This is NOT a post about the theory of Personal Resilience, this is a personal anecdote in favour of the fact that Personal Resilience is not always the ‘weak link’ of employees surviving workplace issues.
Sometimes, the fault lies with the workplace.
Doctors time and again have postulated that it’s not them, it’s the hospital, that’s the issue. It’s hard to be resilient when you experience a constant barrage of setbacks, leaving no time for recovery or healing when a trauma occurs. I have experienced many situations where I have felt this acutely, and this blog post concerns a recent event like this.
I travel interstate for my PhD on a semi-regular basis. Networking, access to resources, and professional development events necessitate my ability to move around, and I’m quite happy to do so provided that it’s worth my time.
However, I open myself up to a few inherent risks in doing so. Delays, cancellations, terrible weather and confrontations are just a few of the issues I manage during these trips, and each of these in isolation are perfectly manageable. However if you experience one after the other in quick succession, you’ll find that you’re quickly worn down to your most basic coping strategies.
In July, I went on a trip to meet network contacts, attend a graduate retreat, and present my research for the first time. I was going to be very productive, booked reasonably priced accommodation at an affordable, conveniently-located Backpacker’s Hostel, and had a friend in town to help if I ever found myself in a crisis. All in all, I was prepared. I’d done this before, and knew the basic lay of the land (public transport, student discounts, etc)
However, this trip quickly went from a minor inconvenience to a resilience-destroying encounter.
The Issues Testing my Resilience
Crisis 1 – My flight was cancelled. I booked the cheap red-eye (midnight) flight to maximize my time spent interstate, at the lowest cost. While in line to check-in, the flight was cancelled. Since it was the last flight for the day, the entire passenger list was encouraged to wait in the airport terminal for the first flight of the morning…5 hours later.
So, patiently, we waited. I grabbed a coffee, made the most of it, and forged a new network contact in that time. I practised my speech to present my research, did some stretches, and rested in anticipation of a slightly later trip. My plans weren’t totally thrown into disarray, so I was happy to go with the flow and trust in the work of the airline professionals.
However my personal optimism was tested when the 5-hour wait turned into a 12-hour wait without sleep as the delayed flight had difficulty being re-assigned, and the replacement plane had a technical fault. We were boarded, evacuated, and re-boarded before we could finally begin the short flight which could have been done three times over in the time we waited to go in one direction. I dealt with this with humor that grew more dry by the hour, and the passengers around me huddled together in growing irritation. I had sympathy for the airline employees, who all nervously avoided eye contact during this issue, but it didn’t dispel my own feelings.
When we finally landed, we all dispersed quickly – glad to finally have arrived. Crisis over, I continued on with my plans.
Crisis 2 – Due to the intensively long delay, I had to cancel all my meetings scheduled for the first day in my destination city. While not a ‘crisis’ in the upsetting sense, I then experienced the joy of 5 meetings in 7 hours, each with different people. I ran the length of the campus at least twice to make the start-times of these meetings, and was incredibly grateful when some of the people I met offered to buy my coffee. It was mentally draining regardless of how rewarding I found the experience. Without time to do my research or work on my presentation, I met with a friend to catch up and unwind. This helped me to recuperate after the first Crisis, but didn’t recharge me completely.
Crisis 3 – The crisis that almost broke my resolve happened within 24 hours of landing interstate. I got a phone call from my hostel, informing me that in my absence, a repairman had come to fix the beds and found that mine needed work, so it was disassembled and removed. Offered a room upgrade until my bed was returned, the accommodation apologized for the inconvenience and total lack of forewarning. While this in itself was easily manageable, I didn’t return to see the result into later that night, only to find that my bed wasn’t the only thing missing – so were all my clothes.
Underwear, shirts…everything. All I had left were a spare pair of jeans, and the clothes on my back. Somehow in the process of disassembling my bed, someone had moved my clothes that I had discreetly stored against the wall (as per hostel policy) and promptly lost them. I was exhausted, it was late, I was sleeping on the floor that night, and I had no clean clothes for the rest of the week let alone clean clothes for the retreat where I was presenting my work to a room of strangers.
This was incredibly upsetting. Since I am not currently a recipient of a scholarship, or employed by the university yet, I had no source of income at that moment. Thus my budget for that trip was more restricted than if I had been working, making this particular crisis a difficult one to resolve. Did I spend more than I had budgeted in order to source clean clothes, or did I wait and hope that someone could locate my clothes in time? I couldn’t sit and consider my options without becoming emotional, as acute sleep deprivation and an unfamiliar environment were compounding my inability to focus, so I stomped up the street and bought a large mug of coffee to mull over. I had only been in town for two days, and in those two days I had already been hit by emotional crises at least three times, testing my ability to smile and say I was ‘fine’. I wanted to deal with it; process my emotions and move on, but every time I weighed up having to forego lunch to absorb the cost of buying replacement clothes I felt myself crumble a little more.
