Resilience, or mental toughness, is defined by the American Psychological Association as the ability to adapt well in the face of adversity. This could be trauma, tragedy, threat, or any significant source of stress. Modern workplaces are challenging environments so building inner strength is an essential quality to cultivate in all employees, whatever their level in the corporate hierarchy.
Numerous studies have been conducted into resilience and a variety of models developed. Each model proposes different components of resilience, which can be boosted in different ways. Our review of the scientific literature suggests the components of resilience fit into four main categories. These are:
- Building inner strength: healthy habits which nourish the body and mind and increase natural resilience.
- Learning thinking skills: thinking skills and habits which help you to cope with problems effectively and reach solutions.
- Developing emotional intelligence: understanding and managing your own and others’ emotions, to improve working with others and on your own.
- Making use of external sources of support: connecting to other people and to outside resources to help you in times of difficulty.
These four categories provide four ways to build resilience in your team. In this article, part 1 of a 4-part series, we show you how to build resilience in your team by building inner strength in two main areas. These are your physical health and mental health.
Building inner strength with physical health
We all know physical fitness and strength are good for our bodies in countless ways. Exercise helps us maintain a healthy weight, boosts our cardiovascular health, and reduces the probability of a wide range of illnesses. However there is equally strong evidence that exercise is also good for the mind.
Exercise is important for mental health
Fitness fanatics say they experience a natural high. But even moderate exercise has been shown to improve mood and reduce stress and anxiety according to Mind and the ADAA. Researchers have found that those who take regular exercise are 25 percent less likely to develop depression or an anxiety disorder over the next five years.
Mental health symptoms can be alleviated for several hours after exercise. Regular exercise may also significantly reduce them over time. Exercise also improves sleep, which is vital for many aspects of wellbeing, including coping with stress.
Fitness even boosts cognitive function. Even a short burst of exercise can improve mental alertness and the ability to perform cognitive tasks.
Building inner strength in your team is not about you urging your staff to develop good physical habits. This would be a mistake. It is much better to ‘show don’t tell’. Focus on yourself first, as a role model, before you consider others.
Research has shown that people are much more influenced by those who practice what they preach. In addition, first-hand experience will give you an intuitive understanding of these skills. You don’t need to be an expert. In fact, it’s better if you try something new and find it a challenge. This will be invaluable in understanding the needs of your team members and giving them the support they need.
Therefore the first step you should make is to make a positive change yourself. There are numerous books and websites which can help you get started, such as NHS Choices.
Make exercise an enjoyable routine
It’s important to find an activity and routine that will stick. So find something enjoyable and build your fitness gradually. If it’s difficult it’s likely you will give up. And exercise doesn’t have to be the gym. Try a team sport, or walking or jogging a pleasant route. You could even pull an exercise bike in front of the TV and watch a show while working out. Most important of all, you should try to make it a habit. Settle on a routine that works, then stick to it. That way it will eventually be something you do without having to force yourself.
If you are going to show your team you are looking after your physical health then it’s important to make exercise part of your work routine. This could be at lunchtime, straight before or after work. Regardless of exercise, it’s important you get up regularly and move around during the working day. The negative health effects of sedentary behaviour are well documented by the NHS.
Once your staff can see you are serious about improving your physical health then they will be much more open to gentle encouragement. You can set up activities that involve exercise or start a lunchtime walking club. Making exercise a social event can make it more rewarding. You can lead the way by walking or cycling to work, or use the stairs instead of the lift. You could even get everyone to do a charity event – so there’s extra motivation to take part. There are countless charities out there who would love your support!
Posters or flyers which show the benefits of exercise and suggestions about how to start can also help. You might even go as far as team awards or other kinds of recognition for people reaching a personal target. This could be completing an event, reaching a goal weight or maintaining a healthy habit for a week.
Remember, the most effective incentive will be when your team sees your consistent habit of exercise. When they witness your own mental and physical health improvements, they will want to emulate you. They will also probably enjoy working with you more!
Nutrition for building inner strength
There are lots of other ways to look after yourself physically. Probably the most important is a healthy diet. While diet fads come and go, the underlying formulation for a good diet has been fairly constant for some time. Get lots of fresh veg and fruit. Eat high-fibre, low GI carbohydrates like wholemeal bread or pasta and wholegrain rice. Have healthy sources of protein (as well as vitamins and minerals) such as nuts, beans, pulses, fish and non-processed lean meat. Make sure your intake of sugar and salt is low and avoid excessive alcohol and do not smoke. See the British Heart Foundation and the Eatwell guide for more information about healthy eating.
