How to be more resilient at work when everything is stressful

Portrait of female bank manager with protective face mask and surgical gloves in office, standing, looking at camera and smiling during covid-19 pandemic
Being resilient is what gives many people the psychological strength to cope with stress and hardship. Photo: Getty

This year has been a rollercoaster for many of us. Over the last six months, we’ve not only had to live with the threat to our health, we’ve lost loved ones, jobs and the ability to see friends and family without giving it a second thought.

Understandably, this has taken its toll on our mental wellbeing. In a study of more than 3,000 adults, researchers at the University of Nottingham and King’s College London found people are experiencing significantly more stress, anxiety and depression since lockdown began.

When we’re under so much pressure, it can feel impossible to carry on at work as normal. Although lockdown restrictions are being lifted, normality is unlikely to return for some time — and things may not look like they did before COVID-19.

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Being resilient is what gives many people the psychological strength to cope with stress and hardship. But it is easier said than done to “bounce back” and adapt in the face of challenging circumstances, while staying mentally well. However, resilience isn’t something we are inherently born with — it’s something we can take steps to achieve, particularly in the workplace.

Firstly, it’s important to consider what resilience means. Trying to “keep calm and carry on” when you’re facing big changes at work, income loss or redundancy isn’t necessarily helpful.

“I think resilience is an interesting word. It implies to me at least a level of strength and being able to withstand adversity,” says Hilda Burke, a psychotherapist, couples counsellor and author of The Phone Addiction Workbook. “However, if the type of resilience we're striving towards requires us to numb out how we're really feeling then I think it can actually be counterproductive.”

To get through a difficult period at work, you need to acknowledge what is happening and how you feel — rather than ignore it. “So for many there is a sense of loss right now, whether it's loss of income, loss of the sense of being part of a team or a sense of belonging to a physical place of work,” Burke explains. “To be able to 'get over' and move on from that we first need to acknowledge it.

“I'd say the first step in building resilience may not look like resilience at all initially — it's to express what it is you do feel, be honest with yourself. Only then is it possible to go 'OK this is what's happening, this is what i'm feeling and now that i've really acknowledged and felt that I can create the space to move on, to accept my new reality'.”

This isn’t an instant process, but it requires patience and the ability to treat yourself with compassion.

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Learning to be kinder to yourself can help you control the amount of pressure you feel in different situations, which can help you feel less stressed. This might mean taking more breaks from work, taking time off or getting a change of scenery.

If you’re struggling to manage your workload with everything else going on, it’s important to be honest with yourself and to your boss or colleagues. Saying “no” to unreasonable or unrealistic demands may seem risky, but burning out or doing a botched job because you’re exhausted isn’t a good option.

When you’re stressed, it’s all too easy to neglect your own needs. You might not feel like eating or exercising when you’re facing a crisis, and you might struggle to sleep well if your mind is spinning with work worries.

But looking after yourself can help you be more resilient when times are hard. Try to eat well and get outside for a walk, even if you don’t feel like hitting the gym. Focus on improving your bedtime routine to try to improve your sleep, such as winding down, turning off your TV and ignoring your phone. Make time for activities you enjoy.

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Crucially, having a good support network is key to building resilience in the workplace. Speak to friends, trusted colleagues or family members to help you keep going when you’re stressed and overwhelmed. Even Facebook groups for people in your field of work can be helpful and offer support and advice. Remember, everyone is facing difficulties right now — and you’re not alone.

“It's been said many times that we are living through 'unprecedented times' and none of us have any prior experience of what we've endured over the past six month so it's important to remember that and cut yourself some slack,” Burke said.