Bouncing back from setbacks — Whilst it is a normal human need to make sense of events, we can all too easily get stuck there. Sometimes people see setbacks as yet another confirmation that life is unfair. Others dwell on the situation, seeking to understand why it happened to them and what the other party’s motivation had been. A resilient person will be able to focus on steps that will move things forwards, instead of repeatedly going over what happened. This means they will be more able to recover quickly when problems strike.
Resilience has been described as the ability to withstand adversity and bounce back from difficult life events. Times are not easy now. How do we develop greater resilience to withstand the challenges that keep being thrown at us? In this interview series, we are talking to mental health experts, authors, resilience experts, coaches, and business leaders who can talk about how we can develop greater resilience to improve our lives.
As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jacky Francis Walker of The Burnout Expert.
Jacky is a UKCP registered psychotherapist, coach, writer and trainer who has 25 years experience of helping successful senior professionals and driven entrepreneurs around the world with resilience and burnout. Distilling her extensive knowledge in psychotherapy, mindfulness and burnout together with her strong business background, she is uniquely positioned to understand the challenges of a demanding workplace or being at the helm of an enterprise. Jacky is the founder of The Harley Consultancy, a Harley Street based psychotherapy and coaching consultancy, and has developed a ground-breaking online programme called ‘Banish Burnout’ which provides a unique framework for making great decisions that will banish burnout, reboot resilience, and future-proof your life against burnout in the fastest possible time.
Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your backstory?
As a child, I was naturally creative, inventing a ‘boredom box’, a shoebox into which I placed suggestions of activities for just such moments, such as climbing a tree or bouncing enthusiastically on my bed, which always perked up my mood, even if not the mattress springs. My rule was that I could reject the first two if they didn’t appeal, but I must then carry out the third. I realise now this was an early resilience strategy.
When it came time for a career, I joined a large UK-based computer company. The fast-moving environment suited me, and I honed my skills and confidence across several departments before being headhunted a decade later by an American competitor. The difference in company culture was striking, moving from a structured, process-driven environment to a more fluid, individual-driven workplace. This gave me an insight into organisational cultures, how the stage a business has reached in its life cycle works in practice, the role of influence and internal politics, strategic thinking, team management, and more. I also survived frequent immersions into the domains of stress and burnout, which means I know from personal experience the importance of resilience in thriving within challenging circumstances.
In the last 25 years, I have thoroughly enjoyed my role as a psychotherapist, burnout expert and coach, in which I can draw on my business background to understand the world my clients move in, as well as bring my specialist skills to help them navigate the next part of their personal and professional story. It’s often said that you find yourself teaching the very thing that you need to hear, and my curiosity to explore new avenues has required a good deal of resilience in order to surmount the challenges of breaking new ground. But that’s been enormously helpful as I have personally road tested a considerable number of resilience strategies and know which ones really make a difference.
Can you share with us the most interesting story from your career? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
Companies often approach me for consultancy on various matters. A partnership who wanted to set up an arrangement to learn mindfulness skills, to help boost the partners’ resilience and improve their performance. A nursing college which tasked me with teaching nurses about meditation. A professional membership organisation asking for insight into the difficult relationship between a manager and his team member.
But perhaps the one that stands out is the invitation to run stress awareness seminars for the board of directors at a well-known national company. It wasn’t until we were half way through my presentation that it became apparent why I had been invited. After an exercise on stress reduction skills, one of the directors shared that he didn’t really experience stress, as he simply transferred his own stress onto his team. He seemed rather pleased with how well this worked for him. It was left to me to break it to him that perhaps his strategy wasn’t quite as successful for his team. And, by extension, his company’s bottom line, since a stressed team cannot perform at their best.
It’s long been recognised that it’s easier to hear home truths from a neutral third party, and this is one of the many reasons why calling in a consultant, particularly when it is to do with stress, burnout or resilience, can more than pay for itself.
As a burnout expert, my takeaway from this is that there is often not enough awareness, even today, at senior levels that the actions and expectations of directors and managers can directly be the cause of stress and burnout within their employees. This is an ongoing dilemma that most companies need to solve: how do they balance the genuine desire to promote wellbeing and resilience within the workforce whilst also making sure that the company remains viable enough to provide that employment.
I am pleased to see that this discussion is now starting to take place globally. Companies are recognising that they do need to do more to support their stretched workers, for human reasons as well as financial ones, and are introducing new initiatives. I look forward to playing my part in supporting forward-looking businesses to develop in this direction.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
I have been thinking deeply about resilience for over 25 years, and particularly on how resilience is a key component in combatting burnout. I have read much of the literature, lived it from the inside, developed my own unique multi-layered approach for developing resilience, and proved that my methods work with thousands of successful professionals and entrepreneurs. I am regularly approached by the press and media for interviews and to contribute to articles. And I have created a ground-breaking programme that takes burnout recovery way beyond the usual generic recommendations, not least due to resilience being featured as a core theme throughout.
