Is There A Bleaker Side To Workplace Resilience?

The concept of resilience has never been more important than it has been in the previous 18 months – but is it just a band-aid solution rather than addressing the core causes of bad health?

It’s undoubtedly the holy grail of qualities in today’s workplace – and it’s more crucial than ever because to the pandemic’s chaos. When fully realised, a state of resilience may assist employees in navigating difficult situations and periods of uncertainty, and if reports on the trend are to be believed, a resilient person will perceive adversity as a challenge and will attempt to turn a negative into a positive. In other words, they have the ability to change a frown — or, in this case, tension – into a smile.

Emma Mamo, Mind’s head of workplace wellness, defines resilience in the workplace as “the capacity to carry out your job to a high quality even while under duress,” and says that everyone is resilient to some degree.

Some organisations have sought to quantify the phrase, despite the fact that it is more of a state of mind than a specific collection of attributes that can be assessed. Aon produced a survey immediately after the pandemic that stated that nothing is more important to organisations than workforce resilience, adding that they will “require people who can weather storms,” yet it found that just one in three (30%) employees felt resilient.

It also indicated that employees do not always develop and maintain resilience on their own. While a person’s level of resilience is totally dependent on their psychological makeup, even the most resilient employees would falter without help. According to the survey, just 15% of employees at companies that don’t provide wellness programmes feel resilient, but almost half (45%) of employees in companies that do feel resilient. Furthermore, according to study performed by healthcare provider Lime, three out of ten employees (29%) do not believe they are coping at work, and two-fifths (40%) say they are less resilient now than they were before the epidemic. Most crucially, over half of respondents (44%) felt that their personal resilience had an influence on their ability to do their work. Resilience, it appears, may be a big advantage to an organisation if it is created appropriately and with the necessary support in place. Resilient employees are “assumed” to offer greater performance and be more “motivated, pleased, and healthier” at work, according to the CIPD’s recent Employee Resilience: an evidence assessment. The survey revealed that resilience is a combination of “trait and state,” which Rachel Suff, senior policy adviser at the CIPD, believes is crucial in terms of how we understand and impact resilience. She explains, “There is a correlation with mental health.” “Resilience is linked to psychological stress, thus the more stress a person is under, the lower their resilience levels will be. Conversely, the higher their resilience levels, the more likely they will be to survive adversity.” It operates in both directions.”

The CIPD study did, however, include a caution that it is not up to staff to “toughen up” – or weather storms – on their own. It presents a compelling argument that, while resilience has a variety of meanings and implications, everything is developed by organisations assisting people in thriving together, rather than by a single individual keeping it together with clenched teeth.

According to psychologist Elizabeth Lewis, who describes a dark side to the resilience movement, employee resilience has a history of being utilised for the wrong reasons by organisations attempting to mask workplace unpleasantries. “There’s a risk that businesses would use resilience as a cloak for other difficulties,” Lewis warns. “There are a lot of issues that can’t be brushed over by suggesting people should be more resilient, especially in a scenario [like the pandemic] where people are at danger of emotional and bodily harm.” Surprisingly, the terms “resilience” and “danger” appear to go hand in hand, as Sinead Sharpe, HR director of recruiting business Staffline Ireland, expressed a similar concern about resilience’s “misuse.” “For a lot of people, resilience is synonymous with’stop whining,” she adds. “That is the word’s peril, since it may signify so many different things to different individuals.”

Sharpe goes on to say that trying to promote employee resilience if your company is the source of the problem is futile. “It’s pointless to encourage individuals to build resilience if you’re working in a poisonous environment or they’re always afraid of being blamed for something,” she adds. “It’s pointless to say you must live with rapid change and manage stress while also implying that if something goes wrong, you will bear the brunt of the blame.”

The term’resilience’ is a topic of controversy for Mamo and the greater mental health community. “There is a widespread belief that people with mental illnesses are less resilient than the general population. In reality, the reverse is frequently true,” she argues, raising severe doubts about the resilience trend’s goal. “It could result in employers providing training with the goal of justifying exposing employees to stressful working environments, perhaps claiming they aren’t resilient enough when their health and wellbeing suffers as a result,” she says, adding that such workplaces may experience lower productivity and morale, increased sick leave, higher turnover, and even legal action.

