I’ve had several conversations recently with leaders in health and care that have shared a common theme: resilience, and how to maintain it. They were tired – some were exhausted – by the constant pressure of their roles, the demands of their bosses, the shadows of the regulators, and a felt need to protect the people in their teams from the storm falling around them.
Most asked me how they could be stronger, more resistant to the barrage, firmer in their steadfastness and stiffer in their emotional resolve. I think they, like many people, misunderstood the nature of resilience. You see, resilience is not about being stronger in the hope of fostering greater resistance to stressors. It’s about recovery. It’s about bounce-back-ability. Resilience is really the ability to recover from the inevitable knocks of life, to regain your equilibrium, to be knocked down and get back up rather than denying the fall in the first place.
Resilience is a trait of emotional intelligence – and as with all EI traits, it can be invested in, nurtured and developed. I researched the topic a few years ago and found that resilience is really underpinned by self-esteem: the more we value ourselves then the more we’ll feel ourselves worthy of recovering from the bumps of life. As such, decent leadership that nurtures and promotes the esteem of others also builds resilience into those around us. Critical, hierarchical leadership undermines organisational resilience. Leadership that values and rewards people bolsters esteem and builds resilient individuals, teams and organisations.
I also found that resilience is responsive to shorter-term interventions too. Resilience correlates highly to sleep, fitness, diet and lifestyle. When we bank decent sleep we are refreshed – physically and emotionally. When we pay attention to our fitness we not only build our physical stamina, we also get to process the emotional biochemistry of stress in a safe place. A decent diet too adds to our resilience bank. Lifestyle is partly about taking breaks and disengaging from the leadership coalface so our conscious minds can take a break and our unconscious minds get the chance to process our deeper thoughts and feelings. Lifestyle is also about our support mechanisms: a good friend with whom to share your troubles, a supportive family with open relationships where you can process your feelings.
My heart went out especially to two leaders when they expressed their guilt at even experiencing the luxury of such First World problems when there’s much greater suffering on our planet. I was reminded of a meeting I had two decades ago. I met Terry Waite as he was promoting his book telling the story of his five year incarceration in Beirut. He’d been kept in solitary confinement for four years of the 1,763 day ordeal.
Terry talked of walking over a common one day not long after his release. He came across a young mum, crying. He sat with her and listened as she spoke tearfully about her troubles. When the woman calmed and said thank you she looked up and recognised her Samaritan for who he was. Shocked, she asked him how, with all that he’d suffered, he could respect her enough to care for her woes. His simple answer was that stress is relative to one’s own experience, not to each other’s. The young mum’s pain was just as real as Terry’s. His humility touched me.
Terry’s words have stayed with me ever since. In times when I’ve felt overwhelmed by my role, pressured by the demands of those around me, unappreciated for my work and unrewarded for my efforts, I dig deep and remember that my experience is human.
I also recall a mantra that reminds me I’ve recovered from pain before, and will again: ‘This too shall pass.’