I often hear from otherwise successul people who have attempted too many challenges, or committed too much of their resources to reaching personal and professional goals. As a result, their natural resilience starts to fade, burnout creeps up in the background, and before too long they realise they have somehow ‘lost’ their capable self.
Erosion of resilience was a key factor when I worked with ‘Philip’, the CEO of a medium size agency. He had opened negotiations with a rival agency with a view to proposing a merger after many difficult trading years. It was vital to their survival, yet his loss of resilience during this struggle meant that he was finding it difficult to stay optimistic and resourceful during discussions. We created strategies to help him reconnect with his resilient self, as well as build up his resilience muscles anew. Coupled with new clarity on what he was looking to achieve and his big reasons for doing so, Philip was able to gain agreement on merging the two companies in a way that served both of them well.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
There have been many people who inspired me along the way, or who helped me gain insight on what was truly important in life, such as the energy healer who put me in touch with my more intuitive side, the bosses who gave me a great insight into how business works, especially at senior levels, and entrusted me with key projects, the counselling tutor I met who nudged me to train as a counsellor, and the amazing connection I had with Jutta, my therapist, as we explored my deeper quirks and foibles over a magical five years whilst I undertook my psychotherapy training. Looking back now, I can see how each of these fortuitous encounters have been woven into how I now approach life.
But, actually, this story starts earlier still, as I realised my trajectory was already underway when I encountered all of these significant people. They shaped my direction, to a greater or lesser extent, but the drive was already in me. It struck me that my most significant influence was my mother and the example she had provided of being a capable professional (pursuing a successful career as a teacher) as well as a competent mother.
Throughout her life (and continuing still into the latter part of her eighties), she has been a chemistry department head, president of her teaching union’s district branch, UK representative in Europe on womens’ pensions, a town councillor, chair of numerous committees, as well as keeping up with musical, artistic, architectural, sporting and historical interests… and playing a key role in the local community, too. Her example has taught me that women can naturally be leaders by following their interests and strengths (instead of hesitating or wondering if they are good enough), that a resilient mindset keeps us focused on what we want to achieve, and that a rich home and personal life can be part of the mix too.
Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. We would like to explore and flesh out the trait of resilience. How would you define resilience? What do you believe are the characteristics or traits of resilient people?
- Resilience is frequently mentioned these days, yet I often find that people aren’t always clear on what resilience looks like in practice. What does a person do that makes them resilient? And what does it have to do with burnout?
- I think of resilience as being like elastic, which can be stretched but will then resume its original shape. When we are in a state of stress, overwhelm or burnout, our emotional and mental elastic gets over-stretched, and can soon feel as if it is too thinly spread to bounce back. Or worse, the elastic becomes rigid, which means it can easily snap or break.
- Resilient people can adapt to meet their changing situation, they retain an optimistic outlook and stay focused on achieving their chosen goal, even when setbacks happen.
Courage is often likened to resilience. In your opinion how is courage both similar and different to resilience?
It’s an interesting question. Both courage and resilience require the ability to hold to one’s goal in the face of adversity, and, often, to overcome fear. But for me they differ in that a person might begin without much courage but can develop it or amplify what is there until they have enough to deal with a challenging situation. We could think of courage as the accelerator in a car, which increases the power available.
Whereas resilience is more like the the gear change and steering wheel, which allow us to adjust our journey according to changing road situations. Resilience involves the flexibility to adapt to changing circumstances, as well as having the skills to get ourselves back to on track when we have been knocked down by circumstances.
When you think of resilience, which person comes to mind? Can you explain why you chose that person?
Maya Angelou, the poet and civil rights activist, is an exemplar of resilience. Her life was filled with adversity, and yet her spirit was never broken. In her words, “You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them.”
She is particularly remembered for her poem Still I Rise. “You may trod me in the very dirt, But still, like dust, I’ll rise.” No matter what, she is saying, she will never give up. Her resilience will help her overcome any obstacle she meets in the way of obtaining the freedom that she seeks.
The hope and determination in her words inspire me deeply, igniting a spark that never fails to fire my own resilience anew.
Has there ever been a time that someone told you something was impossible, but you did it anyway? Can you share the story with us?
I recently woke up one morning with a clear blueprint in my mind for an innovative online programme on burnout and a burning desire to create it. This was a call to action that one simply does not ignore. I even had people contact me, keen to sign up for the first run, giving me just a few months to complete it.
It would have been more sensible to develop something simple that could be expanded over time. But as I wrote, it became evident that my unique model of burnout required a fully fledged programme to do it justice.
