What's your role in helping your staff be resilient?

"If only they were a little more resilient" is a common refrain I hear from leaders. Usually, it is in response to someone not coping with change, or not managing their workload, issues with a peer or juggling their work and life commitments. Often they are referring to people being rattier than usual, complaining, perhaps even demonstrably emotional, taking time off or simply being disengaged.

In reality, a "lack of resilience" when it manifests in this way is often the very human response to burn out.

In the HBR article "Resilience is About How You Recharge, Not How You Ensure", Shawn Achor and Michelle Gielan describe how we often take a militaristic approach to grit and resilience. If only people could just tough it out. The implication (or at times stated) intention here is "I want you to work with them on ensuring they can get through their infinite workload, complex clients and interpersonal conflicts without taking any of it on as stress." Employers – interestingly, most often those in caring professions - will often say to me, 'well, this is just the nature of the work.' The responsibility, as they see it, sits with the individual.

And this is true, ultimately. But at the end of the day, if the individual has no efficacy over their work/workload/gets no traction with peers due to politics etc., the way they will resolve it is either by reducing the quality and quantity of their output (often unintentionally, there just has to be some balance somewhere and their subconscious will protect itself even if they won't) or they'll leave.

In a survey of 7500 full-time employees by Gallup it was identified that the top five reasons for burnout are:

  1. Unfair treatment at work

  2. Unmanageable workload

  3. Lack of role clarity

  4. Lack of communication and support from their manager

  5. Unreasonable time pressure

In my experience, these are the exact same drivers that underpin the behaviours that result in a perceived lack of resilience. In other words, a lack of resilience is a result of cultural context rather than individual failure.

So what can you do?

I will not pretend to solve organisational burnout in a blog post; the issues that underpin burnout are often complex and multifaceted. But there are some quick wins you can get for your staff, with a few tweaks.

  1. Encourage your staff to set clear expectations and boundaries with yourself and others that allow them to take back control. For example, a common complaint I get from staff and leaders is "no one comes back to me". A simple way to take back control of that situation is to say something along the lines of "Regarding X, it's my intention to do Y. Please let me know if you have any concerns about me doing so, or if you would like to have any input, by noon tomorrow [or other appropriate time]. If I haven't heard from you, I will move ahead as described."

  2. Understand that workload is almost always infinite. There is no end to it. I've told this story before, but I once had a complete burnout episode that made me realise I had to cut back. I dropped to working a normal day, I took my lunch break. My productivity and quality skyrocketed. It was a huge lesson. Help your team understand what has to be done today and what can wait. Make them leave at home time. Encourage them to take their lunch break. Model it yourself. Don't send them after-hours emails they feel compelled to respond to. Except for genuine emergencies, there is not much difference between something getting done at 10pm and something getting done the following morning at 9am. And if there is, on a regular basis, you either don't have enough people or haven't structured your workforce right.

  3. Make it really clear who is accountable for what. I don't mean tasks so much (though clarifying task responsibilities definitely helps too.) I mean, make it clear who is responsible for a deliverable and empower them to deliver it. So much burnout I see is from people kicking cans down a road because no one wants to make a decision and no one is sure, as a follow on from that, what their responsibility is and/or how to manage the fallout from a thing not being delivered because someone else failed to act. It builds a blame culture, which in turn reduces anyone's willingness to be accountable … the cycle goes on.

  4. Be your team's eyes and mouthpiece. Be transparent, including about the complex, messy, hard stuff, so people understand things are the way they are. Don't be cynical or derogatory, but show people you can see when they can't deliver because something is out of their control or someone else didn't act. Show people you saw when they did a thing even though they didn't have to. When they are blamed for things that are not their fault, stand up for them and then vow to fix the pieces you can.

People can show up and be resilient when they know their leader has their back and when they know what they need to do. When they know they won't be punished for not meeting an impossible workload.

I should add in closing, there are sometimes staff that are genuinely just immature, unprofessional and underperforming. I am not talking about them here, and I suspect I don't need to explain the difference. But in case it's useful there's more on dealing with them here.