In the first half of 2015, I was trying to return to work after my breakdown. I didn’t know at the time, but I was still in the midst of it as I started to drag myself into work for a half day here and a half day there – making the 45 minute train and tube journey into central London. It would take me a few weeks of trying to go into work and “get back to normal” before I realised that all was still not well and work was not where I needed to be. The tears on the train were probably a pretty good, or very bad, sign, but at this time I just pressed on.
On one of these first few days of trying to go back to work, I was sent an email containing a video by someone senior at PwC – the place I worked at the time. It was an update on the organisation’s people (or HR) priorities for the year ahead. It covered the usual territory of ongoing learning, training, professional development and the like and of course talked about pay – or reward as they called it. Compensation – as it is often labelled in the US – would have been a better description of my monthly financial package as it was really just payback for all that I was giving up – including my health – and the parts of me that were disappearing day by day in plain sight. At the end of the video list was something about staff wellbeing. Something that stopped me in my tracks. Something that left me cold and has stayed with me to this day.
The message was about the need for the firm – as it styled itself – to help staff build resilience. It was delivered in such a business-like way and with a pointedness that left me cold. The focus was on keeping people in work and delivering for its clients (code for making more money for the firm and its partners of which the person saying this in the video was one). It talked about the need for staff members to cope better with stress and pressure and to be able to handle all that work threw at them. Whatever the intention, all I heard was that we (I) needed to toughen up. We (I) were to blame for feeling pressure and stress. We (I) were weak.
All I head was that what happened to me was my fault. If only I’d been more robust; more able to cope; stronger; better, then this wouldn’t have happened to me. If only I’d been more resilient I wouldn’t be in this mess. If only I wasn’t such a failure.
It hit me right between the eyes and the feeling has not gone away as I think back. I actually feel a little uneasy now as I write this. I can still see her face staring at me from the screen; judging me; looking down on me; condemning me. I still shudder a little as a result whenever the word resilience is used and it reminds me – every time I hear it – of how weak I felt that day. How much of a failure it made me feel.
In hindsight it clearly wasn’t the right time for me to receive this message. I was in the middle of the lowest time of my life and had not at that point made complete sense of it all. I wasn’t in the right frame of mind to reflect on it objectively or to look beyond her hopeless communications style, scrap away the muck to find the nuggets of gold that lay within.
The truth is that we all need to build up resilience and be able to bounce back when we are hit by setbacks. My problem with the PwC Partner message was that the way it was described in the video presented resilience as somehow an ability to avoid issues and to ignore all that is around you and stayed focused on the big prize – which was the firm/your work. It’s not.
Resilience isn’t some magic power that means you never feel low, tired, down, vulnerable, anxious, worried or depressed. It is the capacity to be able to pick yourself up when you do feel like that and be able to come back and feel more like yourself. Resilience is about having the tools and importantly the confidence to dust yourself down and go again – believing that things will improve and whatever you are feeling today can feel better later or tomorrow.
I am reflecting on this a lot at the moment as I have been asked to run three sessions with MBA and MSc students at Liverpool John Moores on resilience over the next month – both their own resilience and the resilience of their teams. It is a wonderful opportunity to share something of my journey and experience and to hopefully challenge some of the misplaced assumptions made in organisations – even world-leading ones – about how to talk about resilience and what it truly means. I will share some of the message from my materials in due course but as I start to put pen to paper I am trying to do what every writer or presenter should do by thinking about my audience; the person who is receiving my message; the person I want to influence and help.
I am remembering how I felt on that spring morning four and a half years ago: just about hanging together; vulnerable; low on confidence; outwardly succeeding but inwardly dying a little each day; needing an arm around my shoulder not a kick up the backside. When I stand up before the three classes, it is that shadow of the person I was that day that I will be speaking to; rooting for; caring about; holding out a hand to support; and hoping to help him bounce back.