Updated: Mar 23
Resilience is all the rage right now.
What is a resilient diplomat anyway?
This is the first post that relates to the central theme of resilience in diplomats.
What is resilience?
Resilience in this context refers to psychological resilience, a key component of which is the ability to spring back to form after a dramatic or traumatic event.
We diplomats respond to a lot that is outside of our control. We serve political masters who will say and do what they need to get into, and stay in, office. We work at the frontier of nation states. This doesn't mean that we stand on actual borders, rather we work in other countries advancing our country's interests and seeking to influence them to take actions that help us.
Try as we may - and we can try very hard - we diplomats simply cannot force another country's government to see things our way. Another part of government has that role - it's called the military.
We also respond to a whole range of events from natural disasters, war, acts of terror and other civil disturbances to individuals being arrested, hospitalised or dying.
In short, we spend a lot of our time responding to events outside of our control. We know this, so we constantly plan our response. This swinging into action to help out and make a difference is the great part of the job, isn't it?
Our employers need to be sure that those diplomats being posted to a specific country are psychologically resilient enough to withstand the mental, physical and emotional stresses that come with a posting there.
In my case, I've been psychologically resilience tested prior to each of my postings. This involved responding to a long questionnaire (a test of resilience in itself) and then a short discussion with a psychologist. The psychologist would then tell my employer if I was resilient enough for a posting. The same happened to all my colleagues in my employing agency prior to their postings.
It's easy to see why this is needed. No one wants to send someone to a place like Kabul if they are not psychologically resilient enough to cope. Our employers are fulfilling their duty of care.
What's the problem?
Actually, there are a few problems.
1. We make the difficult look easy
My friends in the diplomatic service are some of the toughest people I know. They swing into action when one of their citizens is injured or killed. They visit the hellholes that pass for prisons in many of the countries we live when one of our citizens falls afoul of the local laws. They are up early and stay up late when a Minister is in town to make sure that they have the information they need to do their job well. This is tough work, and they make it look easy.
Why do we have this image of being effete striped pant cookie pushers or elitist fat cats? Yes, we are good with words. Indeed, many of us have perfected the skill of speaking or writing without saying anything of value at all. To those outside the profession, this gives the impression that we are all talk and no action; that we don't have any skin in the game.
We have all heard criticisms that we don't move fast enough or the accusations that we thwart the will of our political masters. We work at the margins of domestic politics and apply our country's domestic political priorities onto the world. So does every other nation. We know that progress can take time, require building relationships (hence lunches and other work occasions that look to others like social events) and can be measured in months and years, not days and weeks.
This makes us easy targets for politicians, media pundits and others. They see the lunches, receptions and other events that we host or attend and think that this is all there is to the job. To get us to refocus on what's important, budgets and positions are cut. More rounds of belt tightening are called as expectations to deliver rise. More with less.
This is the nature of our work. We've all seen it a few times now. But we still get it done.
2. We work in some genuinely stressful places
The stressors of living and working in Kabul or Baghdad are well known. But every place is stressful in its own way.
It takes a unique person to have what it takes to work in a plainly dangerous place advancing their country's interests. This person must be able to do the work of a diplomat as well as live and work in the knowledge that some people want them dead.
We all know someone who is living, or has lived, in these dangerous places. They invariably swat away the concerns, shrug their shoulders and dismiss the dangers as being overstated and how lovely the place is/was.
Is that resilience? If so, how much of that is feigned?
Further, we all know someone, or have a friend of a friend, who's life was ended or irreversibly altered one day at work when someone attacked their workplace - be they diplomats or our excellent local staff. The list of attacks against diplomatic missions is so long that there's even a Wikipedia page devoted to them.
Our employing agencies and host governments do everything that they can to make sure that we (ourselves and our dependents) are kept as safe as possible while serving overseas. For all this, the reality is that the bad guys' methods continue to evolve faster than our security can keep up, and the attacks and threats to us and our families continue. They become ever more sophisticated; witness the microwave sonic attacks against US diplomatic missions in Guangzhou and Havana that leave people afflicted with potentially serious concussive injuries.