I had heard from plenty of coaches who had run out of steam when writing their course, or found, too late, that a longer timescale was necessary to develop it to a good standard. The task appeared daunting yet I was now locked in to a start date.
What happened next seems, in retrospect, incredible. I fully committed the whole of myself to the task. From somewhere deep inside, I ‘knew’ that it was going to succeed. Each day it became my primary concern, as I immersed myself into reading, researching and organising my thoughts. I wrote it over an extremely intense three months, even working during the night to keep it on track. And delivered it on time.
I am incredibly proud of Banish Burnout, as I have not only distilled my insight and experience of the last 25 years working with high achieving clients, but also expanded my own model of burnout into a comprehensive map which adds something new to the theoretical thinking. It is my intention to translate the programme into a book, but I am waiting for the next raft of unstoppable energy and enthusiasm before starting that task.
It’s interesting how life imitates art. Banish Burnout introduces a variety of practical ways to boost resilience, as this is one of the keys to banishing burnout. Looking back, I can see I was immersed in a heightened state of creativity and resilience that enabled me to forge original ground in my thinking on burnout that I might not otherwise have reached.
Did you have a time in your life where you had one of your greatest setbacks, but you bounced back from it stronger than ever? Can you share that story with us?
Completing my second masters degree proved unecessarily challenging as the training institute did not have procedures in place to make sure that mentors and examiners were applying the same standards to our dissertations. The lack of clarity meant that I and fellow students were flying blind, unable to tell whether we had addressed what was needed when submitting or resubmitting our work.
This experience taught me that if there is no way of locating yourself on the map, and if every reading provides a different estimation of your position, it becomes impossible to know where you are or to set a reliable direction towards your goal. This will ultimately confound anyone’s inner compass, no matter how capable, as inside and outside are returning two different values, both apparently correct. Indeed, brainwashing has been known to use similar techniques. This paradox can cause a breakdown or at least a significant loss of confidence in many people.
Being used to academic success, this was a surprisingly painful experience. However, in the months following as my inner compass regained its integity, I discovered that my resilience had increased, much like steel is strengthened by fire, through being tested in this way.
How have you cultivated resilience throughout your life? Did you have any experiences growing up that have contributed to building your resiliency? Can you share a story?
I am the sort of person who will typically say ‘yes’ to new challenges. I am fortunate to possess a ‘virtuous circuit’ that marries my innate resilience (strengthened from repeatedly applying myself to new challenges) with my instinctive focus towards how to make something happen instead of distracting myself with doubts.
I recall many years ago agreeing to run a workshop for adult education. I was new to teaching in a formal environment, and hadn’t known that both heads of school, highly experienced teachers, had decided to attend. As I stood up to make my opening speech, I was so terrified that all I could think of was to run out of the room. Even the venerable Stephen Fry has had that experience.
It took all of my resilience and determination to stay and continue to deliver what I had prepared. After a while, I relaxed into the teaching, which seemed to go well. Even the heads enjoyed the day. And through mastering my fear, my resilience had been strengthened another notch. I now knew I could get through this type of challenge.
Resilience is like a muscle that can be strengthened. In your opinion, what are 5 steps that someone can take to become more resilient? Please share a story or an example for each.
Being in a good state of resilience and having good resilience skills helps prevent our brains from switching over into the flight/flight ‘anxiety track’ in which it becomes much more difficult to rise to challenges. So resilience can be thought of as the ability to remain in a resourceful state of mind instead of flipping over into a heightened anxiety state.
An important point to highlight, which might not be immediately obvious, is that in order to develop resilience — and thus reach our fullest potential — we need to encounter challenging situations. Resilience doesn’t just happen. It is built through use, just as muscles are through exercise.
My top five traits of resilient people are:
- Maintaining a resourceful frame of mind even when things get difficult
We might achieve this through reminding ourselves that ‘we can get through this’, ‘this will pass’, prioritising how to rise to the challenge instead of being caught up in fears and doubts, or by using our breath to stay focused. This can help us to stay calm, maintain our job performance under pressure and to absorb high levels of adversity.
‘Cleo’, a senior manager, discovered that she could boost her ability to remain optimistic when setbacks occurred through using a simple calming breathing routine plus reminding herself that ‘I have what it takes — I can do this.’ She was intrigued when I suggested trying the ‘Wonder Woman’ stance, a body position that research shows can help boost determination.
Determination, will power or ‘grit’ is an essential component of resilience. It includes the ability to persevere with a chosen direction even when it becomes difficult, much like the keel of a sailing boat helps it stay on course when the wind gathers. Whilst it is generally helpful to acknowledge negative feelings, there are times that ‘mind over feelings’, the ability to stay focused on our goal despite the presence of any anxiety and uncertainty, is more useful. Doing so can help to minimize the adverse effects of stress and develop mental toughness.
