‘Successful working under pressure’
A special insight into psychological wellbeing
— By Cath Bishop, former Olympic rower and diplomat, and Moving Ahead speaker

Working under pressure in various complex political situations during my career as a diplomat required a real awareness of psychological wellbeing in order to not just survive, but to thrive, and be able to deliver clear progress, often against the odds. Whether it was hours- or days-long negotiations, often lasting through the night, or working within a complex, chaotic, conflict-affected area of the world, the psychological pressures on a personal and professional level were significant. This actually helped us to be proactive and conscious about providing support to colleagues, without which, the consequences for psychological wellbeing were destructive for the individual and the work mission.

“Psychological wellbeing requires a mindset that places it at the very heart of our personal and professional development”

From personal experience and a study across the UK government, I believe there are three qualities we must cultivate to operate successfully in pressurised environments and maintain positive psychological wellbeing:

1. Psychological flexibility

In a conflict, the world around you can literally change overnight, often for the worse. It was absolutely essential to have a psychological flexibility, allowing us to accept changes, often signifying a step (or three) backwards and perhaps the destruction of a project. We needed to focus on ways to rebuild, perhaps moving in a slightly different direction. Professional life can be so constraining, from the suits we wear and the office environment we work in, to the meeting schedules and outlook calendars that seem to control our lives. These can start to constrain us psychologically. It’s therefore essential to be able to think flexibly, to keep considering all the options, and to be creative and innovative around new solutions and new ways forward. A sense of acceptance of reality, and a willingness to grow and adapt, are key to this psychological flexibility, and, of course, sit at the heart of resilience.

2. Self-awareness under pressure

Often we understand ourselves and our preferences. We know our Myers-Briggs profile or other personality profiling as it applies to the good days, but we tend to focus less on understanding ourselves under pressure. Yet it’s under pressure that we make crucial decisions, that our leadership is scrutinised, and that we are judged by our peers and team members, so we need to be open to reviewing how we cope with pressure, to asking for feedback about our performance under pressure, and to ensuring that we can grow, develop and look at ourselves in the toughest of times. Then we can be open to crucial personal growth and leadership development for the long term.

3. Genuine collaboration

None of us can succeed on our own. Relationships sit at the heart of all our lives, personal and professional. In the diplomatic world, building genuine links enables influence and persuasion, and building bonds and alliances moves a situation in a positive direction. Developing deeper relationships with colleagues and key stakeholders, and going beyond the transactional in order to build relationships that could withstand disagreement and challenging circumstances, was crucial to success. Yet genuine collaboration and authentic relationship building aren’t possible when we’re not in a positive state of psychological wellbeing. When we are internally stressed, our empathy diminishes and our ability to relate to others reduces, hindering our ability to collaborate and reducing our chances of success. In my experience, collaboration and support have always seemed crucial to psychological wellbeing and effective working.

There’s a final component to mention; one I find is an increasing factor in discussions around effective leadership and performance with a range of companies: Energy. I see energy as a helpful and easily comprehensible indicator of wellbeing, productivity and performance. Wellbeing can feel abstract; energy can feel more tangible. Thinking about teams we’ve worked in that had positive energy, or where pockets of energy exist within an organisation, can be a good basic indicator of where success and results occur, too, so energy is becoming a new metric for success.

A more conscious approach to recharging energy can help here. Let’s move away from seeing energy as a process of starting the day full and experiencing a gradual depletion, then trying to fill up overnight through food and sleep, and starting again the next morning, which can lead to a cycle of ever diminishing recovery. To balance the inevitable meetings and events, and other activities that might drain us, each working day should contains planned elements to recharge us, whether it’s talking to a like-minded, positive colleague, going for a walk at lunchtime, or simply switching off for a moment to reflect and clear one’s mind – all planned into the calendar to ensure they happen.

In short, psychological wellbeing is a complex, dynamic, personal process, that requires us all to take responsibility and make conscious decisions each day. It also requires a mindset that places it at the very heart of our personal and professional development.

Cath was an Olympic rower, competing at three Olympics, winning world championship gold and Olympic silver. She worked for the Foreign Office as a senior diplomat specialising in conflict stabilisation, with postings to Bosnia and Iraq. Cath now draws on these experiences in her work as a leadership consultant and is a member of the Moving Ahead Speaker Academy.