Runner Jumping Over Fire

Resilience vs Mental Toughness by Veronique Mizgailo

For International Women’s Day this year I ran an event about personal resilience and what it means.  As I am no Aarti Anhal (Before Nine) who has a fantastic grasp on the subject and ran an inspiring workshop around it for my university, I decided on an hour’s directed group discussion (discretion being the better part of valour).  For it I repaired to the Great God Google to see if I could find an actual definition of resilience.  It was harder than I thought, but eventually I did find something.  It summed resilience up as an ability to recover, but it added ‘mental toughness’ as the ability to endure the things that a crisis throws at you.   I realised that my own definition of resilience actually conflated the two, and in doing so I’d made my life incredibly difficult.

As a BC Manager I feel under pressure to exemplify what I preach (or occasionally scream repeatedly into what sometimes feels like a blank wall) and being resilient was a point of pride for me.  I think I’m petty tough and can, and have, weathered most things – like every one else really.  But like most people I wasn’t ready for the impact of COVID, not so much the actual hit, but the sheer longevity of it.  Constantly going into and out of incident and crisis management, into and out of returning to campus, and in my case running our own tracing system, means I’ve done almost no actual BC work for a year now.  How I miss the days when a simple fire or mere flood, a piffling university wide denial of service or a small riot, would take out your campus for a few weeks or months.  Even if it took out parts of your campus for a year there was a clear route to dealing with the problem.

The pandemic has defied all of that.  It’s sneaky, it changes its parameters … just when you think you have a handle on it along comes a new variant, or a new wave or a new government demand with  24hrs notice.  (And yes, I am worried that an incident will sneak up on me whilst I’m busy reading the self isolation rules … again… )  Here’s the thing, whilst normally you’d be dealing with buildings and servers and strikes and mainly tangible things, with COVID you’re mostly dealing with people.  People are smart and wonderful, but people can also be exasperating, demanding, and at the moment, they are beyond fed up – in big bold capitals – FED UP.   They want a COVID safe campus, but don’t want to comply with the things that maintain a COVID safe campus.  They are sick of self isolating when they feel fine, they are constantly asking when we’re going to open more buildings, even when it’s illegal to do so.  (Side note:  we’re not the Vatican State and are subject to the same laws and rules everyone else is in the UK.)  And most of all, they are suffering because they haven’t been able to see their colleagues, friends and families, or guarantee their safety, they’re feeling isolated and burnt out, they’re worried about their livelihoods and the fallout for their children’s education and prospects.   Yo-yoing into and out of lockdowns has battered their patience and their internal resources.

Which brings me back round to the duality of resilience.  Until COVID I thought resilience was the ability to just keep on trucking, come up with new solutions and thereby kick my way through pretty much any incident … but I was wrong, very wrong.  You can do that for a couple of weeks, even a couple of months, but a couple of years?  So at the discussion event (the thing I started with in the first para) we talked about the different aspects of resilience, how most felt they had a handle on the recovery bit, but how difficult it was to endure.  With multiple calls on our time, expectations, (our own and others) to meet and motivating yourself every day to get up and do the same thing all over again interspersed with short panics, the grind of keeping yourself and the people you love safe,  that was the bit everyone was struggling with – even those who felt they’d had a reasonably good lockdown and much to be grateful for.

So for me, the truth about resilience is that I have to redefine it.  I can recover a building or a process (the jury is out on my sanity), but how do I ensure my ability to endure the stress, the demands, the tedium, the frustrations?  How do I keep myself ‘resilience fit’?  I haven’t really figured that out yet –  although I’m sure that whiskey and chocolate will appear in there somewhere – because self care hasn’t really been seen as an integral part of resilience, either personal or organisational.  Will the pandemic change that for the longer term?  I don’t know.  All I know is that if I want to be truly resilient I need to work out how I can change my approach.