Getting through Covid-19 means rethinking resilience

Wellbeing won't come in the form of a listicle, argues leadership coach Kate Tapper. The secret of a positive working environment is treating oneself and others with compassion.

Picture a bad day. You’ve been limping on through, sorting stuff out, responding, fielding, meeting, meeting, meeting. Fresh news of further bungling incompetence somewhere has rendered the last few weeks of your work now worthless. You had it all together, you really did, but this day has gone bad.

Ping. New email from senior leadership team. Mental health blah blah, Wellbeing blah blah….a HANDY LIST OF WELLBEING RESOURCES. “Lovely,” you think. “This list of faceless electronic interventions has lifted my day and helped me find new ways to adapt and innovate in this extraordinarily challenging environment.”

Except you don’t. You feel like screaming. Because what would actually enhance your wellbeing is:

  1. Feeling that somebody, somewhere, has a handle on things and is making good decisions
  2. Booking a lovely holiday
  3. Taking the lovely holiday
  4. The world not having gone totally mad.

Chances of you clicking on a link to some thoughtfully curated wellbeing resources: 2/10. Chances of you engaging with said resources once clicked: 0/10.

My heart goes out to the curator of the resources, it really does. That was me once. I was a champion for the University of Bristol’s positive working environment initiative. I even spoke about it at the OECD HQ in Paris.

But what really makes a working environment positive is how people treat each other; that is all.

Wellbeing won’t come from a listicle

I am not surprised when clients that I work with roll their eyes at wellbeing resources. For one thing, a lot of my clients are academics suspicious of a neoliberal narrative that individualises “resilience” and pushes responsibility onto individuals to learn and adapt rather than address systemic failures. Quite right too. Internalised capitalism is a thing.

Internalised capitalism is the idea that we have bound up our sense of worth with how much we are producing. Which means that on a bad day, when nothing much has moved on, we can feel really bad.

Maybe you are even feeling vaguely guilty about reading this right now, rather than doing real work. But what work is real work? We are not machines. Universities are not factories. We are human beings with the potential to create beautiful and powerful new ideas.

If there was ever a time when we needed intelligent new ways of living it is surely now. We know that human creativity and resilience require an undulating pace, rhythms of rest and recovery. We have thousands upon thousands of research papers that prove it. We know it, but we don’t do it. And then, worse, we feel guilty for not doing it.

I have lost count of the guilty confessions of people telling me that they meant to be taking breaks/meditating/exercising/self-caring but haven’t got around to it. Hence their fury at receiving another email about wellbeing resources; inwardly they shout “I know what to do, I know I need to do it, you haven’t told me anything new, you’ve just reminded me that I’m not doing it.”

But not everyone reacts this way. Some people do engage with the wellbeing resources. They create healthy boundaries around their work and prioritise self-care. Somewhere in life they have learned that balance is important. You will have noticed this divide. On one side the super-conscientious driving themselves into the ground, on the other side your colleagues trying to stay balanced.

This kind of division can be pretty corrosive. When you are frantically keeping all the plates spinning, seeing other people’s serene faces can be infuriating (they are only calm because I’m doing all the work). When you are keeping yourself sane and dodging flying plates, those flinging them are a source of great irritation (if only they would calm down, we could get this done).

Compassionate resilience

So, what do we do about all this? This is where we need to rethink resilience. Resilience is not about mental toughness and skills that can keep you going like a machine. Neither is it about cocooned self-care that leaves the hard stuff to everyone else. True resilience needs to be grounded in the reality that we are all having a really hard time. We need to be kind to ourselves as we find new ways to move forward. I call this compassionate resilience.

I suggest that whatever your remit, compassion should be your first priority. Compassion for yourself and compassion for others. Compassion means noticing and attending to suffering with the desire to alleviate it. Ignoring or suppressing suffering – our own or other people’s – never works out well. Great innovation springs from compassion. True resilience begins with compassion. Our ability to keep going, to take care of ourselves and others, to think and respond in new ways all begins with self-compassion.

Put most simply, self-compassion is showing yourself the care that you would a close friend having a rough time. First of all, you notice. You see that they are not quite themselves. Then you show that you noticed. You offer kindness. Maybe kind words, maybe kind actions. Self-compassion begins with noticing how we are too and offering ourselves the kind of understanding and care we give our friends.

The very best vice chancellors I have worked with stand out because they care. They care deeply for others, and they are resilient because they also care for themselves. They don’t go back to back with meetings, they take a moment to look out of a window, to walk somewhere, to thank someone. They respond to challenges not through grim determination, but through determined kindness. When we are kinder to ourselves we can accept our failings, say sorry, learn, take risks and try something new.

