Welcome to the latest in our series of short blogs to help you stay safe, sane and supported during the current crisis. In this article, we look at the importance of making resilience a workplace partnership blog.

With a gradual easing of lockdown restrictions and a return to work on the cards for many, stress levels are on the rise again. Along with other workload pressures and demands, changes to the work environment, role uncertainty and lack of control, it is reasonable to ask whose responsibility is it to ensure staff cope effectively through this transition.

In a report from the National Education Union concerns have been raised that:

‘…employers in education are trying to ‘build resilience in staff’ so that they don’t take time off sick, and there have been reports of employers offering bonus payments to staff who have 100% attendance. Suggesting that staff can become more resilient to ill-health implies that they are not genuinely ill and ignores that employers have a duty to address the workplace factors that are contributing to, or causing illness.’

As resilience trainers, we are in the business of supporting people to develop skills to bounce back and cope when the going gets tough. We believe that the psychological know-how to manage stress, build capacity for resilience and experience a sense of wellbeing should be available to all.

However, this philosophy needs to strike a fine balance between teaching people skills to manage and providing a solution for employers looking to pile on excessive demands and absolve themselves of responsibility for staff wellbeing.

In this short blog, we try to answer the question of who needs to change, the workplace or the worker, in order for staff and the organisation to cope and survive.

As staff start to return to work in the post-lockdown era, we illustrate why the resilience of staff and of the organisation are intricately intertwined, requiring the adoption of skills and strategies on both parts in partnership to successfully bring about adaptation to change and challenge.

What is resilience?

Resilience is often referred to as bouncing back. It is the act of responding to threats and challenges with a series of skills that allow us to manage emotions, make sense of the situation and draw on our individual and collective strengths to adapt and find new ways of responding to the challenge.

Resilience is also associated with the concept of growth through adversity, in which the experience of challenge leads to us learning new skills, developing new strategies and strengths and building confidence to deal with future threats and demands.

This concept of resilience can be applied to both the individual and the wider organisation. Any organism is only as strong as the sum of its parts and if it takes care of those parts it will have the capacity it needs to grow and survive.

This is evident when we look at the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic in countries that experienced SARS or MERS in the past, such as Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and South Korea. Having learned from their previous experience, these countries have coped more successfully with Covid-19 than most other countries in the world. They had already come to understand what was needed to protect their citizens from future epidemics. Drawing on higher-level planning, preparation and awareness, their governments worked together with a public who recognised the dangers and were equipped with the resources needed to manage their own risk. Working through shared values and vision, drawing on reciprocal trust, the governments and people of these countries were able to limit the extent of infections and deaths to far fewer than have been seen elsewhere.

This collective responsibility for managing the threat of coronavirus brought people closer together. Where some were struggling more than others, communities responded both at a local and national level to provide support for those most in need. Across the world the value of human life was paramount and these countries prioritised measures to protect it.

Resilient organisations prioritise staff health & wellbeing

This type of collaborative approach – in which both the individual and wider institutions work together to build skills and knowledge – is also highly effective in the area of workplace wellbeing.

But sadly this is something that is easily forgotten. Those in leadership roles often lose sight of what it is like for staff trying to deal with workload pressures, unattainable deadlines, job uncertainty or role confusion. They can easily forget that staff are individuals with their own additional challenges outside the work environment, the impact of which may be difficult to see or understand.

When staff feel their managers don’t care, can’t listen or won’t understand what they are going through, they are less likely to be open when they are struggling. They are likely to try to hide their difficulties and this has the potential to undermine resilience in those individuals as well as in the organisation, as it prevents shared problem-solving and reduces opportunity for growth.

In work environments lacking a culture of trust and emotional safety interventions such as resilience training, aimed at skilling up employees to better manage what the organisation throws at them, are likely to fall short. This is because within this type of workplace culture, support interventions are typically viewed with suspicion. Staff often feel misunderstood and blamed for not managing their mental health better. They become distanced from managers and see the organisation as shirking its responsibility and duty of care.

On the other hand, organisations that care about and prioritise staff health and wellbeing, viewing staff welfare as integral to the success of the organisation, engender a sense of trust and safety in their staff, allowing for open collaboration and reciprocity.

These organisations recognise and are genuinely concerned about the potentially detrimental impact of staff stress on individuals themselves, teams and the wider organisation. How they deal with this awareness is key to survival.

Research tells us that the following factors are essential for the development of resilience across the organisation:

  • A culture of trust and safety
  • Creation of team cohesion and connection
  • Prioritising inclusion and belonging
  • Authentically living to core organisational values
  • Having a shared vision and using a variety of leadership styles to engage staff
  • Using emotional and social intelligence to understand staff and offer support

Resilient organisations support staff to grow health & wellbeing

If organisations pay genuine attention to the sources of workplace stress and find ways of protecting staff from its negative impact, is this enough to support everyone through the inevitable storms that arise within the workplace?

Although some might argue that the sole responsibility for addressing stress at work falls to the organisation, there are other factors at play that make the picture more complicated.

In their report on thriving at work, Farmer and Stevenson (2017) identify that changes to the work environment are not sufficient in themselves to help people develop and maintain their skills in dealing with stress.

Indeed, in order to maintain a healthy workforce, organisations need to take account of each individual’s needs, be able to understand their unique challenges and provide a safe and trusting environment to equip them with the support and skills required to manage effectively.

Individual difference means that what might be manageable for one person, might be completely overwhelming for another. This will be dependent not just on the work environment but on an individual’s past history, the challenges they are managing outside the work environment, the pressures they put on themselves and their ability to access self-care and social support.

This is why asking employers to change is not the full solution to workplace stress. We also need staff members to take a look at themselves, understand their own stresses and coping patterns and find ways of managing these, both in and outside work.

As employers, we can’t change what happens to a person when they are not at work, just as we can’t change who they are as a person or the earlier experiences that have led to them becoming that person. But when we see them struggling, we can support them to learn skills that will help them manage their experiences.

Resilience skills aren’t limited to the work environment. They benefit individuals in all situations and circumstances. As employers, if we can support staff to build confidence and resilience this will have an impact across all areas of their lives.

The majority of people who may be struggling with stress will not experience symptoms or disruption to functioning that would be considered severe enough to receive NHS services. As such, resilience training at work provides a unique opportunity for individuals to develop the self-awareness, coping strategies and self-care that will help them to manage stress and build wellbeing both at work and elsewhere.

Resilience partnership

By working together through a culture of trust and safety, listening and responding, the organisation is able to identify and address staff needs, to reduce and manage pressures and demands. Supporting staff to find new strengths and skills to manage both at work and at home when challenges arise, brings benefits to individual staff members and the wider organisation.

As many of us return to work after lockdown there are new challenges for both the organisation and staff. Being able to provide a safe environment for staff and support them to manage their fears is now more important than ever. The development of a reciprocal relationship between the organisation and individual staff members requires working in partnership to grow and develop, adapt flexibly and survive in the face of challenges at work and at home.

If you found this helpful and would like to find out more about coping in a crisis, check out some of the other blogs in this series. You might also like to join our Facebook group UR Resilient, where members are busy sharing creative and inspiring ideas for staying positive during this challenging time.