Psychological fitness: the key to resilience

Posted 27 July 2012 by
Penny Moyle
Psychological fitness

An HR Magazine article published earlier this year highlighted Health and Safety Executive statistics indicating the potential for high volumes of stress-related claims in the City. This underlined the negative impact that stress can have when not managed properly. But maintaining some level of stress can be a good thing.

Think about physical exercise. It requires some motivation to maintain a regular exercise regime, but we all know it brings many benefits. We also know that once we are fit, it is much easier to do more and more exercise, and to stay fit, in something of a virtuous cycle.

The links between physical fitness and an ability to manage high levels of demands and challenges are well-established, but there is more to psychological fitness than just being physically healthy. We all operate on a ‘stress curve’. Most of us will have experienced the left side of the stress curve – this is where low levels of challenge let boredom kick in, and there can be a distinct lack of desire to get going in the morning. We will also be aware of the right-hand side of the curve, where stress can manifest itself through anxiety, and, in severe cases, sleepless nights and even breakdown. Clearly both ends of this spectrum are associated with sub-optimal performance.

The goal is to find and stay at that optimum level, where work is sufficiently challenging to be engaging and enjoyable, where performance is at its peak, and we are self-motivated to put in extra discretionary effort. Having a manager who understands an individual’s needs and trigger-points in this process, just as a personal trainer does in the gym, can be the key to reaching that ideal level of ‘good stress’; and staying in that zone is an excellent way to maintain psychological fitness, even as the challenges increase.

The way people deal with stress and challenge is influenced by their personality. So an ideal starting point for managers is to have a solid understanding of team members as individuals. Knowing, for example, that one person likes to have a lot of autonomy and is very practically minded, while another prefers to take direction from others and tends to operate based on emotions, allows managers to understand how best to delegate tasks and communicate with each individual, and also how to manage the dynamics between different people.

When it comes to friends and family, the benefit of years of experience means we typically develop a pretty good idea of what makes them ‘tick’, including their personal stressors. Understanding the different personalities in a team, and how these relate to the stress process provides a way for managers to shortcut this ‘getting to know you’ process. Just as a personal trainer would begin by asking questions about goals, behaviours and tipping points, a starting point for managers can be to open up conversations with each individual about how they feel at work.

The more ‘fine tuning’ a manager can do to ensure that their approach with each individual is appropriate, the deeper the level of understanding they will get in return. This will put the manager in the best position to identity the warning signs if an employee appears to be sliding down the stress scale into ‘bad stress’ territory, and to know what to do about it.

Personal trainers provide clients with the tools they need to reach and maintain their peak. Whilst the client still needs their support, over time they not only become stronger, but are better equipped to recognise potential derailers to their exercise regime and how to avoid them.

Keeping our bodies fit and healthy is an established path to wellbeing, so applying the same principles to our minds will help keep us resilient in good stress mode rather than crashing and burning under the weight of bad stress.

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