Top tips to strengthen your resilience

In this episode of the Acas Podcast, Francoise Woolley, head of mental health and wellbeing at Acas, shares her insights into the small but powerful steps we can take to strengthen our resilience.

We discuss how resilience – our ability to bounce back when we experience difficulties – can have a big effect on how we work and how we feel at work.

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Sarah Guthrie: Welcome to the Acas Podcast. I'm Sarah Guthrie and today we're looking at resilience – focusing on what we can do to strengthen our individual resilience and wellbeing.

If you're a manager or an employer, or indeed both, we've got another podcast coming up before Christmas on supporting the wellbeing of your staff over Christmas, so look out for that.

But today I'm joined by Francoise Woolley, who is head of mental health and wellbeing at Acas, to unpack this question of starting with ourselves and our individual resilience first.

So Francoise, I wonder if we could start off just briefly by exploring what you think people's resilience is like at the moment, at this point in the pandemic?

Francoise Woolley: It does feel like things are much harder this time around, with this sort of second wave of lockdowns and restrictions. And I think the reason for that is, there's been a build up now of adversity factors. So if you're working on the front line, it's that prolonged exposure to the stressors.

But generally, it's that lack of social interaction, it might be illness in the family, financial issues. The calls that we're getting in, we know that people are working in really challenging working environments. Some people are, you know, perched on the edge of their bed, some people are working off ironing boards, and there's this fatigue and exhaustion, and this kind of build up of things that are really draining our resources and impacting our ability to be resilient.

I think it's also something around prolonged uncertainty. So uncertainty can really make us anxious. And although there's been things in the media reports around us finding a vaccine, we know there's still a way to go. And we're uncertain about what's going to happen in the future. And that really does impact our resilience.

Sarah: So those are the challenges. What can we do about them? Having listened to this, what can we do about this?

Francoise: I think, yeah, we can make small changes that make a significant impact. I was talking to somebody yesterday, actually. And she was saying – it was about 4.30 in the afternoon – and she was saying, actually, "You know what, I've just realised I haven't actually left my desk since half-9 this morning, I haven't even had a drink!" And things like that, where, apart from the fact you're not taking a break, you're not having that chance to recover, you know, not drinking – dehydration massively impacts our brain activity and our mood.

But in terms of kind of work, how we work as human beings, you know, we have these natural bodily rhythms called ultradian rhythms. And what that means is that our brains are only designed to work at peak performance for a limited amount of time. So actually, we need those breaks every 90 to 120 minutes, we need to take breaks away from what we're doing, to take that mental focus away and really concentrate on something else, you know. Even if it's just having a cup of tea or going for a walk.

And you will notice that those times where perhaps you're really struggling with tasks, and you're struggling to find a way forward with your work, those times where you do take that time away, new ideas and new sort of routes forward will actually pop into your mind. And that's because you've taken that time to take away from that focus. And that time for yourself. So it's really important actually that we do that.

There's also something about being boundaried within that. So I know sometimes we might put sort of gaps and spaces in our diaries, but then we might get somebody who says, I really need to speak to you. And then suddenly that gap's gone while you're dealing with somebody else's problem for a while. So it's really about being boundaried and sticking to that. And it does take a conscious effort to do that.

I think it's also, you know, the things that we know, and this isn't rocket science, but we know that physical exercise helps us. It releases endorphins - chemicals that positively impact on our mood and make us feel better and can relieve, you know, symptoms of depression, of anxiety. So it's really important that we do get some physical exercise.

But sometimes it's actually more just about movement as well. We don't have to do this hour-long exercise class. But actually the fact that some of us are at our desks a lot, we're starting to develop these musculoskeletal problems because we're not moving. So being able to move away – as you would do in a normal environment, you know, wherever we were in our workplaces, we would be moving around a bit more.

And we know that spending time outdoors is really, really important and good for our wellbeing and impacts us in terms of making us feel like we can cope with things a bit more.

It's really interesting actually, there's been some research come out recently, around ‘awe walks’, I'm not sure if you've heard of those? It's about going out on a walk but being quite purposeful when you do it. So when you go out for a walk, you're looking outward, rather than looking inward and thinking about the kind of stresses that you're experiencing.

And there's some mindfulness about that, because that's about not concentrating on the worries of the past, or not concentrating on what's the worries and the uncertainty of the future, but really looking at what's in front of you.

But it's also about sort of tapping into your childlike sense of wonder. So that sense of awe really, that we get from looking at the vastness of things, so things like trees, hills, skyscrapers, and how small we are compared to that. And it develops this emotional feeling of awe where, you know, we feel in the presence of something that's bigger than ourselves.

So I just think that's really interesting, because it adds another element to actually going outside, exercising and being in open space really.

Sarah: I'm feeling inspired just by your description.

Francoise: I did actually, after reading that research, I did take the kids out to the weekend – they haven't quite forgiven me because it was pouring with rain! But actually, I could see the impact on their wellbeing, on my wellbeing and my husband's wellbeing of just, you know, just being able to get out, and looking at the details of the leaves and, you know, puddle-jumping and things like that. Really simple things that can actually lift us and lift our mood.

Sarah: It's interesting, because they are quite small things, those things – simple things like breaks, moving, exercise, the outdoors. Why do you think it's hard for us to do them? Because I'm sure a lot of people are kind of listening to this and thinking "yeah, yeah". Some of the responses I see are either, "oh, that sounds great. But I don't have time.” Or, “yeah, I don't know, will it really make that much difference?"

Francoise: I mean, that's really interesting. And certainly I have come across that as well. I think it's so easy to forget about ourselves, really. And I think you really have to ask yourself, does it really take that much time? Because, you know, a 5, 10, 15 minute walk out of your day would make a significant impact.

