Date posted: 3/08/2020 8 min read

Your must-have skill for 2020? Resilience

Experts are predicting bumpy times ahead, so how can you build the resilience you need for the COVID dip and recovery?

In Brief

  • Resilience is the ability to bounce back from adversity and is a skill that can be learned.
  • It’s about optimism, not stoicism, and how you enjoy yourself and life.
  • A key resilience technique is to realise that worry is a choice.

By Stephen Corby

It’s strange to hear someone at the other end of a phone call go through an earthquake. It’s even weirder when you realise they seem to be enjoying it. Clearly, Josh Hickford CA – cancer survivor, inspirational speaker, resilience exemplar and Survivor NZ contestant – is not your average human being.

As the room around him makes a sound like two large bits of corrugated iron being banged together, I realise that, sitting safely 2000km away, I’m more worried than he is.

“Yep, got a bit of quake going on, ooh, just got a text saying it’s a 4.9, epicentre quite close to here, not bad,” Hickford chuckles, before I’ve had any chance to ask him about his approach for bouncing back from stressful events.

Hickford, who turns 31 soon, says he’s always been fascinated rather than frightened by natural disasters. Twister was one of the first films he ever saw.

“I actually got the chance to go storm chasing in Texas. They’re quite scary at first, because a tornado is so much more than just wind and rain – they’re huge. But, you know, tsunamis, earthquakes, those things are quite fascinating to me,” he says.

But a pandemic is a very different natural disaster. And the novel coronavirus, which shut down New Zealand in the middle of its EOFY period, made Hickford’s job working from home as a senior management accountant at bank TSB New Zealand a particular challenge.

That, and having to cancel his honeymoon in July, have been Hickford’s specific hardships, but otherwise he sees the virus crisis as just another of life’s curve balls. Indeed, he says the pandemic is “quite a mellow situation”, comparatively speaking.

“I’ve had a few different life-changing experiences over extended periods,” he says. “I kind of approached this as another one of those and took the same approach, which is that you can only control what you can control. If you have that attitude, and you are prepared and educate yourself, then you don’t worry about those things you can’t control.”

He’s always been a positive person, but being diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma in 2017 forced Hickford to dig deep into his reserves of resilience.

“You definitely have a different lens on life when you have something like cancer, and I probably take a few more risks now – although, being a CA, they’re always calculated risks,” he says with a laugh.

“I met a few people while I was having my treatment who aren’t here now, and going through that you do get an appreciation that life is short and you never know when it’s going to finish.

“Sir Edmund Hillary is someone I draw a lot of inspiration from, and he said that it’s not the mountain we conquer, it’s ourselves. That whatever stage of life you’re in, that’s always the hardest part.

“Whether you’re just 10, and you’re being required to show resilience, perhaps for the first time, or you’re in high school, or then it’s university… at some point you’re going to be required to show some resilience.

“And while a lot of it is situational – obviously I had cancer thrown at me and it was either stand up and fight or lay down and die, so I had no choice – I do think resilience is something you can teach.”

“I do think resilience is something you can teach.”
Josh Hickford CA

At the same time, Hickford is wary of employers who hold up resilience as a competitive advantage or something that can be measured.

“Resilience is about being able to bounce back from a tough time or adversity. It shouldn’t be used to romanticise a work ethic or measure how hard someone is pushing themselves,” he says.

“A rubber band can only stretch so far. At a given point in time, it will snap. You need to have a bucket of resilience you can go to, but it’s not bottomless.”

Josh Hickford CAPicture: Josh Hickford CA. Image credit: Natalie Waugh.

Resilience is about optimism

Someone who has very specific ideas about the way that bucket can be filled, and expanded, is Stuart Taylor, CEO of Springfox, which has been talking about and teaching resilience to businesses in Australia for almost 20 years. He also believes that as resilience has gone from being a buzzword to a byword for success, it’s often been redefined in a negative way.

“Resilience is not about stoicism. Life is about more than just coping until you get to your death bed; it’s about how do you enjoy yourself along the way,” he says.

Taylor, now 50, was diagnosed with a brain tumour in 2002, when he was in his early 30s and given 2½ years to live. It was an event that “really took me into the resilience space”, he says.

So did his ability to bounce back from trauma somehow help him defy medical science? “I’m sure it’s multi-factorial, but it was a grade-three tumour and there is no logical reason why I’m alive right now,” he says.

“Certainly, I tackled it from a therapeutic perspective: I had surgery and radiotherapy. But I also changed my whole life from the perspective of mindfulness, nutrition, optimism, reducing stress. Was that part of the cure? I’d like to think so.

“I’m still here, and in the 20 years since it has propelled me out of a career that was me-centric to one that’s making a difference to others.”

Resilience as a community concept

Taylor is adamant we should think of resilience not as an individual, even narcissistic, concept but as a communal idea, particularly in the present climate.

“When a crisis is unfolding, communities come together and think less about themselves and more about ‘how do we all move through this together?’ And we do see the best in people when there is an opportunity to do things for others.”

Like Hickford, Taylor says resilience can be learned. His company, Springfox, breaks it down into 60 factors you can work on, some of which are as simple as getting more sleep. Those factors can be further sifted into four, more easily digestible themes: bounce, grow, connect and flow.

‘Connect’ is about recognising that resilience is a team sport. ‘Flow’ is about losing yourself in the moment, the way you used to as a child, and ‘grow’ is about trying new things. But a good half of Springfox’s resilience factors relate to ‘bounce’.

“A large part of resilience is about being able to bounce back, and it’s about stopping yourself from heading south on a downward spiral, in terms of mental health,” Taylor says.

“Our 2020 Global Resilience Report showed that 40% of respondents had low levels of personal resilience. It also showed that the concept of worry is a big issue for professionals, and the COVID experience has only piled on more of it.

