The average Briton works just under 85,000 hours in the course of their career. This is about the equivalent of ten years of labour without breaks.
On top of this timeframe, we can add in all the sleepless nights, residual stress, overtime and early starts that the average person invests into doing a good job. It is this sustained effort that makes resilience the most essential skill for the average worker.
The nine-to-five is never a thirty-five hour week – and nor can it be. Inevitably, life is unpredictable, obstinate and tied up in commuting, customer demands and family obligations. However much we enjoy our work, we live around it.
The last two years have brought new attention to the danger of losing control of that balance. Employers facing a labour shortage must now reflect on the chilling number of junior professionals who quit their jobs through the pandemic due to burnout. Remote work has closed lines of communication and employers and employees must work in tandem to revise the issue.
At its core, resilience is about flexibility. The epidemic of staff turnover is driven by workplace frustration, a symptom of a corporate culture that fails to give employees the skills needed to properly adapt. It is not unusual for people to struggle against the burden of stress, but individuals can only overcome this in a supportive, elastic environment.
Cultural inflexibility explains in part why women are three times as likely to leave their jobs. In the years immediately after having children, women will start to face new barriers to promotion, made ever more inaccessible by a lack of childcare provision. This entrenches working mothers in fixed-hour part-time work regardless of individual ability. Over the course of a career, it is unsurprising that so many talented women are forced to resign by inadequate provisions or due to frustration as they are overlooked for promotion based on something other than their merit.
Resilience starts with the individual but it is solidified by the group. No woman is an island, and we overcome the challenges of daily working life by collaborating to find solutions.
Likewise, many men have been left behind by company cultures that fail to address workplace stress. Mind reveals that men are twice as likely to have mental health problems due to their job compared to problems outside of work. Only 31 percent feel they can speak openly about mental health, and only 29 percent have taken time off for it. Workers who repress their challenges do not learn resilience to them, but struggle silently until it overwhelms them.
The answer is in investing in staff and doing more than paying lip service to work-life balance and wellbeing. Companies must support policy changes by giving employees the space and attention to build a healthy relationship with their work. Workers learn to bide the difficulties of working life by feeling that there is sense in carrying on, that their concerns are being listened to and that they operate in a supportive environment.
The failure to ensure this explains in part why Black women are underrepresented in management positions; for every 100 men promoted to managerial positions, only 58 Black women will be. The difference is that while most people feel they have had some sort of mentor figure to guide them, less than a quarter of Black women can say the same.
Leaders and colleagues alike have a role to play in helping employees to build resilience and reach those top positions. Of course, at a higher level, policy reform is desperately needed to give all employees a fair and free shot at success, but person-to-person we can still help others rise by sharing our lessons and supporting our coworkers.
At the very least, we can accommodate a workplace culture of openness and transparency that encourages honesty and problem resolution, rather than allowing talented people to get trapped in unfulfilling work until they give up or burn out.
In my own work, I organise large scale networking festivals like the Women of Silicon Roundabout for people hoping to build these skills. I see the importance of sharing experiences in building resilience. I see the relief people take from hearing from somebody else how they struggled to raise a family while working a full time job. I see the value people take from stories of overcoming workplace stress after a frank conversation with an employer.
People give up when they see no way out, and they stay when somebody else shows them how to build a door.
Resilience is not learned in isolation. It is taught through storytelling, through sharing our lessons and embracing our vulnerability. When we close off and harden to the world, we become brittle. But it will be flexibility that best equips us to learn from the experiences of others.
Resilience, learnt by the individual and solidified by the group, is what allows us to work with – and not against – life’s challenges.