Supporting staff to become more resilient has to go beyond telling them to ‘pull themselves together’

By Stephen Bevan

There seems to be no end in sight to the gloomy economic outlook: growth stagnant, unemployment still growing, fear of job losses high and pressure on workers and families building. Business continuity – keeping on track when the firm is buffeted by external shocks – has become a major challenge.

'Resilience' is needed by individuals, organizations and indeed whole communities, if we are to meet these challenges.

There is a lot of press about resilience at the moment. People are invoking the spirit of the blitz, the old-fashioned 'stiff upper-lip' and the need to 'keep calm and carry on' in a period of national adversity. But there has to be more to resilience than stoicism. We need to think of what ordinary people in business can do - or be - to help them cope with adversity, setbacks and uncertainty. Doing so will allow them to do a good job.

Numerous theorists have attempted to define psychological resilience. All agree on one important thing: that it improves an individual's chances to compensate for the uncontrollable negative impact of pressure. The Latin origin of resilience, resilire, means to 'rebound' and our use of the term reflects this quality. For many, resilience is related to flexibility, being 'both the capacity to be bent without breaking and the capacity, once bent, to spring back', in the words of George Valliant, in The Wisdom of the Ego (Harvard University Press, 1993). Applied to the work environment, it is a preventive attribute that equips individuals or a team to anticipate stress and maintain mental wellbeing. One other characteristic of 'resilience' is the ability to build and sustain adaptive capacity. This is beneficial to future work situations: 'being resilient encapsulates the flexibility in adapting to and overcoming adversity, so that personal growth can occur' (Mary Gillespie, PhD thesis, Griffith University, 2007).

I have worried for some time that, by contrast, our use of the term 'stress' has moved beyond its original meaning and in some quarters become negatively associated with learned helplessness or else has been over-musicalized. It is true some are subject to intolerable pressures from a number of work and non-work sources that damage their mental wellbeing and may make them ill. Indeed, the latest forecasts from Age Concern suggest over 7 million people of working age in the UK will have a mental health condition by 2030. Despite this, I find it hard to accept that nothing more can be done to enhance a natural capacity for resilience and adaptability, which - though it resides in us all - can be difficult to deploy effectively in troubled times. Supporting people to become more resilient has to go beyond telling them to 'buck up' or 'pull themselves together'.

We know from research that the resilient tend to have a sense of humor and realistic optimism under stress. They are also better equipped to view problems as opportunities and to learn from mistakes or failures. We know less about whether resilient people or teams are more productive or innovative, whether resilience distinguishes great leaders from also-rans and whether it can (or should) be spotted early during induction. Crucially, we need to know more about how to sustain workforce resilience as a driver of both personal wellness and business continuity.

I am not convinced engagement alone will deliver high performance and smart productivity growth, without a concerted effort to understand, develop and exploit the latent capacity of UK workers to bounce back from adversity. We will need these qualities in spades when the recovery gathers momentum.