“Bounce is about recognising that worry is a choice. It’s not injected into our bodies; it’s about our brains filling us with suspicions that the future is going to be ugly. You have to learn to bring yourself back into the present, to concentrate on your breathing and to retrain your thinking.”

Happily, Taylor says he’s seeing more organisations incorporating the idea of resilience into the way they manage people. Rather than pushing people to perform at an unrealistic 110%, it’s about aiming for 80% and allowing space for recovery and rejuvenation.

“We talk about sustainable performance; play hard, work hard but also rejuvenate hard,” Taylor explains.

“We talk about sustainable performance; play hard, work hard but also rejuvenate hard.”
Stuart Taylor, Springfox

Resilience in lockdown

One person who had their resilience well and truly tested recently is Sydney-based Charlotte Fehon CA, an analytics manager at cinema chain owner HOYTS Group. She was stood down from a job she dearly loves when Australia’s COVID-19 lockdown mandated that every cinema in the country close in March.

“Part of my job is to report on box office performance, and with the government restrictions all I could do was put zero on the spreadsheet,” she says.

It was a huge blow on two fronts. “Cinema and accounting are my two passions. Normally, I go to the movies three times a week. I’ll watch anything and I’m renowned in my workplace for enjoying every movie,” says Fehon, 29. “But I am also someone who has often defined myself by the role I’m in. I’m used to working in a high-pressure, team environment. This was the first time that I didn’t have that to fall back on.

“I was facing the terrifying prospect of having free hours, days and weeks to fill.”

To keep herself busy during this period of social isolation, Fehon dived into learning French and participating in LinkedIn Learning. After almost three months, there was light at the end of the tunnel, as cinemas in some Australian states started to re-open.

“The most important thing for me was maintaining a positive outlook. I focused on the fact that I’ve been lucky, that I had a job to go back to, and I made sure that I never spiralled into self-pity,” she says.

“I’ve also tried to see it as an opportunity rather than adversity because I do work so hard when I’m at work. I’ve tried to do all the things that seemed like indulgences before: making my way through recipes I’ve meant to cook, reading the books stacked next to my bed.”

Through her Young CA group, Fehon was aware of the struggles other people had during the COVID lockdowns. She recently listened to Josh Hickford, via a Zoom session, talk to the group about resilience.

“I definitely agree with Josh that while there’s an innate resilience in everyone, it’s something you have to build on and work at. It’s like French; you don’t just turn up and expect to be able to speak it,” she says.

“You must look at the kind of [resilience] techniques that work for you, as it won’t be the same for everyone. I think at the moment we’re all learning to adapt and grow the skill sets and techniques that will enable us to see this crisis through.”

Charlotte Fehon CAPicture: Charlotte Fehon CA. Image credit: Graham Jepson.

“I think at the moment we’re all learning to adapt and grow the skill sets and techniques that will enable us to see this crisis through.”
Charlotte Fehon CA

5 tips to build personal resilience

1. Take time for self-reflection

Understand your current state by asking: What is making me think or feel a certain way? What actions can I take to make a difference? What has worked for me in the past?

2. Pay attention to the emotions that are most useful

Ask yourself if this is the most appropriate time to be feeling this emotion. Also ask: What can I learn from this? Reframing can help you decide if it’s best to ignore the emotion, welcome and use the emotion, or to bookmark and return to it at a more appropriate time.

3. Recognise what you can and cannot influence

Part of being resilient is putting in effort to manage your reactions and behaviour. You are capable of managing yourself, even when faced with challenges you did not cause. Use your energy where it counts most.

4. Set personal goals

Having a clear goal and purpose can help you gain a sense of purpose and motivate you to determine the most effective strategies to overcome challenges.

5. Remain open to learning and growth

Invest your energy into learning how to cope with new challenges, and build your toolbox of resilience strategies.

– adapted from Snow Chen, senior consulting psychologist at Revelian

How to make your business resilient

After COVID-19, businesses can ensure their future resilience by developing 13 areas.

1. Leadership

Providing strong crisis leadership, management and decision-making, as well as continuous evaluation of strategies and work programs against organisational goals.

2. Employee engagement

Empowering employees to understand the link between their work, the business’s resilience and long-term success.

3. Situation awareness

Encouraging employees to be aware about the business, its performance and problems, and to report them to superiors.

4. Decision making

Empowering employees to make decisions related to their work to enable an effective crisis response.

5. Innovation and creativity

Rewarding employees for using their knowledge in novel ways to solve problems and develop solutions.

6. Effective partnerships

Building relationships with other organisations, even competitors, professional associations and clients.

7. Leveraging knowledge

Storing critical information in a number of formats and locations and sharing employees’ access knowledge.

8. Breaking silos

Minimising divisive social, cultural and behavioural barriers to promote a more creative working environment.

9. Internal resources

Mobilising the business’s resources to ensure it can operate during business as usual and in a crisis.

10. Unity of purpose

Increasing awareness of your business’s priorities following the crisis, clearly defined at the organisation level, as well as an understanding of the organisation’s minimum operating requirements.

11. Proactive posture

Creating strategic and behavioural readiness to respond to warning signals of change in the organisation’s internal and external environment before they escalate into crisis.

12. Planning strategies

Developing and evaluating plans and strategies to manage the vulnerabilities of the business environment and its stakeholders.

13. Stress testing plans

Involving employees in simulations or scenarios designed to practise response arrangements and validate plans.

– adapted from Resilient Organisations NZ

Source: Business Continuity through COVID-19 and Beyond, CA Catalyst, download at bit.ly/continuity-covid

From the CA Library

Resilience at Work: Practical tools for career success

Looks at the importance of emotional honesty, strong connections and self-care.

Download from the CA Library