Sleep for rest and recovery
Good sleep is also vital to physical health. Evidence abounds from the Mental Health Foundation and elsewhere that sleep is also essential for our mental health. It improves energy levels, mood, ability to cope with stress, immune response, concentration, work performance, and many other aspects of wellbeing.
Good sleep starts with a comfy bed and a dark room. It’s worth investing in a quality mattress and darker curtains. Put up a blackout blind if necessary. A cool temperature is essential too, and of course quiet. You should also avoid caffeine after the morning and any drinking or eating late at night.
Also be careful not to overstimulate your mind immediately before bed. Watching exciting or emotional shows or news reports, or reading hostile comments sections online are all to be avoided. Vigorous exercise in the evening can also disrupt sleep. Even the colour of ambient light is important. Our brains perceive blue shades as representing the middle of the day and so tend to find them arousing. Apps are available which change the colour of phone and tablet screens to a yellower shade which is more soothing and represents evening sun colours. It’s safest though to stay away from screens altogether in the hours leading up to bed.
Summary of physical health tips for building inner strength:
- be a role model of physically healthy habits
- encourage your team to be physically active by taking up an enjoyable pastime, walking/cycling to work or taking the stairs
- think about starting an activity club at work (e.g. walk a mile at lunch time, five-a-side or squash, hiking)
- provide encouragement and information on exercise, health and fitness, appropriate to the needs of individuals
- encourage a healthy diet by eating healthily yourself at lunchtime and eating away from your desk
- swap sweets and crisps as snacks for healthier options
- prioritise sleep and recovery before and after a hard day’s work
Building Inner Strength through Mental Health
So far we’ve looked at the benefits of exercise, diet and sleep for building inner strength. If you’re wondering how to build inner strength in your staff, you’re probably thinking that it’s necessary to build mental strength directly as well. You are right.
Mindfulness and Meditation for building inner strength
There are several ways to build mental strength, and one currently in vogue, although its roots go back thousands of years, is mindfulness. Mindfulness refers to a focus of mind which allows you to pay attention to what is going on around you, and also within you. Think about it. How much of the time are you focused on inner thoughts – worries, problems, memories? It’s not that one should never reflect – this is another aspect of resilience which we will look at. But it’s important to experience the present moment from time to time.
Next time you walk along a street, or drive to work, stop your thoughts and ask yourself – what is going on around me? Involve all your senses. Look at the people coming towards you – what do they look like? What are their expressions? How might they be feeling? What about the scenery – are there buildings, trees, bushes, flowers? What types? Do you find them beautiful? Ugly? What shapes do they make? How does the light strike them? What is the weather? How does this affect the light, the temperature? What does the wind feel like on your face? What sounds can you hear? Cars? People talking? Birds cheeping? The wind in the trees? Are there any smells?
Paying attention is not just about being aware of your surroundings. It also brings calm through a sense of connection. It takes you away from your worries, even if only for a few minutes, and gives you a broader perspective. Where do you fit into this world? It slows down time. The more you experience, the longer your life will seem, the richer and the more fulfilling.
Mindfulness tips for building inner strength
Mindfulness can be practiced anywhere, but many people like to find a quiet spot, usually at home, and meditate. This allows them not only to focus on their surroundings, but what is going on inside them. Stop and consider. What are your current feelings, thoughts, emotions? What are all your physical sensations? The point is not to try to stop your thoughts or worries, but to step back and observe them without judgment. To use a Buddhist image, imagine your stream of consciousness as an actual stream, and that you are standing on a bridge watching it flow by.
Once again, if you want to teach your staff mindfulness or meditation, you should learn and practise it yourself. There are plenty of books, websites such as BeMindful, and online courses available. There may be a local Buddhist centre with classes you can join. You don’t need a teacher. Meditation exercises can be as simple as relaxing comfortably and focusing on your breathing. Set a timer and try counting your breaths in and out for five minutes. If you find your mind wandering, don’t worry, just bring it back to the counting.
With regard to your staff, you can bring in experts to teach a mindfulness class, or give them flyers or information on local classes. You can talk about how it has helped you. Studies show how meditation benefits physical and mental health, reducing stress and anxiety and improving performance.
Cultivate sustainable healthy habits
A great start to building inner strength is to think about developing habits which are physically and mentally healthy. These habits are not only good for your general wellbeing but they also help you cope with the mental demands of work.
