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Building resilience among workers in the economic upturn

Organisations are increasingly running workshops and training to build resilience among staff who have survived the cuts, but are having to do the work of more people in the upturn. Is the concept just a fad or does it have any long-term place in staff wellbeing programmes?

HR can be accused of many things, but never shyness of seeking the latest trend or buzzword. So, after engagement and wellbeing it's no surprise 'resilience' has appeared quickly as the concept that promises to be the next great silver bullet - and why not? It's a trait that chimes with notions of 'change', of a post-recession landscape where coping is the name of the game. Resilient people create resilient businesses.

Predictably, through popular academics such as the 'father of resilience', the late US psychologist Al Siebert (who wrote The Resiliency Advantageand founded the Resiliency Center), there has spawned an industry of suppliers keen to capitalise on a new trend, including In Equilibrium in the UK. But when even its director, Alistair Taylor, says resilience training "should probably be rebranded 'life skills'," is the HR profession in danger of yet again buying into what some might dismiss as stating 'the bleedin' obvious'?

"Initially, my HR colleagues were sceptical about offering it," says Sheila Wigg, head teacher adviser at Norfolk Council, who now sends 40 heads a year on resilience training courses. For Wigg, resilience is personal to Norfolk's needs. However, she adds: "It is easy to dismiss as a fluffy HR fad, but it shouldn't be. There's so much pressure and change in teaching. We believe giving heads time to reflect on their personal resilience gives them skills to be able to cope. In the past three years, only two have refused it. We know the training has helped us hold on to people we might otherwise have lost."

Today, Wigg books resilience workshops to support heads having what she calls "a wobble" - either personally or professionally. It is built into the induction process of all new head teachers - although not until two years into the role. "We found that confidence levels of newly qualified heads is sky-high, but it's after a few years in the job when we noticed people feeling isolated. For us resilience is as much about heads coping with the loneliness of being a leader."

An image problem?

Critics argue it's the very looseness of the concept that makes HR departments susceptible to being mis-sold. To be fair, Taylor does agree about the need to clarify the meaning of resilience. "It's been floating around for a while now," he says, "but even HR practitioners often think it's stress management. It isn't. More worryingly, there are some stress management courses I've seen that are being called resilience, when they're not."

The difference, he argues, is that resilience looks at how staff can manage change and prevent it becoming stress, while stress is the product of an absence of resilience. "This is why learning resilience is such a powerful skill," he says. "It's proactive. Resilience it's not just about struggles. You can be in a fast-growing company but still need resilience. It's about making people more robust in themselves, making them resilient to stress by being able to say 'no' when it's needed or having the tools to take control."

Unfortunately, if it's clear definitions you're after, you won't find many. The CIPD says resilience is "successful adaptation to tasks in the face of disadvantage or highly adverse conditions". Common to most views, though, is the strong belief that, although humans have hard-wired personality traits (such as glass half-empty/glass half-full), resilience is a skill like any other and, moreover, is one that can be taught.

"What HR must understand is the resilience mindset," argues Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology and health at Lancaster University Management School, who in August published Building Resilience for Success. He is attempting to make the concept more tangible by identifying the four traits he believes resilient people have: purposefulness, confidence, adaptability, and the ability to build social supports. By thinking of poor resilience as a weakness in one or more of these, Cooper says, the remedy doesn't have to be something vague: "Resilience is the character-set you're at your best with. People who score as being highly resilient on our methodology self-report that their productivity is high too - at around 80-90%. The reverse is the case among low scorers."

Team vs individual resilience

Since December 2012, investments company Canada Life has replaced all its stress management courses, instead focusing on team and personal resilience. Paul Avis, its marketing director of group insurance, has been putting his sales teams through resilience workshops.

He explains: "We started by looking at what were the sources of pressure. Out of this came how change is communicated and how they can respond better to it." Since the training, Avis has found that people still report feeling more in control.

Despite being an advocate, even he has not totally bought into all of it. He argues individual resilience (rather than the team resilience he supports) is not a quality that is easy to teach. "For us, resilience is about teams being supported by management practices," he says. "It's about line manager behaviour and team-driven results. I'm sceptical that people can simply become tougher outside work on their own."

Sally Evans, a diversity consultant at PwC (see case study above), agrees there is a danger that HR departments can pay a lot and achieve little without a clear plan. "There is a danger of it being a bit of a bandwagon," she says. "That's why we're clear it's about equipping people to meet the demands of work in sync with line management, and also being wary of other structural elements that undermine wellbeing. Resilience is complicated."

Sandy Begbie, HR director of insurance firm Standard Life, says: "As an HR professional I like to avoid buzzwords if I can. Many companies I've worked for have been doing this sort of stuff for years, but are just not calling it as such. Sometimes there is too much dressing up of what is common sense."

He adds: "For us, we prefer to put it as part of our wellbeing - of prevention measures rather than cures."

Is 'resilience' still relevant?

The million dollar question is surely this: is resilience simply a concept born out of a perception of change rather than reality? And, perhaps more prescient, is its day already up? Some might suggest that now the economy is said to be recovering, resolve will be stretched less, not more.

At mental health charity Mind, policy and campaigns manager Emma Mamo says there is a worry that resilience can be seen to be a quick-fix that masks the real reason staff can't cope. "If it's a toxic workplace people work in, giving someone the tools to deal with it doesn't change the fact it's still a toxic workplace," she says.

But as far as it being a buzzword that is already out of date, Cooper has these words: "Sure, pre-2008 resilience was not as relevant to people as it is now but, as we come out of recession, we'll only need resilience more. Work is changing. It's not returning to how it was. There's fewer people doing more work. Resilience is of its time, but its time will be for at least the next 20 years."