Written by Dr Caroline Marlow, Director of L&M Consulting Ltd and Chartered Psychologist specialising in performance and wellbeing.
Articles and adverts about resilience training are easy to stumble upon across in the media, be they by organisations/individuals attending resilience training or training providers. The general message is that resilience training is the cure. A must for all organisations in today’s difficult times. A solution for the caring employer who wants to help individuals cope with the inevitable stress. But is it? The question I always ask when reading these articles is, “Do they truly understand resilience?”
Having worked in many sustained, high-pressure environments, under tremendous stress and hardship, I have personally found that the only (and few) times that I have truly had to dig into my resilience reservoir was when, unexpectedly, things went wrong. Here my resilience was tested to the full for the seconds, minutes or the week it took for myself/my team to regain control by resorting to our contingency plan. I have discussed my experience of using resilience with those who experienced these conditions alongside me and others still working in these environments: They all agree. On the back of this, I have three issues with the way resilience is currently considered within the workplace; all of which are counter-productive to an organisation’s success.
According to the American Psychological Association (APA, 2020),
“Resilience is the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress — such as family and relationship problems, serious health problems or workplace and financial stressors.”
This definition and my experience suggests that a person’s resilience should only be tested, called upon, in extreme times. Yet with resilience training increasingly on the staff training menu for self- or line manager referral, it appears that individuals are increasingly expected to have resilience to cope with and adapt to the everyday work environment.
There is no doubt that workplace stress is having a huge impact on employees’ health and productivity (see Health and Safety Executive, ‘Work-related Stress, Anxiety and Depression Statistics in Great Britain 2015’). Many working environments include; long hours, reduced resources, high percentages to attain, short deadlines to be met, outside or internal (political) pressures. Others have an ‘Alpha male, dog eat dog’ mentality or a culture that communicates tiered systems of employee worth. These pressures are typically not the result of one-off, uncontrollable, significant life (or way of life) threatening events, those with which resilience is typically associated, but the seemingly endless accumulation of frequent, stressful workplace events that range from low to high intensity. Resilience has become (and is marketed as) a necessity for the everyday.
When I had to use my resilience, I was able to do so to my upmost because my resilience reservoir was full; as were the reservoirs of those I both relied on and supported in these moments. Many individuals working in the above workplace environments are constantly dipping into their physical and mental reserves; emptying their resilience reservoir. This suggests that when the individual really needs to draw upon personal resources (and also presumably when the organisation needs them to), the reservoir is not full; it is more than likely empty.
It is of concern that organisations and employees do often not fully realise the effects of an empty reservoir until the consequences become extreme, be it to operational practices such as poor decision-making or to health. In relation to health, this situation reminds me of ‘The Boiling Frog Syndrome’, i.e., if a frog is put in hot water it will jump out. But if a frog is put in at an agreeable temperature and then the water is slowly warmed, the frog will remain there until it to boils to death.
Returning to the APA (remember they consider resilience to be for significant life events)
“Research has shown that resilience is ordinary, not extraordinary. People commonly demonstrate resilience. … Resilience is not a trait that people either have or do not have. It involves behaviours, thoughts and actions that can be learned and developed in anyone.”
Yes, resilience can be taught. But can the typical mode of resilience training, a day’s workshop (often with colleagues) achieve this? Some personal exploration is encouraged, many useful practical tips are forwarded, promises of ‘things to try and implement’ are made. But does this really enable the required enduring change? Solutions need personalising. Change takes time, effort and crucially support. Does the work environment consider how this can be enabled post-workshop? How often do individuals leave such courses renewed with energy and practical tips only to be refaced with their workplace reality?
So, returning to my title: Resilience Training: A Need, An Excuse, Ethical?
The APA suggests that it is normal for people to have resilience. Two important aspects of resilience are a positive attitude and optimism. My guess is that few individuals would impress an interview panel without demonstrating these qualities, and that few inductees start a job without them. So where do they go? Yes, life happens. Real significant life events happen, like those highlighted by the APA as requiring resilience to move forward. But should we accept that an everyday work environment should require individuals to be resilient, to be able to adapt in the face of adversity just to operate effectively and remain healthy?
Is the need for resilience training caused by individuals having to cope with stressful events that are genuinely out of the organisation’s control for sustained periods of times?
For optimal performance whatever the circumstance, the resilience reservoir needs to be full. I was resilient in the toughest of times because my work culture and environment ensured it. We took the time to plan and prepare, with the mind-set of controlling the environment and the situation to the best of our ability. Everyone understood their role(s) and those of their colleagues and team. High emphasis was placed on clear, timely communication. We supported each other, and were committed to each other and our goal. In many cases, the stress and hardship did not even register, the resilience reservoir remained full. When the unexpected, with potentially dire consequences did happen, we had planned for it. We dipped into our resilience for a short time during the significant threat before our continuity plan was implemented and we were back in control. If the plan required sustained resilience, we had it because we started with a full reservoir. Most crucially, we always learnt. The unexpected generated a list of the expected; the circle started again.
Ironically, resilience training often encourages individuals to have an honest look at themselves, to consider what is working for them, how to do things differently to be more effective. By sending individuals on such courses, isn’t an organisation in denial that it might benefit from doing the same?
Is it ethical for organisations to provide resilience training that firmly places the blame for the problem and the responsibility for its solution at its employee’s door? Is it ethical for an organisation not to properly address those everyday workplace issues of its own making that create the need for employee resilience? One could argue that if the need for resilience training is identified, then a risk to employee health due to stress also starts to become plausible. It is here that both statutory and common law are clear as to an employer’s ‘duty of care’, stating it as an organisation’s responsibility to fully assess and take reasonable steps to address the causes of workplace stress. Further, the Health and Safety Executive’s (2010) Management Standards are clear that the key workplace stresses originate from how a business is run.
In a new era of corporate social responsibility, organisations are increasingly required to demonstrate transparency in the outcomes of their actions. Investors and clients want to know that a workforce is treated well, that their investment/project is in safe, sustainable hands. Yes, our world rapidly changes. Resilience, solutions, adaptability are required. But surely this is best achieved by an organisation looking at itself, the culture that it cultivates, the systems, attitudes and behaviours that it oversees and endorses every day. An organisation as an entity has to learn how to be resilient, so that its entire workforce’s resilience reservoir is full for when it is really needed. Without it, how can any business achieve sustainable success.
We hope that the above article has been of interest and of benefit to your organisation.
This blog was initially written by Dr Caroline Marlow for, and published by, the Law Society but adapted here for cross-industry consideration. Our thanks go to the Law Society editorial team for their editorial advice.
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L&M have a broad range of expert services that can support organisations in the development of cultures that prioritise psychological wellbeing; thus buffering against stress and promoting sustainable, optimal performance. We can also provide health and wellbeing presentations, workshops and away days for organisations. Please follow the above links for more details.
Contact: Please contact L&M if you would like to discuss your organisation’s specific needs and how we can help you develop a culture that mitigates against stress, nurtures resilience and achieves your organisational goals.
L&M’s Other Stress-Related Blogs:
– Is Work-Related Stress A ‘Foreseeable Risk To Health’?
– The Boiling Frog Syndrome.
– Psychological Wellbeing is Pandering to the Weak, Right?
To go to the L&M website home page.