Are you tough enough for work?

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Resilience is a buzzword that is becoming ever more ingrained in company culture and is considered highly important in protecting your workforce from pressure.

But, what is it and how do you get it?

Have you heard of The Serenity Prayer? Perhaps you are familiar with it a little, without knowing it exactly. Written by American Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr in the early 20th Century and later adopted by Alcoholics Anonymous (as well as other 12-step programs), it typically goes something like this, “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

Remove the reference to god and you have a maxim that not only neatly encapsulates the notion of mental and emotional resilience, but also accurately outlines the frameworks of both cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) and the Stoicism that CBT is based upon.

One famous Stoic philosopher, Epictetus, said that it is not the events in life that disturb us, but what we tell ourselves about those events that disturbs us. So, if you are feeling overwhelmed by the pressures of work, it’s not because of the pressure per se, but more what you are telling yourself about it.

Change what it is that you tell yourself and you can change how you think, feel and act.

The Stoics were an interesting bunch, and their pragmatic philosophy was born out of living in difficult times (think regular rape, murder and pillaging). They believed that human suffering occurred by trying to control that which is uncontrollable. They also believed that nothing was truly under you control except for your thoughts.

Adversity exists, difficulties always arise, life is often far from perfect and people don’t always set out to achieve what they want to achieve. Resilient people not only know this, they fundamentally accept it.

Many businesses, GlaxoSmithKline among them, have defined resilience as, ‘the ability to succeed personally and professionally in the midst of a high pressured, fast moving and continuously changing environment.”

Resilient people accept that they have no control over most things, some control over a few things and, occasionally at least, a fair bit of control over specific things.

They also refuse to let adversity define them and understand that, while bad times will come, they are always temporary affairs. The resilient then, accept the things they can’t change, tackle the things they can change, and know the difference between the two. Thank you, Niebuhr.

However, if you’re not feeling particularly resilient yourself, can you fortify your mind? Can you build mental and emotional toughness? The short answer is “yes, you can” but, like everything else in life, it takes practice to become really good at it.

The resilient have many traits but, if you can adopt any or all of the following four, you’ll be doing a lot to increase your psychological strength.

1. Give up your demands. Resilient people are flexible. Generally speaking, humans are a demanding bunch. It has to be done exactly like this, circumstances have to go the way we want them to. Or else! But, if you accept that as much as you want them to, things don’t have to go your way; that they don’t have to turn out exactly how you want, then you’ll be much better equipped to deal with the stresses and strains of life.

2. Keep a sense of perspective. It’s very easy to catastrophise and blow things out of proportion. Bad things do and will happen. But, as bad as it is, you can think of so many things far worse that whatever is momentarily going on. Nothing is 100 per cent bad. Think of a scale of badness fro 0.1 to 99.99 per cent and rationally rate the actual badness of what you are going through.

3. Develop High Frustration Tolerance. As difficult as things are, you can and will survive them. Projects can fail, departments can downsize, and fortunes can change. You will have to sweat it out for a bit, but you will get through it. Recall all the other tough times you got through, and how different things were just a few short months down the line.

4. Master the art of unconditional self-acceptance. You are you: glorious, wonderful, imperfect you. You are great at some things, and rubbish at others; you get it right sometimes and you get it wrong sometimes. You are a worthwhile, fallible human being. If you fail to win a pitch, it does not make you a failure. If you fail to win 10 pitches in a row, it still doesn’t mean you’re a failure. It might mean that you’re no good at pitches and that is something you can accept about yourself and, even, work on.

Stress is typically defined as a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or demanding circumstances. Stress at work occurs when you feel the demands placed upon you are exceeding your ability to cope. Stress is also the number one cause of staff absenteeism and cost the UK economy nearly £6.5bn in 2013 alone.

In a study on positive psychological traits and leadership, psychologist Suzanne Peterson noted that resilient behaviour has a neurobiological basis.

“Resilient individuals are characterised by a staunch view of reality,” she said. They are very logical in their interpretations of setbacks, of what is in and out of their control, and what the options are. This leads to a sense of realistic optimism and to strategies for overcoming life’s obstacles.

Adopt the philosophy of CBT and the traits of the resilient and you won’t be needing The Serenity Prayer to keep you calm (or any other kind of prayer for that matter). You’ll have all the tools you need to adapt to any and all forms of adversity as and when they occur.

And amen to that.

Daniel Fryer is a freelance journalist and psychotherapist.

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