Re-Imagining Resilience

Re-Imagining Resilience

Jennie Knights makes the case for thinking differently about resilience and considers how a basic income could transform how we respond to life’s challenges.

Jennifer Knights, Postgraduate Researcher and Health Service Manager
Twitter: @JennieK1984

Workforce pressures. Efficiencies. Prioritising services.

Ten years on from the 2008 global financial crisis and for those of us who work in public services this continues to be our day-to-day language and experience.  If like me, you didn’t work during the ‘good times’, it can be hard to imagine things being any different. 

With vacated posts routinely ‘given to efficiencies’ and work intensification for those remaining simply being the norm, resulting high levels of stress can and do take their toll.  Not least when so many public service workers are also experiencing the effects of years of austerity and the impact of increasing precarity, within their family and home lives.

One response to the organisational difficulties created by having a stressed and over-stretched workforce has been for HR departments to commission or develop ‘resilience training’. On the face of it this seems like good management; organisations taking action to support, educate and upskill their staff in order to be able to deal with difficulties and obstacles at work as well as cope better with change. The idea that resilience can be taught, learned and built in to people’s everyday lives, is also supported by leaders of mental health services. The charity Mind for instance describes the capacity to adapt in the face of challenging circumstances as key to maintaining stable mental wellbeing.

But what does the emphasis on individual workers developing their personal resilience leave out or obscure? To what extent can resilience training mitigate the effects of major societal problems such as the chronic underfunding of our public services?

An online browse of the type of content involved in resilience training provided for public service workers suggests that the ‘resilient worker’ is somebody who, through applying the right (taught) tools and techniques, can look inside themselves with a critical eye, identify the ‘gaps’ in their skills and attributes, and take ownership for proactively addressing these. Assistance in choosing to develop your ‘growth mindset’ is available in the form of online assessments, resilience wheels and motivational TED talks. Developing resilience will enable you to build networks, create a personal brand and more successfully manage your career path.

Resilience on this model is constructed in terms of those who achieve resilience (winners), and those who do not (losers). This way of thinking about resilience sits only too comfortably with the promotion of what journalist Paul Mason calls the ‘neoliberal self’: attuned to a market philosophy of survival of the fittest and competition in all aspects of life. Possibilities for conceptualising resilience at a collective or group level are not explored, autonomy is valued over security, and individualism is adopted over collective action against the causes of high levels of personal and professional pressure.

By promoting resilience as being solely about personal responsibility, employers, organisations and indeed our elected representatives. are effectively being let off the hook.

A couple of years ago in the Lower Shankill estate in Belfast I came across these words, painted as a mural in striking blue letters against a background of clouds and sky: 

“Stop calling me resilient. Because every time you say, ‘Oh, they’re resilient,’ that means you can do something else to me. I am not resilient”. 

Attributed to Tracie Washington of the Louisiana Justice Institute, this statement originally appeared on posters throughout New Orleans in response to the city’s (post Hurricane Katrina) ‘resilience strategy’. The residents of Lower Shankhill involved with the creation of the mural felt that these words also offered the best description of how they were feeling as a community, in relation to social change, redevelopment, education, housing and employment.

Residents from two cities, 4000 miles apart, but with the same important insight: the idea of resilience can be, and is, politicised towards reinforcing a narrative which gives primary focus to people taking personal responsibility for dealing with their circumstances – regardless of the extent to which those difficulties may also result from the actions (or inaction) of particular governments or from underlying systemic inequalities.

Last year I had my own first real experience of burnout.

This was a shock. Like many other people I was proud to be the kind of person who thrived off pressure; working, studying, writing, networking, chasing promotions. Failure never an option.

For the first time I found myself grappling on a personal level with what it means to be resilient. How was it that others seemed to cope when difficulties came along and this time I couldn’t? Was this a personal failing?

‘I am not resilient’. 

The power of these words for me lies in the rejection of an idea, an ideal even, which has made people feel weakened rather than strengthened. In the last twelve months I have become much more attuned to the importance of mental health and I think I now have a better understanding as to why someone might reject the whole idea of resilience. And yet – instead of just rejecting the idea, are there ways in which we might reinvent or reimagine it instead?

Wellbeing, social connections and having ways to cope with difficult events; these are the three key elements which Mind suggest lie at the heart of resilience. I can’t disagree with the importance of each of these. But, although these elements may support good mental health, I believe that whilst resilience continues to be interpreted in its current mode of personal responsibility, they are not in themselves sufficient.Teaching people how to cope with the current system is not enough. If as a society we really want to support people in dealing with difficulties and obstacles at work, at home, and beyond, then we must create the conditions within which people can make real choices about their lives, to genuinely transform their situations. 

In the context of the workplace this inevitably involves asking difficult questions about where power lies and staff pushing for more collective decision-making, particularly in order to resist further work intensification in public services.

But it will take more than this to encourage employers and organisations to reverse the emphasis on staff taking personal responsibility for dealing with system pressures.

This is where the argument for a basic income must come in. A baseline of income security would allow not only for workers to manage their working hours differently to reduce individual stress levels, but also empower people to challenge the individualised modes of thinking such as those currently promoted by resilience training. Much has been written on the potential of a basic income to create stronger, healthier, better connected workplaces and communities. Resilient communities. We should take the opportunity now to talk with colleagues and friends about ways of imagining what building resilience could mean as a collective endeavour, as opposed to a personal one. 

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