Resilience is quite the buzzword at the moment in the realm of employee wellbeing. Organisations see the benefit of a workforce who can ‘bounce back’ from perceived adversity, regaining their former levels of productivity more quickly. This has led to ‘best-practise’ organisations offering wellbeing programmes that feature resilience training or stress management workshops (two sides of the same coin) as a keystone.
According to the British Government’s Labour Force Survey for 20161 the number and rate of new cases of work-related stress has remained “broadly flat for more than a decade” at around 224,000, or 690 per 100,000 workers. Logic tells us that if the proliferation of resilience programmes over recent years were truly effective, we would be seeing some reduction over time in the incidence of stress, anxiety and depression in the workplace.
But what if resilience is being misunderstood at a fundamental level, thereby limiting the results of the vast majority of these programmes, simply because they’re looking in the wrong direction for the solution?
Here’s the fundamental confusion that’s got us barking up the wrong tree: we think that events outside us are causing our stress, and that we have to be resilient to deal with the stress that we think those events are causing. We think we’re up against tough circumstances, and this confusion over where our feelings and experience are coming from leads us to develop resilience programmes that teach us techniques and strategies to deal with tough circumstances.
But what if an event or circumstance has no inherent nature of ‘tough’ or ‘adverse’ – and is only ever what we think it is?
Evidence of this is all around us. It’s why one person can sail through circumstances that another finds incredibly tough. They have different thinking about the situation, therefore they’re living a completely different experience of it.
That’s the nub of the misunderstanding: we’re not up against circumstances, we’re up against our thinking.
More specifically, we’re up against our understanding in any moment, of how resilience really works, what affects it, and where it really comes from.
If we think resilience is something we need to build up, to shore up reserves against potential future tough circumstances, we’re misunderstanding our true nature.
The Oxford Dictionaries define resilience in relation to human beings as:
"The capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness."
I would redefine this to say:
Resilience is understanding the innate capacity to recover one’s clarity and mental equilibrium after having been in a state of mental stress or distress.
Resilience is not something we have to build or do; it’s an innate capacity we all have to regain our balance and our clarity after a mental storm. You’ve seen it in children throwing a tantrum and then snapping straight into play mode as if nothing has happened; you’ve seen it in yourself when it suddenly it feels like the sun has come out again after days of rain, even though nothing’s really changed.
Resilience is there already, but when we don’t realise that, we look outside ourselves to tools and techniques to help us ‘build’ our ability to bounce back.
When we understand that bouncing back from setbacks or difficulties is completely natural to us, and doesn’t need to be manufactured, life becomes a lot less complicated.
You can take “become more resilient” off your to-do list, because it’s what you already are.
When we understand that tough circumstances aren’t the enemy, it no longer makes sense to expend mental energy on preparing ourselves to face them.
This re-defining of resilience takes circumstances out of the equation, opening up new possibilities in the domain of employee wellbeing, from leadership right through the organisation.
It paves the way for the emergence of the ‘weather-proof’ organisation, where resilience is taken for granted and ‘stress leave’ can become a thing of the past.