Why it is time to end our obsession with ‘resilience’

On Friday it was Employee Appreciation Day so I teamed up with my colleague Professor Frances Maratos  from the University of Derby to discuss resilience. In a blog post published on the University’s website it we noted that resilience is increasingly seen as something the education system should foster and employers should encourage and develop, but is resilience just telling people to get good at putting up with a bad situation? And so, we asked whether we should move away from resilience and towards compassion.

The world is full of stories of people who have had knock-backs but then went on to achieve amazing things. Whether it is Richard Branson failing his A-levels before going on to be a business tycoon or pop star Raye losing her deal with Polydor Records before becoming the hottest artist of 2023, lots of people have only found their success after setbacks.

Leaving aside the highest achievers, most of us have probably failed to get a job, house, partner or opportunity that we really wanted. You’ve probably heard the phrase “there’s no point in crying over spilt milk”. This has led some people to suggest that ‘resilience’ is one of the most important qualities. Lots of educators now focus on this as a skill to develop in their students, and it has become an ‘essential’ asset that many recruiters look for in new staff.

Employee Appreciation Day

To mark Employee Appreciation Day we wanted to look again at resilience and ask whether it is an idea that has had its time. This is a day when we value the contributions that workers make to organisations and encourage employers to focus on recognising these contributions and fostering good workplace wellbeing. While a degree of resilience is undoubtedly a good strategy for individuals in their careers and lives, when employers start to expect it, this can lead to the assumption that people will put up with poor working conditions. This can result in resentment and presenteeism rather than effective working, a lack of focus on wellbeing and, before too long, burn-out.

What is resilience?

The dictionary defines resilience as ‘the capacity to withstand or to recover quickly from difficulties’. In academic work on resilience, Fletcher and Sarkar highlight it as the psychological capacity to deal with adversity, bounce back, adapt, refocus and remotivate yourself. They also argue that we need to attend to the environment which produces the adversity. Yet, the way that resilience has been interpreted in the workplace often ignores environmental factors and focuses on the responsibilities of the individual.

In a recent response to a parliamentary call on teacher recruitment and retention, Professor Maratos highlighted the jobs-demand resource model. Simply put, when job demands, such as high work pressure, emotionally demanding interactions or a challenging physical environment outstrip resources, the cumulative effects are poor physical and mental health, a strained and unhappy workforce, and broader issues of staff retention.

The resources that employees need to thrive at work are not just ‘resilience’ but also organisational support, the opportunity to work autonomously, high-quality feedback and good, supportive and developmental management. It is possible to increase an individual’s physical and psychological capacity and this may include resilience, but this is only one aspect of many. Psychological capacity also includes the capacity to regulate your emotions, be compassionate to others, believe in yourself, and be reflective, optimistic and determined. Elsewhere, Professor Hooley has argued that as people build their careers, they should also develop the capacity to be critical about the employment conditions in which they work, to build solidarity with their colleagues and to influence the behaviour of their employer for the better.

What makes for a better workplace ethos?

What makes for a good employee is far more than resilience. It is short-sighted to think that a resilient employee will be a good, prosperous, happy, employee. Rather a resilient employee, whose employer increases the demands upon them, without also increasing the resources available to them, will, in time, either move on or burn out.

We argue that employers should focus on creating what the International Labour Organisation calls ‘decent work’ and fostering compassion and human flourishing. Professor Maratos works with teachers, lecturers, students and pupils, to improve the mental health of all and reduce staff burn-out. The key to this work is to build an understanding of stress, burn-out, worry and anxiety, and enable individuals to develop strategies to deal with the negative consequences of neoliberalism (the political and economic system within which we live), whilst also encouraging everyone to change the ethos of how we go about our lives and work. In other words, treat others as you’d wish to be treated and accept compassion and support from others (we call this ‘flows of compassion’).

This positive, compassionate approach works. In studies with school staff and with teachers, we have found that where we develop a compassionate approach people demonstrate better work-life balance, as well as improved psychological and physiological health. These factors make for employees with improved psychological capacity, better enabling them to fulfil their roles. When we undertake similar studies with children, we see that they demonstrate improved psychological health and treat each other with more kindness, which in turn makes classroom management easier.

Importantly, there are many benefits to a compassionate approach to employment. Such an approach starts with the provision of decent working conditions and the development of a compassionate and mutually supportive approach. This allows for the development of mutual respect, for workers to remain true to their intentions and for them to be appreciated for such. Beating staff with metrics and frequent competition, and relying on them to be resilient, rarely inspires good working or healthy working practices.

How can employers effect this change?

If employers want to get the best out of their staff, they need to stop relying on employee’s resilience and focus on appreciation and compassion. This means learning from things like the International Labour  Organisation’s (ILO’s) decent work indicators, but also listening to the voices of your staff to understand how you can best support them.

Research shows that good employee wellbeing and high productivity come from the same source. When employees have good psychological capacity, they can achieve more. This psychological capacity comes not from unrealistic demands and resilience, but rather from keeping demands in balance with the individual and organisational resources available to meet them.

Employee Appreciation Day seems like a very good day to make this shift away from resilience and towards compassion and decent work.

Find out more about our research on compassion in education and careers guidance.

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