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Henley Africa launches resilience programme: The meta-capability of the 21st century

If you aren’t resilient you are going to flounder – and drown – in the new normal. You simply won’t cope in a world where the only constant is change and the only guarantee is that there is no guarantee. The good news is that you can be taught to be resilient. It’s what Mark Orpen-Lyall, psychologist, mentor, coach and business leader, intends doing through Henley Business School Africa this year.

The course, given the context of Covid-19, is virtual. It’s also asynchronous. The science-grounded course is broken into six modules, which take three hours a week to complete over six weeks – or you can choose to cram it all into 18 hours or do it over six months. It’s up to you how you choose to complete it, but whichever way you choose, there are built in checks and assignments throughout to gauge how well you are learning the lessons and applying the tools.

The pandemic might have changed the method of delivery, but the content remains the fruit of a 20-year journey by Orpen-Lyall, first as an academic thesis for his PhD degree and then refined over two decades training students ranging from neuroscientists to actuaries, portfolio fund managers and call centre employees across countries as diverse as South Africa, Britain, Kenya, Canada and Ghana teaching them to avoid burnout and cope with incredible stress.

“We are sitting at a very important inflection point in history,” he says. “We are currently going through one of the largest social experiments in the history of mankind in terms of working from home and dealing with the pandemic. Depression rates are escalating, so much so that the World Health Organisation has declared that stress is the health epidemic of the 21st century.

“If that’s the reality, then what do we do about this? We can’t afford to roll over and play dead – and that’s where resilience becomes so important in building up people’s capabilities.”

Resilient people are more productive, he says, and resilient leaders lead teams of people who have far more endurance with 52% less burnout and 78% less likely to leave their companies. Resilience has a bottom line imperative too: According to study performed well before the current global public health crisis, companies that focussed on the wellbeing and safety of their staff outperformed the stock market by 300%. The statistics continue to tell the story: 40% of all workplace-related injuries in South Africa are due to work-related stress.

You can monetise it further: Stress-related absenteeism, under-performance and employee attrition costs R32,000 per employee. Globally, anxiety, depression and stress contribute 44% of all work-related ill health and 57% of all days lost per year to ill health. The trickle-down effect is immense, says Orpen-Lyall, even more so in a time of Covid-19 with its attendant uncertainty, turbulence in the economy and widespread threats of joblessness or at best salary cuts.

“Things aren’t going to get easier,” he says, “in fact they’ll probably get a lot harder; we’ve become used to doing more with less and every year just seems to get faster and faster and consequently resilience has become the meta-skill for all of us as humans.”

Orpen-Lyall became fascinated with the science of stress and finding solutions to burnout when he began his journey into the field of resilience about 25 years ago after completing his master’s degree.

“I was asked to help a group of actuaries at a large insurance company that were falling over from stress. You’d think actuaries being super bright would be able to find their way through the problems and solve them themselves, which made me realise that being resilient is actually a skill.”

His PhD thesis took his investigations further, looking at high level managers dealing with the crisis of job restructuring and implementing retrenchments.

“We wanted to do something to give them the skills to cope with a very uncertain world.”

Now those skills have been honed and refined in real life situations in a variety of groups in different parts of the world, showing that these are not just local tools being taught but globally applicable perfected at the coal face of experience.

“It’s a blend of theory and practical experience that makes sense and helps the students not just to survive but to flourish,” he says.

In designing the course, Orpen-Lyall’s been inspired by the success of Yale University’s “Science of Well-Being”, the iconic university’s most successful programme in its 300-year history.

“The course we are offering at Henley Africa is an opportunity for you to reset. Some people just want to go back to the good old days, but they weren’t that good; they were still filled with anxiety and stress. The pandemic has given us a golden opportunity to stop and think.

“This is a course for people who want to harness their potential, overcome their challenges and emerge at the other side even better than they were before.”

Learning about purpose and rediscovering your humanity, Orpen-Lyall says, is part and parcel of a process that teaches you that you can have a fulfilling career and a rich personal life without the two being mutually exclusive.

“A lot of people make these trade-offs in their lives and justify it by saying you just have to do that. It’s not true, indeed from a health perspective, when people aren’t finding the different parts of their lives, their disease burden goes up exponentially.”

It’s the same thing when it comes to actually committing to learning resilience.

“People tell me they don’t have the time. There are two answers to that: You can do this course at your own pace, however fast or slow you want. Secondly, deep change requires us to sit back and introspect. These might be the most important six weeks – or 18 hours – of your life.”

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