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Karen Drury

fe3 consulting

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Employee resilience – whose responsibility is it anyway?

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The concept of ‘developing resilience’ in employees is becoming increasingly popular as redundancies and talk of fresh economic downturns start to hit the headlines.

But although it is intuitively understood that the term is linked to stress management, definitions of what it means in exact terms are often vague.
 
Advocates tend to fall into two camps, however – those who consider the well-being of staff to be a primary outcome, with any improvement in performance a welcome by-product; and those who believe that the key goal is to boost performance, while acknowledging that employees must be in good shape to do so.
 
As often happens with popular terms though, the debate about what resilience ‘is’ has led to some interesting reflection but little agreement, not least in such areas as the influence of age, context, experience, geography and culture on an individual’s ability to bounce back. 
 
For example, a participant at one of our past seminars on the topic said: “Being made redundant in the UK can be difficult for employees, but there is a support system in place. In India, it’s a very different story, which may make it harder to be resilient about this situation.”
 
Another attendee recounted her experience of pushing through redundancies in an organisation where the average employee age was only 24 and where the overwhelming reaction to the situation was one of horror.
 
Value judgements
 
“They had so little previous experience that senior managers left the organisation rather than go through the process of making others redundant,” she said.
 
A third contributor agreed that age was only one factor that could have an impact on resilience. “We automatically assume that younger people have more energy and strength, when actually what’s important is the context and their environment,” she said. “I think there’s a myth about youthful robustness. How you cope with trauma and change depends on all kinds of things – your upbringing, the resources you have as an individual, your family,”
 
Although definitions of resilience may be imprecise, studies have regularly identified a number of attributes that characterise resilient people. These include personal competence (having the skills to do something about the issues being faced); self-efficacy (believing that you can do something); emotional support and/or secure relationships; control over at least some aspects of the situation and a general philosophy that life has meaning. 
 
The danger with adopting the term ‘resilience’ as a management concept, however, is that it can lead to value judgements being made about individual workers. Resilience can end up being seen as a fix for “weakness”, an idea that is damaging not only to the individual concerned, but also has negative consequences for the business. 
 
One public sector manager explained: “We have new directors in the middle of change themselves who are desperate for support, but they’ll only ask for it informally because the formal route has been stigmatised. They don’t want to be seen as weak. We need to find ways of helping them take the support.”
 
Scattergun approach
 
But introducing specific targeted ‘resilience programmes’ for senior managers may be unpalatable to many organisations and may also generate negative internal perceptions. When it comes to encouraging resilience in employees though, there are lots of approaches around – even too many perhaps due to the fluidness of the definition and poor metrics.
 
Recent research, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, evaluated nearly 3,000 studies against a number of academic criteria such as construct and content validity, reproducibility and the like. A mere 33 ticked all of the boxes, which led the authors to conclude that there was currently no ‘gold standard’.
 
As a result of this lack of clarity, organisations often adopt a scattergun approach to trying to build up their employee resilience. They end up throwing the stress management equivalent of the kitchen sink at the problem, hoping that something – anything – will produce a result.
 
But one seminar participant found that using clinical psychologists to help devise employee support programmes and run stress and resilience awareness sessions increased the number of workers choosing to refer themselves for help. It also helped to cut down on staff attrition rates.
 
Another organisation created peer support groups for managing performance, which helped reduce long-term absence levels.
 
But others were less clear about the impact of their activities. One attendee said: “There’s lots being offered, but it’s less clear what’s actually working. Also, providing information on stress and resilience is not the same as providing emotional support, something that organisations seem to get wrong.”
 
The issue of responsibility
 
Breaking down the somewhat fuzzy concept of resilience into clearer, and perhaps better researched, constituent parts such as ‘developing self-efficacy’ (helping people believe that they can change their situation) can help, however.
 
Putting people in positions where they can succeed is a key plank of this approach as is identifying role models. But the downside of such a process is that it may require individual intervention rather than the usual sheep dip tack, which could prove too expensive and time-intensive for some organisations to implement.
 
As the concept of resilience has increasingly made its way into management jargon, it is interesting to note how the burden of responsibility has been shifted away from employers and onto their staff, however.
 
While organisations used to believe that they had a specific responsibility to manage change and make suitable resources available, the rhetoric has now moved to employees taking responsibility for their own resilience, not least because it is seen to be determined by so many factors outside of the workplace.
 

Whatever the rights and wrongs of the situation, the ultimate danger, of course, is that the more resilient employees become, the more unscrupulous employers might feel that they have carte blanche to treat them badly, simply because they believe they can take it.

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Karen Drury is a partner at management consultancy, fe3.

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Karen Drury

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Read more from Karen Drury
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