Calls for more resilience a smokescreen for broken workplaces

| November 4, 2020

It was an accusation that left millennials around the country marinating in misery.

Ita Buttrose declared that the generation born between 1981 and 1996 – which makes up a major component of our workforce – lacked resilience and needed “hugs” and constant reassurance.

In doing so, the media identity and current ABC chair joined a barrage of bosses in an increasingly popular movement focused on complaining about a perceived worldwide shortage of resilience – something in demand by everyone and every organisation during these tough COVID-19 times.

Not since the invention of the open-plan office have bosses been more excited about a concept. For them, resilience has become a must-have fashion accessory.

The term resilience has all the hallmarks of a first-class buzzword. It rolls off the tongue, is satisfying to say and ambiguous enough not to mean a great deal when spruiked around the workplace on a daily basis.

Besides, unflappable employees are regarded as the antidote to the global chaos caused by a pandemic that continues to wreak havoc around the world.

But what if the “toughen up” line of thinking actually had a dark side – and those pushing for more had ulterior motives for “playing the resilience card”?

Definitions of resilience abound. The classic meaning of the term revolves around an individual’s capacity to bounce back from “life quakes” that take place in our personal and working lives and register varying levels of intensity on the Richter scale.

Examples of minor and major quakes, which can reduce us to rubble, include being bullied or overloaded with work, missing out on a promotion, job loss, divorce, serious illness or even the death of a relative or close friend.

Often referred to as “mental toughness”, “grit” and sometimes “stamina”, resilience is linked to statements such as “the ability to suck it up and get on with it”, “toughen up” and “what doesn’t kill you will make you stronger”.

Those who are said to have large doses of resilience are able to soldier on without crumbling, snapping or suffering a form of breakdown.

It is almost impossible to argue against the need for all of us to develop a certain level of resilience. If we had none, our mental health would suffer enormously and we would not be able to deal with even the least difficult situations.

Besides, our workplaces are awash with all types of stressors such as job insecurity, wobbly financial markets, regular restructures and panic-stricken bosses.

People invariably do not fail because they lack resilience. But they end up lacking resilience because workplace circumstances have set them up for failure.

The reality is that often those leaders yelling the loudest about workers being too soft – and lacking resilience – are the same bosses who use the “toughen up” line to obscure less-than-ideal or even toxic work environments, which perhaps they themselves had a hand in creating.

We have all been witness to bosses using the “toughen up, fluffy” line to gloss over bad behaviour in workplaces.

James from accounts struggles with an oppressively excessive workload. His boss tells him he must become more resilient. The truth is that the boss should be managing James’ workload more fairly.

Laura from sales claims she is being bullied by a colleague after a number of repeated and ugly one-way communications. She, too, is accused of being overly sensitive and “overreacting” to a routine bout of workplace conflict. The issue here is that Laura’s boss does not understand employer obligations, which extend to ensuring a psychologically safe work environment for all employees.

John, a brick layer, regularly becomes upset when colleagues use racial slurs to target his ethnic background. His boss, who has no concept of discrimination – let alone diversity or inclusion – tells John to “grow some balls”.

It is perfectly appropriate in any workplace to have to deal with tight deadlines, peak times of extra work and difficult situations that might arise every so often. And it is perfectly understandable if the boss periodically snaps under pressure and sends out bad vibes.

But it is simply not okay to accuse others – regardless of the generation to which they belong – of lacking resilience only to mask systemic workplace culture issues that are of a toxic nature.

Besides, when we push the need to be resilient in the workplace we deny opportunities to experience vulnerability – a major backward step for any organisation.

When we shut down everyday experiences that expose our vulnerabilities by being told to toughen up, we deny workers the opportunity to develop both the emotional skills and behaviours that end up defining resilience. In other words, we must at times be able to live vulnerably to learn how to be more resilient.

The bottom line is that millennials are no less resilient than any other generation. Nor are they the bulletproof beings that some bosses desire.

But millennials are more aware of their rights – and those rights include being part of a workplace in which everyone is respected and no one exploited or excluded.

What do you do to ensure your business is resilient?

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