We are also more likely to be generous towards others having a hard time, and feel we are in this together. In their brilliant book Awakening Compassion at Work, researchers Jane Dutton and Monica Worline explain what holds us back from showing compassion towards others:

  • Other people’s suffering makes us uncomfortable
  • We think other people don’t deserve our compassion
  • We think people will take advantage of our kindness
  • We are all compassioned out – we have nothing left to give anyone else.

In my experience, the emotional labour of noticing and caring for others is not equally shared. And it is not valued highly enough. Yet you know yourself the difference it makes when someone at work cares how you are. Especially in these dark times. We don’t yet know how we will be personally affected yet by the second wave of coronavirus. Your colleagues will have loved ones in care homes, vulnerable people they care for. Work can be a great escape or a terrible burden. We need to take care of ourselves and each other.

Harvard psychologist Dr Chris Germer says:

A moment of self-compassion can change your entire day.

A string of such moments can change the course of your life.

So rather than directing you to click on some curated compassion resources, I offer this question: when you are having a bad day, what tiny moment can make you feel a little bit better?

When I put this to the Society of Research Administrators international conference in October, delegates shared the tiny moments that can change the course of their day. People responded immediately with things like – looking at the sky, going outside, time with my pet, something really good for lunch, making a proper coffee, speaking to my friend.

So the next time you notice you are having a bad day, try a tiny moment of self-compassion. Something that you already know works for you. And just see what changes course.

15 responses to “Getting through Covid-19 means rethinking resilience

  1. I agree with so much of this, and found it really refreshing to read. All the more disappointing then that it should end, once more, with what we should be doing for ourselves rather than keeping the shift of focus towards what we could be doing for each other – and particularly, what those in positions of (relative) power can do to support those lower down the organisational hierarchy whose sufferings are compounded by having less power over and less flexibility in their work.

    1. Sarah you are so right to resist the push of responsibility onto those lower down the organisation. I see too much of that happening. I also see those at the top feeling the same lack of power along with an enormous sense of responsibility that can be paralysing. This just perpetuates the situation. I am so with you that those with power need to recognise it and show compassion in their leadership. This begins with them being compassionte towards themselves. Otherwise ‘not being compassionate enough’ becomes another stick to beat themselves with – and on it goes…

  2. I like this article and will reference it, so thanks.

    For me, there is something else, and that is the issue of workload. We need to stop doing so much. Some stuff we need to stop doing altogether, some stuff we need to do just well enough. This should be agreed collectively. If everything is considered as a high priority, then nothing is. Universities often seek to be excellent at everything, it seems to me, and this is clearly ridiculous.

    All the best, Kate

    Stuart

    1. I agree with you Stuart. A lot of fear and wilful blindness prevents people making decisions about what not to do. Overcoming fear allows us to make better decisions about what not to do. Which, as you say, is essential if we want to do anything well and stay well in the process.

  3. Thank you Kate, this article enhanced my wellbeing by making me laugh out loud at the accuracy of the description of the situation I/we are in, and by making me take a moment to think about it. As you predicted, I did feel guilty for reading it initially, but am glad I continued to the end. Here’s to a good day…

  4. Great article. As a senior manager, I totally agree not to having enough self compassion but your article finally pushed me to diarise 1 hour a day of exercise at lunchtime, so that my diary doesn’t get filled with back to back meetings! I get the point about lists but actually practical suggestions about how to support my team would be really useful. I try and do as much as I can but any suggestions of what could help more would be gratefully received as I don’t think staff themselves always know what would help them (as we are all navigating this in the dark with no compass)

  5. Katy, your radical act to diarise that one hour at lunchtime will have huge impact. By doing so you have given permission for your team to take breaks – far more powerful way than telling them to. To help your team even more? Let them know you are in this dark place together. Talk honestly about your shared challenges, be human about it, think together about ways to do things differently, you don’t have to know all the answers. I’m happy to share ideas if it helps, so feel free to get in touch.

  6. What a wonderfully enlightened article, Kate. I can’t agree more with your descriptions and emphasis on compassion. We are, after all, human beings and not robots. It is often the seemingly small acknowledgements of our humanity and vulnerability which make the world of difference to our wellbeing…. and from positive wellbeing flows creativity, productivity and motivation!

  7. A great article, Kate. The shared values of an institution are also so important – are those who are seeking balance as well regarded and celebrated as the ‘super-conscientious’ who you talk about.

  8. Very refreshing to read Kate. A realistic summary of what resilience means to each of us and written in such an engaging way. Thank you.

  9. Thanks Kate for such an enlightening article. Like Nicola, I felt it described me perfectly. Just appreciating the trees outside my window can help, and if I am in a bad place it is really difficult for me to support my colleagues.

    Stuart, your comments are also so apt. I will continue to bang the research culture drum. Something has to give if we’re all to create a better place to work now and in the future when we’re through the pandemic.

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