Early in her business career, ‘Lara’ was new to giving presentations, even to a small group. It was far out of her comfort zone. But she said yes, and stumbled her way through the first one. Fortunately her audience were forgiving and she felt delighted to have achieved it despite her dread. Lara drew on her resilience after that to look for opportunities to talk and present until she felt comfortable enough to focus on what she was saying, instead of her anxiety. Imagine her exhilaration when asked to make a speech to 200 people at a conference. She even enjoyed herself. The audience applauded! Presentations now are just a routine part of Lara’s working day.
3. Bouncing back from setbacks
Whilst it is a normal human need to make sense of events, we can all too easily get stuck there. Sometimes people see setbacks as yet another confirmation that life is unfair. Others dwell on the situation, seeking to understand why it happened to them and what the other party’s motivation had been. A resilient person will be able to focus on steps that will move things forwards, instead of repeatedly going over what happened. This means they will be more able to recover quickly when problems strike.
‘Gina’, a director in an international organization, was puzzled why she found it difficult to deal with setbacks even though she was very capable at her job. During our coaching sessions, we were surprised to find that her professional self image was still of the young trainee she used to be, twenty years ago, who was called out for making a serious mistake. This was reinforced by the out of date photo on her security pass, which still subliminally confirmed that she was this earlier, unskilled, self several times a day. Once we realized this, we could take steps to update that story. Gina now feels herself to be the seasoned professional that she is.
To be resilient, we need to be open to changing our strategy in the face of changing circumstances. As Henry Ford memorably pointed out, “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.” Keeping an overview on where we are headed instead of the steps we had previously decided upon means that we are able to see there can be several paths to getting there.
‘Peter’, who ran a small marketing business, found it hard to let go of checking how his marketing team were handling client campaigns, as he was concerned they wouldn’t do it as well as he could. When this led to him feeling burnt out, he had no choice but to give them more responsibilty. “It really opened my eyes. Some of their campaigns just blew me away — and it helped the team develop their decision making skills too. I’ve learned I really can trust them to do a great job.”
Finally, in order to be resilient, we need the ability to let go when it is appropriate. Some situations cannot be changed or overridden, no matter how positive, flexible and determined we are. Resilience demands that we have the wisdom to know when to accept how things are, and to move on mentally to the next challenge.
Many companies have had to accept that their original market (and reason for being) had disappeared as a result of the Covid pandemic. Some folded. But others made their peace with this and focused on how their companies could evolve.
The SnapBar, a photo booth rental business based in Seattle, lost all of its orders when lockdown was introduced. Suddenly, no-one needed passport photos, and were confined to home in any case. Undeterred, they set up a project called Keep Your City Smiling, which sold gift boxes “filled with high quality products, sourced from local small businesses in each city where we operate.” Customers were encouraged to buy them to support local businesses as well as gifting them to friends and colleagues to help keep their morale high.
As a result of their resilience, TheSnapBar kept their business going and their employees in jobs, whilst also helping other businesses and their community.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I’d like to see resilience skills as a core part of the curriculum for everyone, and particularly all young people, no matter where they are in the world. Learning how to harness one’s inner grit, to stay focused on what matters (but know when it is time to change track), develop great ways of keeping a resourceful mindset and bounce back when things don’t work out: all of these are essential to navigating one’s way successfully through life.
Outstanding schools already go some way towards teaching this. Just imagine how the world could be if we all prioritised mental and emotional resilience as much as we do grades and course results.
We are blessed that some very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them 🙂
There are many admirable people out there who are demonstating extraordinary levels of resilience. One of the most inspiring to me is Tanni Grey-Thompson, who was called by the British newspaper The Guardian ‘Britain’s first disabled sports superstar’. She has overcome profound difficulties most of us will never face, including being born with spina bifida and losing her ability to walk at the age of 7. But she has turned those obstacles into victories, going on to win 11 Paralympic gold medals and create 30 world records. Tanni moved on to a media career alongside campaigning for disability rights, women’s issues and welfare reform, before being made a life peer in 2010 and taking up a seat in the House of Lords.
At every turn, she not only provides inspiration to others, but repeatedly demonstrates the importance of integrity, mindset and grit (all resilience skills). If we could talk over lunch, I’d be intrigued to hear her take on how to translate her strategies for succeeding at a high level in sport into resilience strategies that anyone could use.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Free checklist of the Top 10 Signs of Burnout: https://bit.ly/burnoutfreechecklist
Website for the Banish Burnout programme — www.banish-burnout.com
LinkedIn — https://www.linkedin.com/in/banish-burnout/
Facebook — www.facebook.com/theharleyconsultancy
Instagram — https://www.instagram.com/theburnoutexpert/
Email: [email protected]
Phone: 0044 7796 904473
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!