Building resilience 3: Manage your mental wellbeing

My left knee is bothering me. I think I overdid it in the football game this weekend. I’m going to back off at the gym for the next day or so, give it a chance to heal up.


I’ve got a really heavy head cold. Its gotten worse and worse. I’ve got that really important meeting at 10am, but after that I think I just need to go home and sleep. Or I’ll be useless for the rest of the week too.

We’re quite used to cutting ourselves some slack when it comes to our physical health. Injuries and ailments lead us to deliberately “rest and recover”. We also take steps to make ourselves fitter and stronger, knowing that sickness is going to come. 

In the third part of this short series on resilience I’m going to argue strongly that the same should apply for our mental health and capacity for handling complexity.

You can think of your physical and mental health as sitting on a sickness-wellness-fitness continuum. And where you are on this spectrum changes from day to day.

When you feel great, able to take on the world, leap tall buildings and handle the most intricate of political and emotional minefields, you’re sitting squarely in the fitness end of things.

When even small decisions take huge effort, you really don’t want to open your email and the just thought of a conversation is exhausting, you’re at the sickness end. 

In terms of your physical capability, you can think of “fitness” as a hedge against “sickness”. Eating right, sleeping well and exercising all move you into the fitness end of the continuum so that bad days move you down a bit into “wellness” (rather than from wellness down to sickness). The fitter you are the faster you recover from injury and illness and the more you are able to handle complex physical demands.

The exact same thinking applies to mental health and capability. When you’re feeling “well”, don’t settle for it. Do things to pro-actively move your mental state towards “fitness”. Whatever works for you. Time with a good book. That ten minute coffee by yourself to reflect on the day to come. Silly cat videos on the internet. Just make a point to build proactive mental health improvement time into your schedule.

When walking in the mountains with my Dad he would always tell me to put my gloves on BEFORE my hands got cold. 

Same thing. Get physically and mentally fit BEFORE you face adversity.

And also… Physical and mental wellbeing are powerfully linked to each another. Eating right, sleeping well and exercising all build mental fitness as well as physical fitness. Taking small steps to improve how you go about these three things will bring enormous benefits.

Now. When you have a day towards the sickness end of things, give yourself a break. Notice it. Accept it. Take steps to rest and recover mentally. Just the same as you would with the dodgy knee or the heavy cold. This doesn’t have to mean taking time off work. But on sickness days, do your least complicated tasks and deal with the simplest things on your plate. Save the tough stuff for when you’re better able to cope.

In terms of building resilience then, the message here is: be proactive about strengthening your mental wellbeing. You’ll be building emotional and psychological fitness, that will mean you’re better able to handle the complexity inherent in all leadership.

Click here for Part 4 of the series, where we’ll talk about priorities.

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