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Is there a darker side to workplace resilience?

2 Sep 2021 By Elizabeth Howlett

The idea of resilience has never been as vital as during the last 18 months – but does it just act as a sticking plaster rather than addressing the root causes of poor wellbeing?

It’s arguably the holy grail of attributes in today’s world of work – and more important than ever thanks to the turmoil brought by the pandemic. When realised, a state of resilience can help employees power through stressful situations and periods of uncertainty, and if reports on the trend are to be believed, a resilient employee will see adversity as a challenge and will try to view a negative as a positive. In short; they can turn a frown – or in this case, stress – upside down.

Emma Mamo, head of workplace wellbeing at Mind describes resilience in a workplace context as “an ability to carry out your job to a high standard even during times of pressure”, and explains that, to a lesser or greater degree, everyone is resilient.

Although more a state of mind than a concrete set of characteristics that can be measured, some organisations have attempted to quantify the term. A report by Aon released shortly after the onset of the pandemic said there is nothing businesses need more than workforce resilience, adding that they will “need people who can weather storms,” but it found that only one in three (30 per cent) employees actually felt resilient.

It also revealed that employees don’t necessarily become – and stay – resilient on their own. While a person’s resilience level depends entirely on their psychological make-up, even the sturdiest of employees would buckle without wellbeing support. The report found that in organisations that don’t offer wellbeing initiatives, only 15 per cent of employees felt resilient while in those that do, nearly half (45 per cent) employees felt resilient. Additionally, research conducted by healthcare provider Lime found that three in 10 (29 per cent) employees don’t think they are coping at work, and two-fifths (40 per cent) said they felt less resilient now than they did before the pandemic. Most importantly, nearly half (44 per cent) said that low personal resilience impacts their ability to do their job. It would appear, then, that if built up correctly with the right support in place, resilience can be a major asset to an organisation. The CIPD’s recent Employee Resilience: an evidence review certainly agreed, saying that resilient employees are “assumed” to deliver better performance and be more “committed, satisfied and healthier” at work. Rachel Suff, senior policy advisor at the CIPD, explains the report found that resilience is a mixture of “trait and state” which she says is important in terms of how we understand and influence resilience. “There is a link with mental health,” she explains. “Resilience is related to psychological stress, so the more stress a person is under will be a negative factor on their resilience levels, but also the better their resilience levels, the more likely they are to withstand stress. It works both ways.” 

However, the CIPD’s report came with a warning that the onus must not be on employees to “toughen up” – or weather storms – on their own. It makes a strong case that while resilience has a range of different meanings and connotations, it’s built by organisations helping employees thrive collectively, rather than one worker holding it together through gritted teeth.  

Unfortunately, employee resilience has a history of being used for the wrong reasons by organisations looking to hide workplace unpleasantries, says psychologist Elizabeth Lewis, who tells of a dark side to the resilience movement. “There’s definitely a danger of employers using resilience as a smokescreen for other issues,” says Lewis. “There are a lot of things that can’t be glossed over by saying people need to be more resilient, especially in a situation [like the pandemic], when people are at risk of mental and physical harm.” Unexpectedly, the words ‘resilience’ and ‘danger’ seem to go hand-in-hand, as Sinead Sharpe, HR director at recruitment firm Staffline Ireland expresses a similar concern on the “misuse” of resilience. “For a lot of people resilience means ‘stop complaining’,” she says. “That’s precisely the danger of the word because it means so many different things to different people.”

Sharpe adds that trying to build employee resilience if your organisation is causing the problem is a fruitless task. “It’s no good encouraging people to build resilience when you’re operating in a toxic culture, or they are always in fear of being blamed for something,” she says. “There’s no point in saying you need to cope with constant change and managing stress, but on the other hand saying that if something goes wrong then you’re going to take the flack for it.”

For Mamo and the wider mental health community, the term ‘resilience’ is a point of contention. “There is a common misconception that those of us with mental health problems are less resilient than the general population. In fact, the opposite is often true,” she explains and voices serious concerns on the intent of the resilience trend. “It could result in employers providing staff with training with the aim that they can then justify exposing them to stressful working environments, perhaps claiming they aren’t resilient enough when their health and wellbeing suffers as a result,” she says, adding that workplaces doing this could see reduced productivity and morale, increased sickness absence, higher turnover and even potential legal action.