The threats are not only in our workplaces. Our homes are also targets. So are our children's schools. The threat can be real.
3. We rarely get the opportunity to 'spring back to form'
Following the constant rounds of belt-tightening and endless reviews, we are frequently called on to take on more work or widen our focus.
Think about this for a moment: how many items are on your to-do list that you never get time to do?
I'm going to say that your days are consumed by the urgent, rather than the important. The pace is relentless, isn't it? There's meetings on one issue, teleconferences on another. Our days are filled with talking, but no time to do.
And while there's simultaneously less money and more work, there's still the expectation that we will be all things to everybody all the time.
As we are in our mid-careers, we are sandwiched. We are sufficiently senior to have a seat at the grown-ups table, but we're junior enough that we then have to go put strategy into action and do the work. Those who report to us are telling us that they're overworked and tired. Those to whom we report just want the work done quickly, without fuss and cheaply, every time.
'It's all good', I hear you say. 'This is all part of the job'. Indeed, it is all good. Until it's not.
To do it all, our work days grow longer. Earlier mornings. Later nights. Working through lunches. Working on weekends. Sneaky checks of our emails during the evening. Of course this is doable during a crisis, but regular workloads don't constitute a crisis. We put off taking leave to get through the work. We work through illness. We stop exercising. Sleep becomes a luxury. Over time, we risk disconnection from ourselves and those important to us. We become the job.
The danger is that there's no time to 'spring back to form', which is central to psychological resilience. Like trees in strong winds, we're always flexed. We are always bending. We keep accommodating. We keep doing what needs to be done.
Until we break. Something always breaks: our physical health, our mental health, our emotional well-being.
Many of us mid-career diplomats are no longer resilient.
4. We fear not being resilient
People found to be resilient get postings. People who can show that they can get it done get good attention. They're the ones who get known. When you work in a global organisation, getting known by bosses back home is everything. This makes it easier to be promoted, to get another posting.
We desperately want to be the person who is the safe pair of hands. The person who is sound.
We work in a hyper-competitive environment, surrounded by people who are as well educated as we are and who are just as eager to make their mark on the world.
We fear being judged as not being made of the right stuff. We fear the 'Are you not resilient?' response when we raise an issue with our employer.
So while we have access to psychological support through our employers, we are reluctant to use it for fear of being seen as weak. Instead, we first mask our hurt. We numb our pain.
What's a mid-career diplomat to do?
When we are at work, we'd all politely call everything I've described as a 'challenge'. Handling challenges plays well in job interviews. Privately, we're more likely to say things are messed up (we'd probably call it something stronger, but my Mum reads this, so I need to watch my language...).
We need to remember that we don't work in regular workplaces or live in regular places. We do extraordinary things each day.
For all the frustrations, we know that we love what we do.
We must acknowledge the damage that the relentlessness of our work and the stresses we and our families face. It's not normal to be the target of people wanting to kill you or your families because of your job. It's not normal to work in heavily fortified buildings. Your job shouldn't kill you or anyone else.
For all the amazing, possibly life-changing work that we do, we need to remember that we're human. We're not immune to the impact of unrelenting stress.
We need to be resilient. We need to come back to our original state.
This week, your challenge is to spring back to your original state at least once in the day. I challenge you to get out of the office for at least 15 minutes every day. Go for a walk and be where you are. And no phone calls, emails or social media checking during this time, either. The only time that you can use your phone is to take a photo of something that connects you to where you are.
Important notice: All views expressed above are my own and do not reflect any official position. The words published above are intended to support, challenge and inspire diplomats and those living the diplomatic life as they reconnect with themselves and the world around them. They are not intended to, nor should they, replace the advice of a licensed helping professional.