It’s somehow apt to be writing about resilience in these unprecedented times. While this piece is not directly about how we cope in the current climate of fear and anxiety around coronavirus, our ability to deal positively with life’s challenges seems to us to be more important than ever.  We’ve invited executive and life coach (and Obelisk consultant), Julian Harris, to talk to us about how to become resilient in these challenging times.


A Stressful Life

In a recent Health and Safety Executive survey, one in six of all working individuals in the UK reported that their job is very or extremely stressful.  The survey also states that around 9.9 million working days are lost each year to stress, depression and anxiety in the UK. Workplace stress is different for everyone – what is stressful for one person may not be stressful for another. It can depend on your personality type and how you have learned to respond to pressure. 

Personally speaking, having worked for 20 years as a lawyer, the vast majority of those years in-house as both an employee and a contractor, stressful situations come in all shapes and sizes: whether it’s in the transition from one engagement (or role) to another, dealing with challenging colleagues (or deadlines), or simply the feeling that I’m spinning hundreds of plates simultaneously, desperately trying to keeping each one of them from falling. Not to mention the stresses of juggling work with all that non-work stuff (that needs to be dealt with in work time!)

When we feel in the grip of stress, all sorts of usual activities become difficult for us.  There is the obvious effect, like being reactive, procrastinating, and having difficulty making good decisions. More than that, we also lose our capacity for empathy, start to prioritise things over people and do anything we can to stay in our comfort zone, avoiding anything new or different.    

Nick Petrie at the Centre for Creative Leadership has done some interesting research on the challenges faced by leaders: stress and burnout come top of the list. He says it’s important that we understand the difference between pressure (the external demands of work and life, for example job, deadlines, family) and stress. Stress is what people do with that pressure in their minds.  

Petrie cites Dr Derek Rogers, who describes stress as “the mental process of thinking over and over about something” – either something that has happened in the past, or one that might happen in the future (the mental chatter).  This mental chatter can cause high levels of adrenaline and cortisol, a combination of hormones that puts great strain on the body. 

In the face of life’s pressures and our own mental chatter, being resilient helps us function effectively and perform at our best.


What is resilience?

According to psychologist Ian Price, resilience (defined narrowly) is our ability to bounce back from adversity. “Resilience+”, which is Price’s broader definition of resilience, also includes the ability to ‘bounce forward’ (being able to grow and get stronger from adversity). 

How resilient do you think you are? You can find out by taking this free resilience survey

However resilient we are, our capacity to bounce back and to bounce forward is elastic, meaning that it is sometimes diminished, or sometimes eludes us altogether and so we need to find ways of regaining it.  So how do we become resilient (or regain our resilience)?


Becoming more resilient

The good news for all of us is that we can learn the skills and abilities that help us combat stress. Key capabilities for resilience include developing greater self-awareness and emotional intelligence, problem solving capabilities, building good support networks and having a sense of purpose and perspective.  

According to Petrie and Price, there are 4 things you can do to become less stressed and more resilient. 

Be present.  Be aware of where you are and what you are doing in the moment.  Your ability to be present has a huge impact on your well-being and your performance.  A really useful exercise for this is Five Minute Focus. The key to this is regular practice and for me the best way of ensuring I practise is to link it to specific moments in my day, for example prior to a coaching session or an important meeting or call. 

Perspective.  According to Petrie, the ability to get appropriate distance from the situations you are facing gives you a much better sense of perspective and can also help you to work out what are the things you can control (for example, your own choices) and not worry about the things you can’t (for example, what your boss might say or do next). (The classic example of this for me is replying to emails too soon, especially those that have made me angry! The easiest thing to do is to fire off an immediate (and probably angry) reply, which almost always exacerbates the situation. As I write this article, I can think of a prickly email sent to me by a notoriously prickly FD. I began drafting the reply immediately, full of righteous indignation but made myself stop, delete the draft and come back to it the following day. My eventual, measured response completely diffused the situation. It was a great lesson in the value of perspective.) 

Think Like Shakespeare. Shakespeare said in Hamlet: “there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so”. Price says that it’s not the event itself that matters but how you explain it to yourself. We are all too quick to put labels on what happens to us, but if we can pause before doing so, we might be able to think about an event more positively than the way we thought about it at the time. 

Let go. At the core of why we continue to think about things long after they have happened is that we refuse to let go. The leaders who are best at letting go are those who ask themselves a simple question: Will continuing to focus on this help me, my people, or my organisation? If the answer is no, they let it go. Nelson Mandela, who when asked why he was not angrier about spending half his life in jail replied, “If I thought it would be useful, I would be.” 

The key to becoming more resilient is to realise that each of these four steps is a skill. Repetition is key. As you practise them again and again, at the same time working out how you can best apply them to your own unique way of thinking, your brain creates a new neural pathway — a new habit. In time, you will not be doing these things consciously. Instead, they become your way of being.


Leading for Resilience

Now that we understand how we can be more resilient as individuals, what can leaders do to build resilience in their teams? The answer, for me, is to foster a culture of resilience, underpinned by 3 core elements: 

  • An environment in which colleagues feel comfortable to be able to raise issues and speak openly about concerns. A strong support network in the workplace is vital. Issues and concerns should be addressed non-judgmentally, with empathy and compassion.
  • The development by team members (and leaders) of their emotional intelligence (or “EQ”). EQ (which many think is more important than IQ), as defined by Daniel Goleman in his book of the same name, can be described as the range of emotional, social and personal competencies which influence our ability to cope with life’s demands and pressures. The higher the EQ, the more likely a person is to be resilient.
  • Embodiment. Leaders that embody what it is to be resilient will act as an example (and hopefully an inspiration) to their team.  They will also be more willing to coach their team to use the tools, techniques and mindset referenced above.

Finally, to end, I wanted to share a quote I love that speaks so much to resilience, by the inventor Thomas Edison:

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”


About Julian Harris 

Julian is a lawyer and professional coach, having qualified through The Coach House (accredited by the Association for Coaching, the largest UK professional coaching body). 

Contact:  Julian Harris  |  |  07799 143 168


Five Minute Focus

The aim of this exercise is to produce an awake, relaxed, alert state of presence. The important element is to practise by focusing attention on your body and your senses. 

  1. Bring your attention to your body, feeling the support from the ground you’re stood on, or chair you’re sat in
  2. Extend your body so that your spine lengthens (but do not over-extend) and your head and neck are aligned with your spine
  3. Relax your jaw and shoulders 
  4. Take 3 deep breaths and then allow your breath to drop into your stomach, breathing as you would normally do 
  5. Feel the settling of your nervous system and pay close attention to your senses – what can you hear? what can you see? what can you smell? what are you feeling in your body?
  6. Don’t worry if your thoughts run away with themselves – that’s normal. If you realise that’s happening to you, return your focus to your senses as above. 

Once you’ve got the hang of it, try the practice several times a day – quickly bringing your awareness and attention to what’s happening with your body. You can do it whilst walking, sitting, working on your laptop or even talking to others.


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