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5 ways to build resilience to thrive in the permacrisis

by Andrea Botha
Burnout, anxiety and depression is causing many South Africans to leave their jobs, or feel overwhelmed in them if they remain. This mirrors an international trend that is keeping corporate authorities up at night through a deep concern about the wellbeing of their colleagues, let alone themselves. “Most people, if we are honest about it, have one or two key coping mechanisms in life, our go-to strategies, but if we really want to deal with what the world is throwing at us, we have to have a more multifaceted approach,” says Dr Mark Orpen-Lyall, an organisational psychologist who has spent decades studying and working with executives to better understand what makes people and organisations more resilient.

In fact, research shows that organisations that value and nurture a culture of health by deliberately focusing on the wellbeing and safety of workers, outperform the stock market by 300%. Resilient individuals are not only happier and more fulfilled within themselves, they are also more productive and engaged members of teams.

There are literally thousands of definitions of resilience. Dr Orpen-Lyall emphasises “proactive coping aimed at helping you thrive”. As life is a series of curveballs, people who actively develop resilience are more capable at dealing with life’s challenges as they arise. People who avoid and ignore these challenges typically have higher levels of stress.

So, how can we start to develop the ability to meet life’s challenges head-on? Orpen-Lyall recently partnered with Henley Business School Africa to distil his expertise on how to build resilience into an online short course. The programme highlights the physical, emotional, spiritual, and mental components of our being and a call to action to get you started on advancing your resilience:

Don’t forget about your body

Physical exercise and being outdoors have long been linked to resilience as they can induce positive physiological and psychological benefits, protect against the potential consequences of stressful events, and prevent many chronic diseases. And don’t forget about the benefits of a healthy sleep routine. A lack of sleep is linked to a wide range of illnesses from heart disease and diabetes to cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s Disease. According to the Centre for Disease Control (CDC), approximately a third of adults are sleep deprived, which can impact on your health and your ability to cope.

Face down your failures

In every facet of our lives: work, home, family, relationships are key. Unfortunately, not all of these will be healthy for us. Toxic relationships have been shown to influence emotional and mental well-being, so learning to identify these relationships and step away from them is key. To build emotional resilience it can help to surround yourself with people who build you up, but this does not include shying away from past mistakes. A Harvard Business Review article highlights how many business leaders view business failures as “bad” and this prevents them from learning from them. In fact, organisations that create a culture that recognises the inevitability of failure in today’s complex workplaces so that they can catch, correct, and learn from failure are much more likely to succeed in the long term.

Tap into a sense of purpose

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has estimated that by 2030, the biggest disability in the world will be depression. A strong sense of purpose creates what scientists call “neural reserve” and builds stronger immune systems. Spiritual fitness can involve religion but also includes being of service to others. There is science to show that giving creates powerful pathways in the brain, in the same areas as those stimulated by food and sex. Put simply, being altruistic feels good.

Don’t be afraid to stretch yourself

Stress is not always a bad thing. There is such a thing as a healthy approach to stress. For instance, problem solving at work or taking on a new job that really challenges you can actually be good for your resilience. If approached mindfully, you can become aware of the interplay of stimulation and depletion and learn how to navigate stress better. In the new hybrid workplaces of today, this could mean setting boundaries and knowing when to switch off from work. There are many articles on how employees are finding hybrid workplaces more emotionally taxing than traditional workspaces.

In reality it’s not about achieving the fabled “work-life balance”, it’s about learning to skilfully navigate between these. “The magic often happens when we are pushing ourselves – running a half marathon, raising children, studying for a degree,” says Orpen-Lyall.

Be clear about what you want to change

Motivational speaker Tony Robbins says, “Setting goals is the first step in turning the invisible into the visible.” Goal setting has been proven to help people achieve success and the results they’d like to see. It focuses the thinking and motivates individuals to look for ways to actualise themselves, rewiring the brain to start working on turning the goals into reality.

Through becoming more attuned to what gives you purpose and fulfilment, this process can help you intentional about how to achieve that, which sows the seeds of resilience and emotional growth that strengthens your future stress coping mechanisms.

The time has never been better for a psychological reboot of this kind. As the world deals with various crises from COVID-19 and climate change to the war in Ukraine – and the looming cost-of-living crisis that comes with these, focusing on resilience can not only make individuals more able to cope, but helps leaders lead more effectively. This, in turn, can help organisations be more agile as they face the “world in crisis”, as the United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres calls it.

Chances are you are one of the 66% of South Africans recently surveyed by Sanlam, saying they are kept awake at night worrying about their ability to weather financial storms. The science will tell you that you are better off turning towards these fears than ignoring them.

While resilience is not a magic wand that removes challenges and anxiety, it is like a muscle that with regular use becomes stronger and able to adapt and transform faster.

Basically, we have a choice here. As famous psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Dr Viktor Frankl said, “The last of human freedoms is one’s ability to choose one’s attitude in a given set of circumstances.”

In other words, we don’t have to sit by helplessly as the 21st Century happens to us – we can choose to strengthen our resilience skills and find ways to live, lead, and love more fully – even in crazy times.

Useful resources:
Henley Business School
At the core of Henley’s philosophy is the belief that we need to develop managers and leaders for the future. We believe the challenge facing future leaders is the need to solve dilemmas through making choices. We work with both individuals and organisations to create the appropriate learning environment to facilitate the critical thinking skills to prepare for the future.
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