Workplace wellbeing requires mental toughness

I was listening to a cricket commentary last year when the commentators were discussing mental illness among players. The conversation turned to how and why some cricketers had overcome their depression. A lot was made of describing players as “mentally tough”—with the implication that failure to overcome mental illness was a weakness. I couldn’t help thinking the commentators had got hold of the “wrong end of the bat” so to speak.

There is, however, a model of mental toughness which was originally developed by Professor Peter Clough, with origins are in clinical psychology. This model has underpinned our coaching and workshops for over five years and has enabled customers with mental health problems to achieve impressive outcomes.1

Here we define mental toughness as “being able to cope with whatever life throws at you” and it’s certainly not all about “Toughing it Out.”

Mental toughness is a mindset which can be learned. This model comprises the 4 Cs, which are subsets of mental toughness. The 4 Cs are simple and—what I really like—they are easily taught:

  • Confidence—do you believe in your abilities and interpersonal influence? 
  • Commitment—how motivated are you? Will you do what it takes to succeed?
  • Control—do you have a “can-do” attitude to life?  Can you regulate your emotions and the mood of others?
  • Challenge—how do you respond to change? Is it a threat or an opportunity?

The 4 Cs are interlinked and apply to individuals in their social and working environment. So for example, if you’re a leader struggling to engage your team in a new project, you might ask if you need to improve their confidence in you, or if you need to improve your relationships. Or is it a question of commitment and motivation?  In terms of control, you could explore whether you’re stuck in a position of “learned helplessness”, perhaps because you’ve been in similar situations before; or if you need to manage an emotional response of team members to change. Turning to challenge, you might explore any resistance to change or threats perceived by your team.  Whatever we’re stuck with, we can find the solution in the  4 Cs.

As I said earlier, we use this model to help individuals with mental health problems to achieve their goals. Wellbeing requires each of the 4 Cs:

  • It means feeling confident about ourselves and being able to forge good relationships—in the workplace and with friends.  This confidence and high self-esteem, in turn, mean that we believe we can achieve our goals
  • When we’ve defined our goals we can maintain commitment and dig deep if necessary to find sources of motivation and inspiration
  • It means that we can express our feelings appropriately. Yes, we may need to “tough it out” for short periods of time, but crucially we have developed self-awareness and the skill to handle the emotions of others.

Wellbeing means we genuinely do feel that we are the CEO of our personal brand. We have learned to control our lives: we have the humility to accept that we can’t predict the curve balls coming our way but we can choose how to handle them.

In a nutshell, this brand of mental toughness teaches that we can respond to whatever challenges life throws at us. 

Change and pressure are constant themes in the workplace. Mental toughness is a prerequisite for high performing teams—and through workshops and coaching, we provide individuals with the tools to flourish. Typically customers learn self-awareness and how to set achievable goals.  By the end of our programme, visualisation techniques, positive thinking, concentration and focus all become part of their toolkit to improve performance, reduce anxiety and increase wellbeing.

Finally, a word about mental toughness and weakness. We ask customers to define the opposite of mental toughness, and invariably they tell us that it’s “weakness”. This is not the case: the opposite of mental toughness is “sensitivity” and this is highly significant.  There is no shame in being a sensitive individual, but improving mental toughness simply helps them to navigate the demands of everyday life.  Returning to the cricket commentators: yes, on the surface those players who overcame the challenge of mental illness probably did so through mental toughness. But I’d be most surprised if they had simply “Toughed it Out.”

1Bradshaw, S (2016) ‘Employability training and coaching to clients with mental health problems’ in Strycharczyk, D. and Bosworth, C (ed)  Developing employability and enterprise. London: Kogan Page pp 235-250.


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