Developing resilience from the highs and lows of working life

The experience of being employed, in whatever profession we take up, is one of the most impactful and potentially one of the most meaningful experiences of our lives.

As we are growing up we are frequently asked ‘what are you going to do when you grow up’? This loaded question is all about work, career, and employment. I have been asked the question and have also asked the question. When I have been asked I recall moments of uncertainty but these were replaced with ideas of what I liked doing, what made me feel happy. In those early days I enjoyed writing, I wanted to be a journalist, I was talked out of those heady notions by my peers and so I looked for something else that would encompass the sort of person I am. So my career began with nursing. When I ask others the question, my question is also loaded but it is informed by my years of employment and knowing that work has to be meaningful. I consider myself fortunate in that today my work includes all the things that I care about and that I am good at. My working life is like this because over time I have developed a resilient mindset, when I have experienced the ups and downs of employment I have recovered from the downs, learned something from what happened, and overtime used the experience to live a fuller life. Let me give you an example….

In 1989 whilst studying law I gave up a well-paid job as occupational health sister to run a campaign for a children’s charity. The children’s charity just happened to be owned by Radio City in Liverpool; I was knee deep in fundraising and co-ordinating events across Merseyside and was ready to launch the campaign when the Hillsborough disaster happened. I was called into the programme director’s office and told ‘you are now co-ordinating the Hillsborough crisis appeal, we are running it from the station’. My response was to step in and work, and work and work. I worked the longest and hardest I had in my whole life. But the work ignited every passion I had and drew on all my strengths. This was the high of work, I shelved my intended legal career for an uncertain future but I do not regret at all that decision. The low came six months later when my services were no longer needed and I returned to complete my legal studies somewhat bruised by my expendability. Today the bruise is put to good use because I accept that there was only so much work, doing what I did, for me at that time.

Today my work includes doing one of those things I like best, research.

The child that always asked questions that grew into the adult who continued to ask questions now has a PhD. One of the things I have become very interested in over recent years is work and the workplace. For some time my research has been about uncovering ways in which to support staff who have been involved in workplace errors so that they can return to work. This interest was sparked by being on the receiving end of a workplace error and deciding that my way of turning a bad experience around was to do something positive with it. This led to developing a programme that endeavours to support the learning of the employee, I am rather proud of it I have to admit (another factor of enjoying my work), but I thought that there was something missing. This led me to look at wellbeing at work and in doing so I realised that I am a walking case study of a ‘well being’. Which is handy because the focus of my coaching practice is to work with people to bring about an improved sense of wellbeing at work. Why do I do this? Well one thing I have realised as I have gotten older is that work is such an important aspect of who we are that if we cannot maintain a sense of wellbeing then we are likely to become unwell, and the consequences of this are numerous. Not only does the unwellness affect us personally but it also affects those we work with and the work we do, it affects our families and our friends. You may remember that I am interested in working with people who have been involved in workplace errors if you want to know why I continue to be passionate about this work read this….

The HSE has identified that there is a loss of around ten million working days in the UK (HSE, 2013) from sickness absence, and during 2011/12, 40% of work related illnesses were caused by work related stress. The recursive nature of stress at work and error causation (Kings Fund, 2013; National Patient Safety Foundation, 2013) adds a human and financial cost that has so far been unattended to.  Employees who become ‘secondary victims’ to the error, brought about through stress, shame and guilt associated with the error become disengaged with work, thereby increasing the likelihood of less than optimal workplace performance. Occupations with the highest incident of stress related absence from work were health professionals (in particular nurses), teaching and educational professionals, and caring personal services (in particular welfare and housing associate professionals) (HSE, 2013, CIPD, 2014). The main causes reported for stress related absence from work were work pressure, lack of managerial support and work-related violence and bullying. Research from the Involvement and Participation Association (IPA) (Dromey, 2014) has demonstrated that workforce engagement produces better clinical outcomes and because of the association of workforce engagement with wellbeing, being engaged with work also reduces staff absenteeism.

Gray, Coaching for Wellbeing (2014)

Interesting isn’t it?

Whatever your career choice, whatever work you find yourself doing, at some point you will experience both the high and the low, when you do acknowledge both. Be grateful for both, and work towards developing a resilience that will enable you to make your working life meaningful. By doing so you will be on the path to taking a negative experience and turning it into a positive experience not just for yourself but for all those you work with and for.