Going back to that, you know, our ability to focus and how we need those breaks, what you find is when you do take those breaks, you come back, and you are more productive, and your mood has improved.

We are creatures of habit, we get into those bad habits of not taking breaks and not kind of thinking about ourselves. But when we start to introduce these good habits, it self-reinforces, so we can start to see the benefits in terms of how it's impacting us and impacting our mood. So it's something really, you need to make a conscious effort, you need to sort of reap the benefits, and then it reinforces itself.

I think it's really interesting as well that, you know, certainly people I've talked to talk about feeling guilty, really. So feeling guilty about taking breaks, when perhaps actually they're not feeling as productive as they normally do, because they're juggling the things that they're juggling in their personal circumstances – whether that’s with kids or caring responsibilities.

And so feeling like they have to stay at their desk and work all hours. But it just simply does go against what they're trying to achieve in terms of their productivity.

So it's really important to make these small changes, these small times where they can go away from their desks and really, you know, get some refocus back and some time for themselves.

I think the other thing is as well, just taking time to speak to somebody about something that's not to do with work. And we do that, you know, normally we would do that, if we were going to a meeting, we would be having a chat with people before the meeting and after the meeting. So it's just so important that we don't feel guilty about that. And we give ourselves permission to have those conversations.

Sarah: It's interesting hearing you talk because some of this feels quite counterintuitive, you know, you would probably naturally think if I work without breaks, I'll get more done. If I spend time socialising then it will be bad for my work. What do you think's going on there? Why is social interaction important here?

Francoise: Oh, you cannot underestimate the power of a conversation. The ability to talk to somebody about your own situation and what you are juggling, you know, sometimes we feel that we're very much on our own.

And actually, once we speak to somebody else, who may not be in exactly the same situation, but are juggling certain things, or dealing with certain things that are really impacting their resilience, it does make us feel better. It makes us feel more connected. And it makes us feel like we're not on our own.

So we mustn't underestimate that power of making those social interactions.
And I think, you know, businesses have been quite creative in terms of how they do it. You know, we started off with kind of people talking about, you know, quizzes and all kinds of things like that. But also social media kind-of sites that people have in their organisation, where people are signing up and meeting people that are like minded and interested in the same hobbies as them and things like that.

And all that kind of stuff really does have an impact, a positive impact on us.

Sarah: Yeah. Thank you, Francoise. There have been some great tips in there about taking breaks, doing the small things that might seem like you don't have time for them, but actually they will make a big difference to both how you feel and your productivity. And for you, Francoise, what have you found helpful personally that's helped you strengthen your resilience?

Francoise: Well, for me, there's been a couple of things. There is a tendency, and I definitely fall into this trap, of thinking quite negatively sometimes. So at times, I've definitely found myself thinking “oh I'm not coping, I should be doing better.” And it's really important that I recognise when I'm falling into those thinking patterns, and challenge that and look for evidence, contrary to those kind of thoughts.

I think sleep has been a massive one for me. And again, we know that. You know, good sleep helps us. It helps us regulate our emotions. And it helps put us in a more positive mood and feel more capable for the day ahead. We know this, this isn't rocket science, this stuff, but it's just thinking about what are the things that are impacting my wellbeing? And what can I do? What do I have control over to really make some changes there?

So those kind of changes have helped me. But the thing about negative thinking, I must say, you have to practise it. You absolutely have to practise it, and you have to work at it. Because we all do get into that kind of trap, really, of thinking about things quite negatively. So it takes work, it does take work, definitely.

There is one more thing actually, that I thought of that has helped and I think I know can help other people. So sometimes when you take up a new hobby, or a new interest – something that really helps you kind of keep in the moment and not think about things that have happened in the past or your worries about the future – can really help. And I've been playing the piano more. So I used to play it when I was younger. And I play it. And it's the one thing I can do, where I can actually forget about everything else that's going on and really be in that moment. And just sort of playing for 10, 20 minutes makes me feel a lot better afterwards.

And we know actually, there's lots of research around learning new skills and taking up new hobbies, and how much that can impact our wellbeing as well.

Sarah: That's fascinating. And as you were talking that kind of sense of losing yourself in the moment, it's quite similar to the awe walks that you were mentioning earlier, that sense of absorption?

Francoise: Absolutely.

Sarah: I know it's hard to do, but if you had to give one tip, what would it be?

Francoise: I think it's just got to be, be kind to yourself. So in amongst all the other people that you might be helping or the other stressors that you're dealing with, take a bit of time just to think about yourself.

What is draining you? What are you finding difficult at the moment? And what are the things really that are in your control, to do something about? And think about those things and try and put some things into action over the next week or 2. If you've got a goal of, you know, "I need to change lots of things in my life for the better, you know, to improve my resilience", I think that can be really difficult and overwhelming. But if you just pick one thing, maybe that's come out of this podcast or anything else that you've heard, that improves your resilience, and just make a small change, then it will make the rest of it easier. It's really sort of just breaking it down into small steps at a time.

Sarah: Thank you Francoise. I have a great list of tips here: taking breaks, boundaries, taking social interaction seriously, challenging negative thinking, exercise, the outdoors, awe walks, sleep, and learning something new. And then underneath them all you've just said, "Be kind to yourself".

And if you're listening to this podcast, wondering how you're personally going to act on it, starting with just one step. That was your last tip, just one small change can really help us change our habits. So thank you, Francoise.

This has been The Acas Podcast. We have a mental health resources site with advice for employers, managers and everyone on how to support positive mental health during coronavirus. I've linked that in the episode notes for this session, along with details of our training on mental health for managers. And look out for our next episode focusing on supporting staff wellbeing over Christmas. Thanks for listening.