is commonly known as the ABC model. They are able to challenge their beliefs and thoughts about why things happen. They understand that their core beliefs about the world may be preventing them from taking opportunities and therefore gather evidence to dispute unproductive beliefs – generating other alternatives. They can also put stresses and adversities into perspective through calming and focusing practices. These skills help them to regulate emotions and dispute erroneously held beliefs about adversity and opportunity.

All the above will contribute to building personal resilience; in addition there are courses and programmes out there that will help – we have a Leadership Masterclass devoted to the subject. Remember, it’s a skill not an attribute, and as with all skills all it needs is time, patience and application.

Find out more about our Leadership Masterclasses here

With thanks to my former colleague Ed Chacksfield and his contributions to this article.


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