There was no time to go out to a park and meditate my feelings away – I had to solve the problem now, or I wouldn’t have a solution in time.
Typical of the human brain, I reacted to this time-critical decision by immediately thinking of how this happens in hospitals every day. A patient dies, the coffee machine is broken, and a second patient needs life-saving medications…but the doctor has to choose between the most effective drug and its dose. Unrelenting streams of issues hitting every hospital employee, without effective coping mechanisms or time to process issues, effects everyone. It impairs judgement, slows decisions to a crawl, and turns a normally-bubbly research student into a slouched shadow with a hairline trigger for stress. If I was late to a meeting, or dropped my coffee, I’m certain I would have burst into tears. Seemingly minor inconveniences are magnified under the weight of larger, unresolved issues in the subconscious, and every day I was away from home something else seemed to inhibit my capacity for composure.
Normally, I would laugh at this. There was an underwear thief in my lodgings and they took a bag full of unattractive granny panties with no discernible motive. Yet, because it actively impacted my comfort and capacity to adapt to further complications, it made me a little less confident. A little more quiet, and a little more uncertain. I was less likely to take risks and flex my creativity that week, because I couldn’t handle the potential backlash that any risky activity contains.
Crisis 4 – After the Incident of the Underwear, I went to go and process so I could decide on a course of action. As I was mulling over coffee I began making preparations for my upcoming presentation. As I finished that morning’s email, I got a phone call from one of my supervisors.
‘I’m considering withdrawing my participation in the retreat‘, they told me, ‘because our faculty has no representation at the event and it would be a waste of my time‘.
A waste of your time?? I wanted to yell, What about my time!?
I was told to attend the retreat regardless, because it’s meant to be ‘useful’ despite the supervisor anecdotally proving that they were lying to me. It had the lowest turnout this year in its history, and I wasn’t even going to be interacting with people from my own faculty. Sure, it would be collaborative and I might learn a thing or two from it, ‘But essentially‘, I was told, ‘The information you need for your PhD isn’t going to be presented at that event‘.
I took a few deep breaths and intensely focused on the thought of a yellow dandelion before I responded to that statement. This retreat was the only reason I had endured the multiple crises that week, and this only added to my frustrations. Why was I even there? Because that very supervisor recommended the retreat to me three months’ prior.
I had no intentions of crying over the phone, much less in a crowded cafe full of strangers, so I changed my thoughts from dandelions to Labradors. Simple, pure joy in fur. Labradors didn’t have to deal with this. Labradors just wanted snacks and pats on the head. I wanted snacks and pats on the head.
“So,” I responded carefully, “What would you like me to do today?”
I was told that the supervisor would arrange a ‘Business lunch’ for the faculty, so I could get the useful information I needed despite the retreat’s failure to do so. Networking, meeting and learning all in one go, it would be an efficient 2-hour event that would be free of charge and useful for all.
Alas! Free lunch! I could afford to resolve the clothes-problem, and the information-problem all in one go!
Still irritated that I had paid a nominal amount to attend a retreat I didn’t need to attend, I expressed my satisfaction at the compromise and hung up. It might not have been a perfect situation but at least it was one that helped bring my emotions back to equilibrium. My budget would be eased by the lunch, and my clothing dilemma would be eased within the hour.
Then came Crisis Number 5 – As with Crisis number 2, it wasn’t a ‘crisis’ in itself, but my extremely diminished confidence and capacity for natural resilience turned this experience into a crisis, which I later reflected could have been totally avoided. Had I been my normal, bubbly self, it never would have occurred. However, thanks to running off caffeine fumes and 4-ish hours of sleep every night for a week, I was not myself.
I reacted badly to poor feedback.
At the retreat – which I didn’t need to attend, had spent the week preparing for, and had suffered issue after issue as a consequence of being ‘in town’ to attend it – I presented my work. To me – it went swimmingly. I presented with confidence, put myself into my words, adapted quickly to a perceived shortage of time, and prepared myself for constructive criticism on how I could improve. Two points I had already expected, like ‘don’t read off your notes‘ and ‘make more eye contact with the audience‘ – were accounted for. However, those points weren’t mentioned. I got a brief ‘good content, you explained yourself well‘ before the chair of the session brought up my presentation style.
