Looking at resilience – My ‘Backchat’ article for ARC Magazine

This time I’m sharing with you an interview article about me and my work round resilience, published following a workshop entitled ‘Building Resilience in a Complex World’ which I presented in July 2019 for the North West branch of the Archives & Records Association (ARA) here in the UK.

Cultivating resilience is a key skill for all of us in these increasingly complex times, particularly those who, like archives and records professionals, often work in relative isolation. My workshop focused on looking at what resilience is, how we can gain insight into our ‘inner self’ and how it influences the way we react to our world, and practical tools that can help us build resilience, supporting us towards reacting skilfully in the moment when we are feeling stressed.

Following the workshop, I was asked to contribute to the ARA’s ‘Backchat…’ article in order that aspects of my approach could be disseminated more widely amongst those who had been unable to attend. The article first appeared in the September 2019 issue of the ARC Magazine, published by the ARA. You can see the original publication here (see pp9-10), and the copyright is mine.


Dr Alison Newby – historian and coach – talks to ARC Editor Matti Watton about how she came to be involved professionally in ‘personal resilience’ and some tips on how to recognise and begin to manage stress in the workplace. (© Dr Alison Newby)

Hi Alison. Could you tell us a little about yourself and where you work?

I’m a historian by training and am currently honorary research associate at the University of Manchester’s Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Race Relations Resource Centre. I’ve designed and undertaken focused research projects to showcase the Centre’s collections, and produce public and academic engagement-orientated material for its blog. I’m also a qualified coach in the University’s internal coach pool, working with staff and researchers.

What interests and motivates you?

Firstly, delving into archival collections to uncover hidden histories, particularly with regard to race relations. Secondly, coaching. I develop my thinking round coaching through writing my blog, but am most enthused by working with individuals and facilitating their ability to dig deep within themselves to find solutions to challenges they may be facing.

How did you get interested in resilience issues?

Originally through dealing with difficult circumstances in my own life. I became curious about how I could support myself to avoid the downward psychological spiral that often comes with having to navigate the challenges life inevitably brings. This led to discovering the power of mindfulness and compassion-based approaches in gently enabling the growth of self-insight, through tools that allow us to become observers of our thoughts and inner state. I was able to grow my own resilience in practical ways.

As someone who has spent time working in archives, have you noticed specific resilience issues that affect our profession?

Records professionals work in a variety of contexts. Some can be found in larger organisations that offer permanent employment to numerous people. But it’s my impression that in general the majority work in relative isolation. Short-term contracts and freelancing are increasingly the norm, meaning that there is little continuity of employment from project to project and contract to contract. This means living with constant uncertainty about the future, without necessarily having immediate support to call upon from peers. Similar issues affect postgraduate students and early career academics within higher education. But the nature of the sector that records professionals inhabit tends to compound the impact on individuals, having negative knock-on effects on their well-being and resilience.

Any practical tips to get started with addressing resilience from the point of view of individual workers?

Usually, it’s not in an individual’s power radically to change their world or avert certain kinds of problems. We can be far more resilient, however, if we learn to distinguish between what we can and can’t control, concentrating our endeavours on the former, and recognising areas of ‘wriggle room’ to move forward constructively step-by-step, rather than languishing in frustration and stress, hitting against barriers we can’t remove.

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Gaining greater insight into the hidden attitudes and assumptions which drive our approach to life is also key. I’ve found taking a look at Prof Steve Peters’ simply-expressed concept of the ‘Psychological Mind’ (in The Chimp Paradox) has helped individuals, introducing as it does our emotionally-charged reactive ‘inner Chimp’ that tends to take over when times get tough. Compassionately understanding our (individual) Chimp enables us to engage situations more skilfully.

In addition, invest in compiling a particular kind of personal ‘database’. Spend five to ten minutes each day recalling, reliving and describing briefly in a dedicated notebook (kept with you for reference) one example each of something that day which:

  • made you happy
  • you were grateful for
  • you did well
  • you dealt with successfully

In times of stress we’re prone to losing perspective. Our ‘database’ provides evidence, when we need it, that life is not all negative, that we are skilful, and that we have achieved a great deal.

And what would you say to organisations and line managers?

Individuals don’t live in a vacuum. There’s a limit to what they can do themselves. It’s for managers within organisations dealing with employees and freelancers alike, as well as bodies such as the ARA, to bear firmly in mind that records professionals are only human, with human frailties and human needs. Resilience is a big issue, and creating opportunities for growing ‘community’ among what is essentially an isolated, geographically dispersed workforce is key, whether those opportunities be face-to-face or mediated by technology.

Do you have any messages for anyone feeling stressed or vulnerable in the workplace who may not know where to turn?

Do your best to reach out. Don’t suffer in silence. Maybe you have someone you can confide in within your circle of family and friends, or maybe a colleague. If things get really difficult for you, go to your GP to ask for support. Also, in my own case I found my ability to bounce back definitely increased when I took care to distinguish between what was genuinely important to me and what wasn’t, as well as what I could and couldn’t control. Make a habit of this in the ‘good times’, and you’ll be much better prepared for dealing skilfully with difficulties in more challenging situations.

You can read Alison’s coaching blog at https://newbycoachlive.wordpress.com, follow her on Twitter @NewbyCoachLive, or get in touch via her blog or email (an.newbycoachlive@hotmail.com)

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