Pressing pause - RSA

Pressing pause

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  • Picture of Joan P. Ball
    Joan P. Ball
  • Future of Work
  • Enterprise

Building resilience in advance is the key to successfully confronting adversity

Overwork and sustained stress at the intersection of conflicting professional, personal and pro-social goals has been shown to have serious implications for the health and wellbeing of social entrepreneurs. This is not necessarily surprising, since changemakers at every level spend their days (and often their nights) overseeing a complex ecosystem of priorities, all competing for finite energy and resources. So how can impact leaders sustain viable social enterprises without sacrificing personal wellbeing and risking burnout?

Answers to this question often come in the form of trite ideals. Slow down. Get more rest. Make time for yourself. Breathe deeply. Meditate. Be mindful. But, when faced with the choice in practice, many of the busy social entrepreneurs I work with choose their enterprise and those they serve over any of these – and their personal welfare – often until they reach a point of exhaustion, frustration or both. Calls for resilience at these points of inflection can add insult to injury. The notion that one might easily ‘bounce back’ from physical and emotional exhaustion is at best unhelpful, at worst, disheartening.

This got me wondering what it might take to build resilience before we encounter adversity, rather than simply hoping to bounce back after the fact. I was engaged in action research about ‘stuckness’, and the challenges people face when they encounter adversity – especially in times of uncertainty and change – repeatedly came up in conversation. This sparked a deep dive into prior research about resilience that led me to the work of Dr Michael Ungar, Founder and Director of the Resilience Research Centre at Dalhousie University in Canada.

Ungar defines resilience as “the capacity of individuals to navigate their way to the psychological, social, cultural, and physical resources that sustain their wellbeing, and their capacity individually and collectively to negotiate for these resources to be provided in culturally meaningful ways”. The beauty of this robust view is that it conceptualises resilience less as an individual trait or a passive act of waiting to ‘bounce back’ and points instead to the possibility of a more active resilience. In this formulation, we have the agency to intentionally gather relevant resources before, during and after adversity strikes as a means of making sense of challenging circumstances and charting a course when the way forward is uncertain or unclear.

The power of viewing resilience through this lens is that it emphasises resource-gathering, encourages community-building, and acknowledges that context and culture are relevant factors that influence how we might prepare to face the expected and unexpected challenges inherent in social change work. This can be especially helpful for social change leaders, who often report feeling isolated, under-resourced, and stretched thin in their professional and personal lives. So, how might you identify gaps in your psychological, social, cultural and physical resources before you’re stretched too thin? There are a variety of reflective exercises, sensemaking approaches and mapping tools that can guide social entrepreneurs on their journey to active resilience. Determining which ones are most helpful is an exploratory journey that involves making time for dispassionate curiosity, engaging in rigorous inquiry and a willingness to explore.

Joan P. Ball is the author of Stop, Ask, Explore: Learn to Navigate Change in Times of Uncertainty. She is Associate Professor of Marketing in the Tobin College of Business at St. John’s University, New York, and founder of WOMBLab, a transition services consultancy

Follow Joan P. Ball on Twitter here: @joanpball

This article first appeared in the RSA Journal Issue 4 2022.

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  • I don't think we should consider mindfulness, getting rest, etc. as trite. There is plenty of research that shows their usefulness in many facets of life to include a work life balance. These concepts may seem to over used, but there is a reason for that. Because they are effective. And I can see them as being components of personal resilience.

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