And this is exactly the type of approach the CIPD is trying to counter, says Suff. “The worst thing you can do in an organisational context is say ‘toughen up, the problem is you, you need to be more resilient’,” she argues. “It puts the onus back on the individual.” Suff adds that how employees deal with adversity is really important during the pandemic, and individual approaches such as training and coaching won’t always work on their own. “If you’re doing [training and coaching] in the context of an organisation with high risk of stress, badly managed organisational change or toxic relationships then it’s unlikely to have an effect,” she explains.

Indeed, businesses battling these kinds of issues that try to send their employees on resilience coaching or individual training could soon come unstuck, according to Ian Pettigrew, who coaches resilience at Kingfisher Coaching. He explains that organisations attempting to plaster over the cracks of a toxic culture with resilience courses are going to be “disappointed and in for a surprise”. 

“If done well, a resilience workshop will help people to push back when they are struggling with chronic overwork,” he explains, and adds that it’s “not unusual” for him to highlight the issues with the participants’ leadership team – with their permission, of course. “Perhaps it seems easier to send people to a workshop than it is to change the organisational culture, but where that is a problem I try to push back, because you’ve got to get it all right.”

Pettigrew explains that resilience training is often misunderstood by organisations. “People see resilience workshops as a one-off standalone thing, whereas actually, it’s part of helping people realise their potential,” he says. “The things we cover would be things you’d cover anyway if you cared about your people. It’s about helping people thrive, not just helping them to not get broken.” 

Instilling resilience among a workforce is perhaps then a double-edged sword, because any attempts to force it upon workers will undoubtedly backfire. But how can organisations avoid using resilience as a stick to beat their employees with, and is it possible to develop it in a healthy, constructive way? Sharpe believes it’s possible – she has seen first hand how resilience can be encouraged with realistic expectations and understanding. “Resilience can be built in a healthy and constructive way,” she says. “For my own businesses during the pandemic I had to think about what we mean when we say ‘resilience’ in terms of output and behaviour, and what characteristics you would like that person to display.”

She explains that it first has to start with a good company culture and a supportive environment so that a gentle, human approach can be modelled by senior managers. “A softer form of resilience is having leaders who role model positivity but also humour, especially when things are heavy,” she says. “Sometimes just sitting down, talking and being lighthearted when it’s appropriate brings people together.” 

However, Sharpe also argues that because of the intricate nature of resilience, employers may be fighting a losing battle. “You will never completely instil resilience in your employees through your external actions as an employer if it’s not already in them,” she says. “Some people are naturally highly strung and you’ll never change that as an employer, but what you can do is create an environment that encourages resilient behaviours and outcomes from your staff.” Mamo agrees that the most important step for employers is creating the right culture and environment so staff feel confident they can talk openly, and be met with support and understanding. “There is no ‘one size fits all’ approach, but regularly communicating and providing opportunities for staff to talk about any issues they’re facing are really important.” 

Both Mamo and Suff also advocate strong mental health support across the business, explaining that improving resilience follows a similar strategy to improving wellbeing. “If you want to boost resilience you would take a similar organisational approach to boosting mental wellbeing,” says Suff. “You can do this by making sure there aren’t high-risk factors that can cause stress and undermine people’s resilience, and making sure as an organisation you manage change well.”

Jill Flint-Taylor, professor of organisational psychology at Hult Ashridge Executive Education and an author on the topic, also agrees that the organisation must be geared up to support resilience with a good culture and plenty of support, but she believes in creating controlled levels of stress. “You should give employees a controlled challenge, but only if you have the right emotional support,” she says, adding that the pandemic is the perfect breeding ground for resilience building. “Resilience really builds under challenge and pressure, and when we are stretched but still feel we can manage. But if you’re stretched and you feel like you cannot cope, then you burn out,” she explains. “If people are taken out of their comfort zone and challenged but still have enough resources and support from their organisation, their resilience will build.” 

She also argues that while people’s own level of resilience is their responsibility, managers also have a duty to not undermine their resilience level, whatever that may be, and support it over the long term to help them build their confidence. 

But despite this, Suff explains, there is also a positive to be found in understanding resilience, because it is variable and determined by multiple factors. “Your environment, how your work is set up and other people’s behaviour towards you, including managers, is going to make a difference,” she says. “That’s optimistic, because it means your resilience is not set in stone and can be influenced. Organisations, managers and colleagues can make a real difference and that’s positive because it means businesses can put in place steps to protect your own resilience.”

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