The power of resilience

September 23, 2021

Throughout the lockdown period there has been a growth inawareness of mental health issues in the UK. Those with pre-existing conditionshave deteriorated without the support they need, and many, who have neverstruggled before have suddenly been struck with overwhelming and alarmingemotions.

I’ve spent most of my career working in organisations thatsupport people for whom poor mental health has been a component in that personswider challenges. These are often difficult working environments, where my teamshave displayed their own heroic levels of mental fortitude.

One of the things that has struck me in the last few monthsis the amount of content now coming into the workplace, identifying personalresilience as a key leadership skill. This content, mostly distributed ininternet memes outlines the power of resilience as a leadership trait andtherefore the perceived lack of it as a negative trait.

The overwhelming intention of the birth of the focus onresilience in the workplace is undoubtedly positive, however, whilst the rootcauses of mental health challenges remain taboo to discuss in manyorganisations, comparing comparative resilience and passing judgement could addto the inequity so many people face in the workplace. The inextricablepredominant links between poverty, trauma, race, sexuality and gender in allits iterations results in “lack of perceived resilience” adding to the reasonsto exclude key groups from leadership positions and promotions.

Resilience is relative and cannot be judged externallyeither at an interpersonal or organisational level. Outward displays ofresilience, or lack of it, is dependent on a vast array of factors. Everyone iscarrying different volumes of challenge. Historic trauma, lack of sleep, illhealth, lonelineness, divorce, caring responsibilities, financial worries,death - the number of factors are infinite.

My fear about many mainstream workplace mental health modelsis they are often predicated on managers or employees leading the first line ofsupport, many of whom have little to no understanding of the complex factors thatare at play when mental health is deteriorating. Often, judgement, poor supportor advice at this level results in people’s conditions deteriorating to anirretrievable level. Whether it’s someone we perceive to be prone to, in ourview, unnecessary crying, or is often irritable – all of these outward displayshave a root in something else. We need to understand that, that something elseis not a character flaw, or evidence of a lack of leadership skill.

Drug and alcohol services give us an insight into theseissues at the extreme end of the spectrum. So many of the people I’ve workedwith in a professional context over the years have come into services I ledbecause of their attachment to a particular coping mechanism they are using to managedifficult emotions. Whether that’s alcohol, drugs, sex, food or even because ofthe consequences of uncontrollable anger. Many of them have been judged harshlyby society because of these outward displays of perceived lack of resilience.Spending time with people in extreme pain who are at the mercy of a habit thatno longer serves its core purpose to them is incredibly humbling.

In taking time to listen to their stories I am in awe oftheir situational resilience. A virtual walk in their shoes and see them asgiants of resilience, painfully judged for all the things that are not known tothe outside world. Extreme trauma, abuse and neglect are invariably at theirroot cause.

Mental Health England states that 1 in 4 people in the UKexperience a mental health issue every year and 1 in 6 people in the workforcehave a mental health condition. With many more people in the post Covid periodstruggling, there is a risk that a growth of comparing resilience levels,unless the concept is truly understood, will drive new inequities.

Understanding people and supporting individuals relative totheir context is a nuanced process, which many workplaces are not equipped toundertake. Ignoring or labelling emotions society has deemed as “negative” suchas anger, frustration, anxiety or sadness as displays of low resiliencereinforces stigma. We need to be much more open to discussing these emotionswith people in the workplace as they are all normal responses to personalcontext and experience.

Whole organisation models which integrate coaching andmentoring from a people centred perspective for all levels of management andleadership, which limits blame and judgement and provides early supportive conversationsabout difficult emotions, is the key way to ensure people experience the equityof support which leads to equality for all of our mental health.

The ongoing Covid crisis places the need for organisationalsupport for mental health issues at the heart of people strategy. Let’s makesure we move beyond the memes and understand the true nuances of ourperceptions of resilience.