And, as Suff points out, this is precisely the kind of approach the CIPD is attempting to counter. “In an organisational environment, the worst thing you can say is ‘toughen up, the problem is you, you need to be more robust,” she says. “It shifts the responsibility back to the person.” Suff goes on to say that how people cope with hardship is critical during a pandemic, and that individual efforts like training and mentoring won’t always be enough. “It’s unlikely to have an effect if you’re conducting [training and coaching] in the context of an organisation with a high risk of stress, poorly managed organisational change, or toxic relationships,” she continues.

Indeed, according to Ian Pettigrew, who coaches resilience at Kingfisher Coaching, firms that try to send their staff on resilience coaching or individual training may rapidly come unstuck. Organizations that try to cover up the flaws of a poisonous culture with resilience training will be “disappointed and in for a surprise,” he says.

“A resilience programme, if done effectively, will help individuals push back when they are battling with chronic overwork,” he says, adding that it’s “not unusual” for him to bring up the concerns with the participants’ leadership team – with their consent, of course. “It may appear that sending employees to a workshop is simpler than changing an organization’s culture, but when that is an issue, I try to push back, because you have to do it right.”

Organizations frequently misunderstand resilience training, according to Pettigrew. “Individuals think of resilience seminars as a one-off event, but it’s actually part of helping people reach their full potential,” he explains. “If you cared about your people, the topics we cover would be things you’d cover anyhow.” It’s about assisting individuals in thriving, not just preventing them from being damaged.”

Instilling resilience in a workforce, on the other hand, may be a double-edged sword, since any attempts to push it on employees would almost certainly backfire. But how can businesses avoid using resilience as a stick with which to beat their staff, and can resilience be developed in a healthy, constructive way? Sharpe feels it’s doable because she’s seen firsthand how reasonable expectations and understanding can help build resilience. She claims that “resilience may be fostered in a healthy and productive way.” “I had to think about what we mean when we say’resilience’ in terms of productivity and behaviour for my own enterprises during the epidemic, and what traits you would like that individual to demonstrate.”

She emphasises that a healthy business culture and a supportive atmosphere must come first, so that senior managers may demonstrate a kind, human attitude. “Having leaders that role model positivity but also humour, especially when things are hard, is a gentler type of resilience,” she explains. “Sitting down, talking, and being lighter when it’s appropriate may sometimes bring people together.”

Sharpe, on the other hand, contends that, because to the complex nature of resilience, businesses may be waging a lost battle. “If resilience isn’t existing in your staff, you’ll never entirely instil it through your exterior actions as an employer,” she adds. “Some individuals are naturally high-strung, and as an employer, you can’t alter that, but you can create an atmosphere that supports resilient behaviour and outcomes from your employees.” The most critical step for employers, according to Mamo, is to create the correct culture and climate so that employees feel comfortable talking openly and receiving support and understanding. “There is no one-size-fits-all strategy,” says the author, “but regular communication and chances for employees to talk about any concerns they’re having are critical.”

Both Mamo and Suff push for excellent mental health care throughout the company, stating that building resilience is equivalent to building wellness. “You would adopt a similar organisational strategy to promoting mental wellness if you wanted to enhance resilience,” Suff explains. “You may achieve this by ensuring that there are no high-risk elements that might generate stress and damage people’s resilience, and that you manage change successfully as an organisation.”

Jill Flint-Taylor, an author and professor of organisational psychology at Hult Ashridge Executive Education, thinks that the organisation must be set up to foster resilience with a positive culture and plenty of support, but also believes in stress management. “You should give staff a controlled challenge, but only if you have the necessary emotional support,” she adds, adding that the pandemic is an ideal environment for building resilience. “Resilience grows when we are confronted with adversity and pressure, and when we are stretched yet still believe we can handle it.” “However, if you’re overworked and feel unable to deal, you’ll burn out,” she continues. “People’s resilience will grow if they are pushed out of their comfort zone and challenged while still receiving adequate resources and support from their organisation.”

While people’s degree of resilience is their responsibility, she also contends that managers have a responsibility to not undercut their level of resilience, whatever it may be, and to maintain it over time in order to help them grow confidence.

Despite this, Suff points out that knowing resilience has a positive side because it is flexible and influenced by a variety of events. “Your work environment, how your work is set up, and how other people, particularly bosses, treat you will all make a difference,” she adds. “That’s encouraging because it implies that your resilience is malleable and can be altered. Organizations, managers, and coworkers may make a significant difference, which is good since it indicates that organisations can take efforts to safeguard their own resilience.

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