But building inner strength is not just about improving mental and physical fitness. It’s also about recognising bad habits which impair your ability to cope with pressure. One of the worst of these habits is overdoing it. Many of us work too hard for a variety of reasons. This might be for a promotion, or to build a business. We may feel guilty about not getting as much done as possible as quickly as possible. It might even be because we fear dismissal or disapproval. We might have a strong work ethic, or think we are tough enough to cope with a culture of overwork. ‘Lunch is for wimps‘, Gordon Gekko once said.
The reality is that we all have limits. If we regularly push ourselves past our limits we risk burnout, stress, and even poor mental health. Working hard is fine up to a point, but we need to take breaks and have the courage to rest so we can come back stronger. Research from the University of Illinois reported in Science Daily backs up this idea.
Again, if you want to encourage this as a healthy habit among your employees, you need to show not tell. Do you stop before getting exhausted and fed up? Do you set yourself realistic targets, and modify them if they are too difficult to reach?
Learn to recognise increasing stress levels and take breaks before you enter the crisis zone. Then you can watch out for your staff using the same skills. It’s your job as a manager to know what amount of work in what amount of time is healthy for any member of staff. And it’s your job to make sure not only that they are working hard enough but that they take breaks when necessary. Rest is not only good for recuperation. It actually helps us to reflect and think more creatively.
Ask yourself – is there a culture of excessive overtime in your workplace? Do people feel ashamed if they stop when their official hours are up? Do they take their phones or laptops on holiday and not let themselves truly relax and get away from it all?
In the end, the right amount of breaks, hours and holidays will make you and your staff healthier and more productive. In the long term, the business will benefit from less sickness absence and presenteeism. The average length of work absence due to stress is 24 days – consider the loss of productivity that would mean. Not to mention the extra work others have to take on.
Other Ways of Building Inner Strength through Mental Health
Here are a few more tips to consider for yourself and your team:
- Enrich the mind and develop a sense of fulfilment. Learn a new skill, develop a new hobby, read, go for walks, experience nature, art, music, etc. At work that might mean taking on a new responsibility or role or doing some training. Set a challenge you will enjoy achieving. Learning new things is enjoyable and confidence boosting. As a manager you can model these behaviours by talking about a hobby or interest you enjoy. Occasional chats about the game last night, a film you saw, or an exciting trip you went on are not a waste of work time. If staff feel work is a place where non-work topics are not forbidden, they will relax and enjoy coming to work more. And of course you can have work-organised activities, as with exercise. And you can provide training and career development to staff. This will not only help them do their job better and take on new roles, it will make them feel more valued, and less likely to leave their jobs.
- Increase your sense of empathy and self-worth by giving. This might include acts of kindness to those in your life, or voluntary work. Practice smiling, and warmth, acceptance and patience with others. Happiness research has found that doing acts of kindness regularly is associated with an increase in wellbeing. Model this yourself as a manager, discuss it with your staff and give information about voluntary organisations and charities. Remember, it is better to give than receive when it comes to building inner strength.
- Develop a sense of commitment to work. Find purpose and meaning in your job. Think about what makes you want to go to work, and what elements of the job are fulfilling. What do you get from it that you value? It could be creating a high quality product, learning skills, inspiring people, leadership, or respect. It could be status, money, working with people, achieving good sales or success in projects. You can also take the initiative, for example adding a project which you care about (e.g. working on the environment, or mental health issues). As a manager, you can model this sense of commitment. You can help others find it by allowing them some control over their job, allowing them to take on new roles or projects, and helping them develop new skills.
Summary of mental health tips for building inner strength
- learn to pay attention to your surroundings, and try meditation
- talk to your staff about mindfulness and consider an in-work session
- provide information on meditation and mindfulness in the form of flyers or posters
- understand the demands your team members are under so you can set appropriate goals for them which don’t cause exhaustion or stress
- be a role model of a healthy work habit – take breaks when necessary
- look out for your staff to see if any are overworking, and make sure they take breaks and holidays when necessary
- make sure your team understand that performance suffers when we push ourselves too hard, and this costs the team as well as our own health
- encourage your employees to get involved in fulfilling activities such as hobbies or learning new skills
- provide staff with training opportunities and the chance to take on new roles and responsibilities
- encourage and model giving and kindness – e.g. get the organisation involved in supporting a charity
- work out what gives you a sense of commitment to your job and build on that – and help your staff do the same
Thanks, the Delphis team.