As a stylistic choice, they strongly disliked my approach. Not only was my natural style ‘too showy’, but I received comments along the line of ‘taking the piss‘ and ‘not taking your work seriously‘.
To compound this surprising comment, the group I had presented to all took turns in phrasing that exact sentiment. ‘You sounded like an infomercial‘; ‘It sounded like you were trying to sell us something’; ‘I don’t know about your industry, but we don’t present like that‘.
For context, dear readers; On a normal day, I could have taken that feedback on the chin. These people weren’t in my industry, knew little to nothing about me, and certainly knew nothing about why my presentation style was ‘like an infomercial’. It has to be – my target audience usually has a tiny attention span due to exhaustion, corporate demands on time, or a lack of exposure to academic prose. My over-emphasis on attention-grabbing techniques was a carefully developed and purpose-built approach which in normal circumstances is received incredibly well by the general public. Furthermore, on that day my presentation was received very well – everyone in the room could recall exactly what I was studying the next day, which implies I left a lasting impression.
My battered emotional state disagreed. BAD, it cried, THIS IS AWFUL.
In my sleep-deprived, caffeine-reliant, grumpy, clothes-devoid, stressed and displaced mind, the negative responses were the worst thing ever. It was worse than having my plane delayed. It was worse than sleeping on the floor of a room I paid for. It was worse than losing half my belongings on the first day of a week-long trip. The chair of the session thought I was a shallow show-pony, my PhD peers all took turns at lumping in their unhelpful comments, and nobody took a millisecond to consider in their responses that maybe…just maybe...a PhD in Management has extremely different requirements.
I bit my tongue so I wouldn’t start crying.
Attempts to reassure me failed, because they focused on entirely the wrong thing.
“You just have to believe in your work,” I was told kindly, “then it will come across better.”
I DO BELIEVE IN MY WORK – I wanted to shout – I’m not lacking confidence; I’ve just had a really shitty week!!
I made a non-committal noise, because shouting is socially frowned upon, and nursed my hurt pride until I could seek out my supervisor – who had eventually changed her mind and decided to attend anyway.
“Ignore them!” she laughed after she handed the feedback cards back, “You were perfect.”
That, my friends, was precisely what I needed to hear. Someone from my industry who had my back, and understood the needs of my profession. Someone who did know me, someone who did understand the audience I usually present to, and someone who knew the realities of my experiences that week. My supervisor didn’t focus on ‘you’ll be better next time’, because I was already good. I knew that before I arrived at the retreat, and I know that now. But in the moment – subconsciously struggling with the crises I had experienced as I encountered a new emotional challenge – I questioned myself.
Had I been my normal self, I would have challenged the feedback on the spot. Had I been my normal self, I would not have left the room before questioning every critique on my presentation style with ‘why do you think that?’ and ‘why do you think my presentation style is so forceful?’. Had I been my normal self – not stressed, not a shambles – I would have spoken up and replied, “With all due respect ma’am, but your feedback is neither constructive, nor informed.”
And that, dear readers, is all the difference that personal resilience can make. Instead of convincing a room full of strangers that I don’t believe in my research and that I ‘just need some practice’, I could have defended my approach to presentations and walked out of the retreat with my confidence intact. I would never have questioned my capabilities in the face of people who work in vastly different environments, and could have responded in a way that did myself justice. If I had the time to emotionally process the crises that had occurred previously, I could have smiled at the feedback and mentally thrown it in the bin. Instead, I over-focused on the negatives and ruminated on them for days, before finally going home to angrily scrub my kitchen for an hour while muttering expletives so I could finally express how I felt.
Normal me is royally pissed off at how I silently accepted what happened that week, and that I didn’t clap back at every criticism that came my way. And it makes me wonder…how many medical mistakes occur because doctors are so emotionally exhausted that they don’t speak up? How many issues aren’t raised because nurses aren’t themselves anymore? How much of the negative hospital working conditions arise because nobody in the team has had time to cope or re-build their personal resilience?
If I had to endure multiple weeks like the one I just described, you would have a very different person writing this blog. And yet, medical staff do it all the time. Which is why I posted this anecdote – because I can empathise with how hard it must be to suffer trauma on a regular basis as a result of the nature of your job. Because resilience isn’t a ‘skill’, it’s an emotional reserve. And, most importantly, sometimes the issue isn’t with the resilience of the individual – sometimes it’s the circumstances that need to change.