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Many workplaces are structured to generate stress, say Evelyn Wilson and Suzie Leighton. But there are simple techniques we can all learn to support better resilience and creativity.

A photo of green plants
Developing a growth mindset is an important part of resilience

Happiness is something all of us crave in our personal and professional lives, yet at times it can seriously elude us. In times of anxiety and uncertainty, is happiness something of a luxury or a state of being that’s much more crucial than we perhaps acknowledge? The answers to these questions are not always straightforward. Nor can they be answered without considering the flip side: unhappiness. Both states, after all, are fundamental to the human experience. Without them, much of our accepted canon in music, poetry, literature, film, performance, the visual arts and other creative fields simply wouldn’t exist.

It is often the simplest things that can have the biggest impact

But in identifying what we are not happy with and addressing it, can we actually create positive change and development within ourselves and our organisations? And if so, how? Through the Boosting Resilience programme, we’ve found that tools which aim to develop a renewed sense of organisational purpose – like Theory of Change – can really help. As Paul Steele, Managing Director of Junction Arts, one of the programme participants, puts it, “Clarity of purpose is fundamental not just to surviving, but to thriving, too”.

Shining a light

The arts deal with values and ethics in a way that few other fields do nearly so well. We’re seeing that at the moment with the strong cultural focus on a critical issue for all of us: climate and environmental change. So it’s reassuring for the sector that factors relating to these are identified by researchers as essential to happiness in the workplace. Emiliana R. Simon-Thomas of the Greater Good Science Centre, UC Berkeley, identifies the big four as Purpose, Engagement, Resilience and Kindness – or PERK for short.

Of these, engagement is perhaps most easily overlooked. But as Simon-Thomas attests, we need to “make time for the immersive, lose-track-of-time experience of flow at work”. With our need to be constantly digitally ‘on’, time for focus and concentration can be in short supply. Yet this notion of flow, or immersion, is starting to be recognised as so essential that some companies are now “barring work-related emails after hours to help people relax and recover, and to leave them refreshed for uninterrupted periods of ‘deep work’ at work”.

Another interesting revelation from the Boosting Resilience programme was just how interlinked personal resilience and organisational resilience really are – and how important this connection is for a sector so reliant on small organisations and individuals.  

Until relatively recently, the accepted view was that you were either a ‘resilience superhero’ or you weren’t. But recent research shows that although some people are indeed more predisposed – or have more assets at their disposal – to be resilient, many of the necessary skills and attributes can be learned or developed.

Reframing problems

A recent workshop led by our collaborators on Boosting Resilience, the Work Psychology Group, explored ideas to help with personal resilience. These included:

  • behavioural and cognitive strategies, including strategies to challenge how you think about situations
  • purposefulness, including job-crafting techniques to help re-imagine your working life
  • developing a growth mindset, where, for example, you see setbacks as learning opportunities rather than failures

Similarly, the work of Harvard University Professor Shawn Achor focuses on the concept of cognitive reframing – the ability to reconsider a problem in a new way. In his TED Talk ‘The happy secret to better work’, he suggests that only a small percentage of our happiness is externally driven, and that in a work context only 25% of our successes come from our IQ. In his view, our attitude to stress, our levels of optimism and our social support networks that are vastly more important. Unsurprisingly, he also suggests that many work and social environments are structured to lead to stress and unhappiness.

Why does this feel so familiar? Why are we so prone to creating work environments that are primarily geared towards particular types of success? We are constantly expected to be kicking forward, with targets increased and goal posts shifting around us. And yet this is often unlikely to be the most effective approach. It has been proven, for example, that a physical ‘happiness advantage’ can be created by increased dopamine in our brains and that this, in turn, can up our productivity and creativity significantly. Similar positive results are also associated with serotonin levels.

Simple techniques

So can we push back against the dominant narrative to find happiness in the present? There are straightforward methods that have been proven to help us reframe the present in more positive ways. They are all relatively straightforward to practice and include: reflection, meditation, writing down three gratitudes daily, exercise and – yet again – that age-old notion of simply showing kindness.

We can use these and other techniques to good effect. Our Boosting Resilience colleagues Clive Holtham and Catherine Rogers have written recently for ArtsProfessional about the value of reflective journalling. Peer-to-peer reflection and approaches like action learning can also have profound impacts, particularly for those working as individuals or in micro-businesses.

Looking at the bigger picture, values-based approaches can also benefit organisations, helping them adapt to complex external challenges and shifts in culture, practices and behaviours. According to Pauline Rutter from the Values and Sustainability Research Group at the University of Brighton, “creative individuals have reported a greater sense of self-worth, inclusion, trust and understanding when using a values lens to inform their vision and decision making”. And it is precisely those traits that can sometimes feel in short supply.

Whatever challenges individuals or organisations are facing, adopting approaches such as those outlined above really can help. Many are free or low-cost to implement – and as we all know deep down, it is often the simplest things that can have the biggest impact. 

Evelyn Wilson and Suzie Leighton are Co-Directors of The Cultural Capital Exchange.

The Boosting Resilience programme recently produced a series of articles in partnership with ArtsProfessional.

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