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Resilience – it can be more than a buzzword

RAW Resilience and Wellbeing Network

At the recent Resilience and Wellbeing Network seminar, Jacqui Wilmshurst asked, “What are your current buzzwords?” If you are up for this, why not take a minute and write down the buzzwords you’re hearing around?

I don’t know about you but I dislike it when perfectly good words get infected with a business mantra. They quickly become devoid of meaning.

I am particularly upset about ‘resilient’ – rather a vigorous word which is currently having all the energy beaten out of it. It will emerge as a limp rag very soon and those of us who like to use words that actually mean something will have to search for a replacement.

Resilience has been around a while, with some writers questioning the buzzword six or seven years ago. It was about the ability to bounce back, and for many of us that’s a pretty good outcome after a traumatic hit. It was used not only for the individual, but for communities hit by natural disaster, and cities facing crises. It quickly moved to organisations after economic downturns.

Working out what we need to have a better chance of surviving seems a good thing to me, and worth some investment of time and energy. For me, resilience means having reserves to manage the difficult times ahead. It might be an organisation or an individual, putting support in place to ensure that when change comes, recovery is quicker and easier. Resilience is a compliment paid to someone who has survived a period of great adversity and emerged whole, sometimes even stronger and more experienced than before.

Or at least that’s what it should mean. But right now, the meaning is up for grabs. For example, in the environmental world some are talking about the “resilience option” for climate change. (In essence: Deal with it.) This places the emphasis not on those adding to the problem, but to those on the receiving end – this is how it is, get used to it and adapt. In organisations this can mean the shift from minimising pressures on employees – reducing the need to be resilient – to expecting individuals to look after themselves.

The need for resilience in organisations and people could jump-start significant changes in our ways of working, our relationship to the community, and our relationships with one other. But to seize that opportunity, we need to get real about what resilience is — and what it isn’t. As with any buzzword a few minutes spent asking a few questions can be valuable.

  • What do you mean by resilience?
  • Resilient to what?
  • Whose resilience are we talking about?

Helping people to help themselves is clearly part of the story, but it isn’t the whole story.

Some managers see resilience as an excuse to get blood out of a stone. It has become another stick to beat staff with. They are expected to work longer and longer hours (while being continuously and uncomplainingly innovative and passionate, of course), and if they stumble under the pressure they risk being seen as lacking resilience.

Human beings are naturally very resilient – we have to be to survive! But resilience, like anything else, is not endless. Like elastic, if it is stretched to its limit too many times it will eventually lose its stretch capacity. Resilience in the face of adversity or a crisis is only possible if people know that the situation is temporary. Resilience is do-able when you feel that if you grit your teeth, put your head down and endure what you must in the short term, relief and reward await you in the future.

Burnout is what occurs when people are expected to do too much for too long with no respite in sight. Burnout is not a failure of resilience; it is a consequence of resilience being taken for granted.

Human beings are not machines, we need rest. We need recreation. Our relationships and family will collapse if we are too exhausted to put time and effort into them. People enduring personal turmoil have few emotional resources left over for resilience in the workplace so it makes sense for our organisations to encourage people to spend time on their personal lives.

From our managing oneself in change processes, I know that the most resilient have great support systems and can see hope in the future even in the toughest times. They see that possibility because they recognise what they have already overcome and understand what helps them get through.

When you meet another buzzword, explore it, understand what it means, see beneath the surface. You never know, it might be worth embracing and applying in practice.