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Why pushing employee resilience may do more harm than good

employees  Supervisor standing by a whiteboard with a digital tablet discussing dispatch plan with workers.  Team of workers having meeting in a distribution warehouse.
Resilience is a buzzword used by many businesses to encourage employees to hone the skills they need to survive and thrive in difficult situations. Photo: Getty (Luis Alvarez via Getty Images)

Stress is one of the biggest problems people face at work, with 79% of us experiencing stress linked to our jobs.

Not only do we face long hours and heavy workloads, many of us now work in constantly connected, always-on cultures where burnout is widespread.

Resilience is a buzzword used by many businesses to encourage workers to hone the skills they need to survive and thrive in difficult situations.

The psychological capacity to bounce back from stressful events is a sought-after personality trait in the workplace. Some employers may try to seek out resilient employees during the recruitment process, by asking questions about overcoming obstacles and problem-solving. Other businesses encourage resilience via development programmes.

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There’s a wide body of research touting the benefits of developing skills linked to resilience. In uncertain and unpredictable times — like our current climate — being resilient can help us weather lay-offs, restructures and more.

Read more: Have Zoom calls affected our ability to communicate in-person?

Unsurprisingly, the ability to withstand and adapt to stress has also been positively linked to mental health.

However, research is emerging that suggests resilience isn’t necessarily the answer to all workplace issues. In fact, pushing resilience too hard may lead to more problems than it solves.

Is too much resilience a bad thing?

As it turns out, there can be too much of a good thing. A growing body of evidence suggests that even desirable attributes, like being resilient, can lead to negative outcomes if taken to the extreme. Sometimes, too much resilience can lead employees to put up with unpleasant situations that may be harmful to their wellbeing in the long-term.

For example, an overly resilient person may tolerate a bad boss for longer, which may cause more damage to their mental health than if they had quit. Being resilient may help someone who isn’t able to hand in their notice cope with the stress caused by their boss. However, being less resilient — and finding a different job — may improve their job circumstances.

Sonya Barlow, host of the BBC Asian Network’s The Everyday Hustle and CEO of the LMF Network, a social enterprise to promote workplace equality, says the problem is linked to a misunderstanding of the definition of resilience.

Read more: How performance-related pay affects our mental health

“It’s not synonymous with ‘suck it up and don’t complain’,” she explains. “Resilience means being able to bounce back from failures and mistakes, solve problems or adapt to organisational changes. It is also about seeing resilience as temporary disruptors and lessons that help you grow as a person and professional.”

This is why placing too much emphasis on employee resilience — seen as just putting up with whatever work throws at you — is harmful.

“Why? Because there is no effort or willingness to ensure that employees are supported and given resources to build resilience skills,” Barlow says.

Additionally, Barlow adds, employers might be forgetting that employee resilience is built by organisations providing resources and support to help employees cope and adapt to dynamic environments.

“It is not about putting up with toxic or dysfunctional environments or managers,” she says.

Sticking plaster over bigger problems

Resilience may also be used as a sticking plaster to cover bigger issues which then go ignored. An employer may be focused on making workers more resilient, but overlook structural problems like a pervasive culture of overwork.

While employee resilience can help individuals cope with stress, it can’t heal wellbeing issues alone. Organisations need to ensure resilience isn’t used as a substitute for other types of support.

Read more: How micro-stresses at work can affect your mental health

Chris Cooper, a leadership coach, says supporting team members to become more resilient only works when it is in context with a strategy focused on employee wellbeing.

“The way we become more resilient is by becoming more aware of when stress levels are at a point where they are potentially harmful to our health,” he says. “Stress becomes anxiety and it’s often the case that people develop unhealthy habits in order to cope, like drinking after work or isolating themselves.”

How we react and how we are expected to react are different

Researchers also suggest there may be dissonance between how organisations expect their employees to react to adversity — and how employees actually react.

Kevin Sevag Kertechian, an associate professor at the ESSCA School of Management, suggests organisations aren’t always prepared to help employees that don’t react predictably to stressful situations. However, individuals react differently to stress.

How to use encourage healthy resilience

So how can employers help employees to be resilient in a healthy way?

Barlow suggests this can be done at an organisational level.

“Employers need to build an environment where wellbeing is prioritised, and people feel it is safe to share worries and struggles. It must also allow room for mistakes and learning,” she says. “This culture is built by having empathetic leadership, constant and open communication and processes in place to support employees.”

Read more: QuitTok: Why workers quitting on TikTok may expose toxic employers

Karen Boyd, a career coach at Miabo Coaching, says it is also the duty of managers to set clear expectations and ensure that employees feel fully supported to do their best work. Managers should also be role-modelling and supporting team members’ disconnect from work and keep boundaries firmly in place.

“Building breaks into meeting schedules can have a huge impact on employee wellbeing,” she says. “It allows employees to have a quick brain reset to reduce stress and boost their focus. Managers should also check-in with people to find out how they are doing emotionally and physically.”

Watch: Burned out? Top tips for taking up meditation

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