22/11/2016 06:57 GMT | Updated 23/11/2017 05:12 GMT

Resilience At Work - Another Paternalistic Endeavour?

Having been on the conference circuit over the last few months (Wellbeing at Work, HR Summit Barcelona and CIPD Annual Conference) we've heard the term 'resilience' being discussed in many of the seminars and break-out sessions. Many delegates have wanted to discuss that word on our stand, too:

"Building personal resilience in our people is a strategic objective"

"We need our people to be more resilient"

The more time you spend working in this space, the more you notice that there is always a buzz phrase in vogue - employee engagement was the hot topic but it feels to me like it's edging towards retirement now, to be replaced with resilience.

The new focus appears to be on coping strategies to improve 'resilience': spotting the signs of stress and anxiety, using mindfulness or yoga, and so on. These are well intended and will undoubtedly have some benefits - but they are sticking plasters, so will they really help staff cope with stress and anxiety in the long term?

Yet again we have an agenda that puts the onus on the individual to be resilient, to develop strategies to cope with the stresses of the workplace. It was the same with the engagement movement - 'how engaged are you?'

This is misconceived in my view - the employee shouldn't be put in this position, and here's why:

Imagine you are at the beach, up to your knees in water, and out of nowhere comes a 3 ft high wave. There's no need to panic - your feet are planted on the sand so you brace yourself a bit and the wave washes past you. You probably didn't even drop your ice cream. However, if you are up to your chin in the water and even a small ripple hits you, you are in trouble - and the ice cream is definitely a goner.

Here's my point: the individual's ability to be resilient and cope with challenging situations is partly down to how they are wired as individuals. You may be able to nudge it up a bit with some mindfulness or whatever, but why allow the workplace to put them up to their necks in avoidable stress in the first place?

It boils down to two possibilities:

  • accept the stresses of the workplace unchallenged, and then prop up the resilience of the staff so there isn't too big a downside
  • understand, from each individual's perspective, what is stressful about each job, so the organisation can learn how to make work less stressful

The first approach allows unrecognised stresses to accumulate in the workplace, to the point where some staff need help, close down, become presentees, go sick or leave. What's more, we know that stressing people too much compromises intelligence, collaboration and creativity, all of which are vital to productivity and innovation.

On the whole, the second approach looks more efficient to me - find out, from the individual's perspective, how much stress or pressure they are under, and you know high the water is!

So I say that resilience is a red herring, another paternalistic move to make an organisational issue into the employees' problem.

Instead, organisations should reduce the burden on their people by removing blockages, frustration and upset. This gives them the headroom they need to cope with the bumps in the road and cope with being blindsided at work.

This involves more than putting a suggestions box in the lobby or a page on the intranet - it means going deeper into the state of mind of your people.

Good line managers do this instinctively - they just know when something is up and unobtrusively move in to listen, diagnose and collaborate in finding solutions. Sadly they are a rare breed. Many more managers are themselves too busy - standing on tiptoes trying to keep their heads above water.

At WeThrive we see this problem in organisations of all types and sizes. They may perceive their problems as connected to lack of resilience, employee engagement, excess churn or sickness, but all these are symptoms and you can't cure symptoms!

The good news is that it's not hard to get to the bottom of the underlying issues - which then creates the headroom that allows the staff, and the organisation, to feel resilient. Give it a whirl on us...