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Is employee resilience training needed in the workplace?

27 June 2018

Is employee resilience training a distraction that sustains a poor work culture?


As surveys and testimonies highlight high stress levels within law and consequential negative effects on performance indicators and personal health, firms encourage staff to attend resilience training. Resilience training is often seen as the cure, a caring employer's solution to help individuals cope with stress. But is it?

Testimonies suggest that many law firms believe their tried and tested cultures and practices provide a resilience that is  impervious to time. But are they?

Should resilience training be needed in the workplace? 

Personal resilience is normal. Two important resilience components are a positive attitude and optimism; few people impress at interview or start a job without them. So where do they go? Yes, real, significant life events happen, but is it acceptable that an everyday work environment requires resilience; for individuals to constantly adapt to adversity just to operate effectively and remain healthy?

Do organisations truly understand resilience?

My team members and I have interviewed and worked with many people who work(ed) in sustained, high-pressure environments under tremendous hardship.  With our academic consideration of those in similar fields, it is clear that individuals thrive (not just survive) because they only dig into their resilience reservoir when things truly go unpredictably wrong. Here, their resilience is tested to the full for the seconds, minutes or the week it takes for the individual/team to regain control.

I have three issues with how resilience is typically, currently considered within the workplace: I believe it to be counter-productive to organisational success and individual wellbeing.

1. Resilience should be for the exceptional day, not the everyday

'Resilience is the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress.' American Psychological Association (APA).

The resilience concept originated through research that distinguished those who successfully readjusted to potentially life changing events or stressors; life's exceptional days. Surveys and testimonies of those within law highlight: high workloads, high billing targets, urgent deadlines, outside or internal (political) pressures, 'In my day' cultures, and tiered systems of employee worth. These pressures for which resilience is required are not typically the result of one-off, uncontrollable, significant (or way of) life-threatening events. Instead, such environments provide an accumulation of seemingly endless, stressful events ranging from low to high intensity. Employee resilience (training) has become necessary to cope with and adapt to the everyday.

2. People are most resilient when their reservoir is full…

And when the reservoirs of those they rely on in difficult times are full. But many in ongoing stressful environments constantly dip into their physical and mental reserves, so that when the individual (and presumably their organisation) really needs their personal resources, the reservoir is not full. Diminishing reservoirs are often only realised when consequences become extreme, e.g. through mistakes, poor decision-making, or bad health.

3. A plaster does not heal a catastrophic haemorrhage

'Resilience is ordinary, not extraordinary. People commonly demonstrate resilience. … Resilience is not a trait that people either have or do not have. It involves behaviours, thoughts and actions that can be learned.' American Psychological Association

Yes, resilience can be taught. But can the typical mode of resilience training, a day's workshop, enable the required, enduring change? Solutions need personalising. Change takes time, effort, and crucially, support. How often do individuals leave such courses renewed with energy and practical tips only to return to their unchanged workplace reality?

Is resilience training an organisational excuse?

Are individuals required to cope with events that are genuinely out of the organisation's control for sustained periods of times?

For optimal performance, the resilience reservoir should be full. Individuals will be resilient for the tough moments when a work culture ensures it. Resilient organisations plan and prepare to control the environment and situation. Everyone understands their role(s) and those of their colleagues/team. Clear, timely communication is prioritised. Colleagues support each other; are committed to each other and a common goal. Instead of being 'the final straw, … again', unexpected events should hardly register.

When the unplanned happens, individuals should only dip into their reservoir during the significant threat; the short time before the continuity plan is implemented and control regained. If the plan requires sustained resilience, individuals already have it, as they start with a full reservoir. Most crucially, resilient organisations always learn. The unexpected generates a list of the expected; the circle starts again.

Ironically, resilience training encourages individuals to complete honest self-reflection, to explore what works, how to be more effective. By sending individuals on such courses, is an organisation in denial that it might benefit from doing the same?

Is resilience training ethical?

Is it ethical for organisations:

  • To place the blame for a lack of resilience and the responsibility for attaining it, on employees?
  • To not properly address those everyday workplace issues that create the need for employee resilience?

 Your thoughts and any positive examples of culture change  would be welcome.


Views expressed in our blogs are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the Law Society. 

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Tags: emotional resilience

About the author

Caroline Marlow PhD, C.Psychol., AFBPsS, (HCPC Registered) is Director and Co-Founder of L&M Consulting Ltd, specialists in promoting sustainable, optimal performance through positive psychological wellbeing.

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