Our obsession with employee resilience is misguided and risky

As a result of the rise in complexity and frequency of change and challenge battering our organizations over the past ten-years, the issue of employee and organizational resilience is under the spotlight like never before. What became abundantly clear in 2020, is that resilient organizations would weather the storm and emerge from the pandemic in a stronger position than their less resilient counterparts. At the same time, the blogosphere was suddenly awash with articles advising how to ‘build’ or ‘boost’ employee resilience in recognition that employees were facing extreme pressure, with potentially fatal consequences to individuals and organizations. However, before you book your team into resilience training, it is important to understand exactly what resilience is, where it comes from, and the possible unintended and high-risk consequences of approaching it without due care.

Relying on improved employee resilience alone is high risk and unsustainable.

Of course, individuals with high levels of resilience are a useful asset to an organization, especially in the most challenging times. However, placing the onus for improving resilience on your employees misses the opportunity that the organization can and should build resilience of its own too. Furthermore, this is a much more reliable and low-risk strategy than hoping resilience will come upstream from the workforce when needed.

If AON’s recent research is accurate and “only 30% of employees are considered resilient,” this leaves a big employee resilience hill to climb with no guarantees of success. It is also a never-ending task as employees as well as fresh challenges come and go.
Zoe Krupa of La Trobe University, writing about resilience training explains:

“This sort of strategic training basically assumes the conditions that are impacting their employees’ resilience are either inevitable or desirable.”1

Surely it is wiser to reduce or remove as many of the factors that require high resilience, than to continue to allow them to burden the organization and its employees indefinitely? We are not suggesting that workplaces should be free of stress. That is unrealistic and there is a lot of evidence that ‘healthy’ levels of stress and challenges in the workplace contribute to motivating employees. We are talking about reducing and removing situations where pressure and poor working conditions go beyond what could be considered either healthy or sustainable. The wisest organizations do just that.

Organizational resilience is much more effective.

The organizations that have been most resilient through the pandemic had strong business continuity plans. They clearly understood their priorities and were able to quickly manoeuvre through a landscape of disruption to maintain and protect the elements of their business that contributed the most to achieving these. Their adaption was smooth, quick, and agile. Whilst others were sent into a spin, furiously grappling to understand and then communicate what was required of their employees, often lurching, and changing plans on an almost daily basis. Those with the best pre-existing business continuity discipline reaped the rewards of a comparably seamless transition to the ‘new normal’. As a result, their employees needed less resilience because their experience was calmer, clearer, and more in control. Employees knew what they needed to do and could see how they were adding value.

Leaders of companies with better resilience also had the thinking and planning space to stay ahead of the turbulent context, anticipating what was coming and readying their employees in good time. Again, reducing the need for resilience to manage frequent and unplanned pivoting requirements. Furthermore, as they now transition out of the ‘eye of the storm’ these organizations have also had the clarity to reflect on their experiences and are now evaluating what they should keep and what they should let go of that will no longer serve them as they adjust to a post-pandemic landscape. There is no doubt, that building organizational resilience and expecting the unexpected will be high on the agenda.

What drives employee resilience?

Certainly, resilience training could prove useful for some, but it will be limited if it is the only initiative. Research highlights that an individual’s capacity to be resilient in the workplace is positively impacted by workplace factors such as social support, job design, job satisfaction, workplace culture and general wellbeing2. Designing workplaces that promote connection, feelings of support, job satisfaction and autonomy are central to any good wellbeing and thus resilience strategy. We recommend focussing efforts and resources on optimizing organizational wellbeing, with the understanding that improved individual and organizational resilience will be a natural outcome of this. The added advantage of this approach is that alongside improvements in resilience, organizations can expect improvements in creativity, innovation, productivity, motivation, problem-solving, collaboration, satisfaction, and engagement as well.

The risk of over-stating resilience in the workplace

We can probably all recall examples of colleagues being praised for being resilient – given kudos for their ability to consistently manage heavy workloads and perform well in high-pressure circumstances. However, when we do this, we are inadvertently sending a message that successful performance is measured by an individual’s ability to endure stress. This approach is also programmed full of assumed cultural capital and norms. Research continues to explain that resilience has been shown to be a culturally and contextually sensitive construct3. What this means is that resilience means different things to different people and where they draw their resilience from also varies significantly.

Considering those who conform to our own notion of ‘resilience’ as successful and viewing those who do not as less successful or “non-resilient”, is not only a massive hurdle to achieving equity, diversity, and inclusion, but it is also likely to take a toll on employee mental health. For every employee that meets these prescribed standards for ‘resilience’, there will be many who simply cannot recognize how this aligns to their personal experiences and understanding of the same. These employees become at risk of being ‘sidelined’ or ‘under-valued’ and the organization as well as the employee will pay the price of their associated decline in motivation, engagement, and health.
In conclusion

Whilst seeking to help individuals to increase their resilience may be well-intended. A careless and uninformed approach runs the risk of impacting morale, hampering diversity efforts, and losing valuable employees. A more powerful approach is to improve wellbeing and use this as the driver of increased resilience amongst other things.

1 Zoe Krupka to The Conversation, 17 May, 2016,

2 Fiona Yu et al., “Personal and Work-Related Factors Associated with Nurse Resilience: A Systematic Review,” International Journal of Nursing Studies 93 (2019).

3 Michael Ungar, “Resilience across Cultures,” The British Journal of Social Work 38, no. 2 (2006).p218-235

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