Have we got the concept of 'resilience' all wrong?

Written by Amanda Nicholls

Self-help hacks and motivational quotes are great and all, but not when they mask a faulty system. So let’s stop shouldering the burden of wellbeing, recalibrate the resilience narrative and add some balance to being able to bounce-back, argues Amanda Nicholls. 

Unsurprisingly, considering 2020’s horror show, Merriam-Webster went with ‘pandemic’ for its word of the year, Collins settled on ‘lockdown’, and Oxford English Dictionary was so overwhelmed by how much had happened (weren’t we all, babes) they couldn’t pick one – proposing ‘furlough’, ‘WFH’ and ‘keyworkers’ among other ‘words of an unprecedented year’.

Flying under the radar while the obvious expressions dominated was another contender almost as ubiquitous: ‘resilience’. Referring to the ability to adapt, accommodate, robustly recover from adversity and pivot like a pro, it has been applied to everything from economies and ecologies to our schoolkids. One of the biggest buzzwords since March – a catch-all for coping with a turbulent period of unfathomable fatalities, sharp rises in unemployment and peak hardship – resilience has gathered more and more momentum post-Covid, becoming a real holy grail.

We’re taking quizzes to find out which of its traits we possess; wrapping our heads around top 10 strategies for building reserves of the coveted stuff. Our poor brains – as if getting us out of bed in the morning wasn’t bad enough, now we’re being peer pressured into upskilling.

That’s not to detract from practicable advice on which superfoods sharpen the mind or how to shave seconds off the school run and fit in another task, which can be helpful to many – nor downplay the value in striving for durability. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to expand our survival kits by developing a hardier mindset, but the emphasis is just… a little upside down.   

Let’s add some balance to our resilience

It’s the balance of culpability behind the resilience narrative that’s skewed, to the point of the almost sinister. Stemming from material science, this is a word describing a substance that returns unscathed to its original shape having absorbed severe stress, rather than becoming deformed – possibly not the sort we should be using to frame positive mental health anyway. And indeed, the cultural message does seem to be: “muster all your personal resources to push yourself to the limit without actually breaking.”

If we all just become more resilient then the status quo isn’t challenged to evolve, but instead the people under pressure to maintain it are; the root causes of inequality aren’t held to account, social transformation isn’t encouraged, people are just given the extra burden to work on themselves psychologically. “It’s placing blame at the level of the individual and their coping ability, without also acknowledging the role external factors play – job insecurity, sensationalised media coverage, consequences of contagion, uncertainty regarding rules and the future,” explains cognitive behavioural therapist Jerrie Serrell. “We’re doing people a disservice to ignore the influences of wider societal factors on wellbeing.”

We shouldn’t have to swallow endless self-help hacks and bust a gut trying to ‘bounce back’. The solution should be hung around scrutinising stressors and regulating the ways we’re overburdened. The NHS is a prime example – stretched that nurses working wards outside their specialisms, with reduced staff-to-patient ratios, are left open to moral injury if the worst happens while they’re unable to provide their normal level of care. In a summer 2020 study surveying ICU staff almost half reported symptoms consistent with PTSD, depression or anxiety.  

Pre-pandemic, many women in workplaces across the board would be reluctant to admit struggling professionally for fear of the following conclusion: ‘she couldn’t hack it’. Tears in office toilets aside, I know I’ve quietly picked up slack, shouldered more than was reasonable without recompense and taken being considered physically capable of doing so as a compliment. A necessary evil of any chance to progress.

Now, whether it’s heavier workloads compensating for furloughed colleagues or myriad demands of childcare, homeschooling and domesticity, women have it harder than ever. While vulnerability is encouraged via social media, we’re less likely to voice complaints amid job cuts and reports that the clock is being turned back on gender equality. Instead, we channel our efforts into improving resilience.

“It’s sought out as a means to mediate and buffer the significant uncertainties we are increasingly being exposed to,” according to Serrell. “Resilience as a concept is being ever more used as an indicator for how well individuals are able to cope with the stress of the pandemic. It’s become a sort of badge of honour.”  

Marketing resilience to women

Professors Shani Orgad and Rosalind Gill at City University of London have studied how the notion is marketed. “There’s a long history to self-help and how it’s disproportionately addressed to women,” explains Gill. “Feminist scholarship has critiqued the way self-help literature offers a ‘re-privatisation’ of problems faced by women in an unjust society.”

Where, she says, calls for men to be more resilient are dressed in positive, competitive language – “perform at your highest level” or “have unstoppable confidence” – for women they’re framed in terms of “overcoming deep-rooted internal obstacles and correcting a psychological deficit.”

Promoted while they’ve been acutely affected by austerity, the resilience ideal is particularly unrealistic for women in poor communities. Requiring resources to undertake the self-care prescribed, it widens the inequality gap. 

“What UK policy austerity programmes do, seeking to encourage resilience, is deflect responsibility,” says Orgad. “It’s especially single mothers needing welfare benefits cast as lacking the substance that would help them ‘bounce back’ from grinding poverty, precarious work and insecure, expensive housing, whereas what remains completely off the hook are the structural conditions that keep them in their place.

“One needs to perform much labour to become resilient and confident: you need the right cultural capital, to purchase the right products and invest time (even supposedly free DIY ‘steps to become resilient’ are extremely space and time-consuming). Disadvantaged people lack these resources, yet are called to become resilient as if it was a matter of private will.”    

The problem with chasing ‘resilience’

There’s also a difficulty in defining and harnessing resilience – is it a process? Are we born with it? It’s open to interpretation. Its vagueness makes it easy to exploit; just as unclear lockdown messaging made it easier to blame the public for breaches.

The term’s subtle hijacking and repackaging to push productivity is evident in streamlining companies squeezing all they can from remaining employees to keep commercial cogs turning. The past year has, of course, presented challenging terrain for businesses trying to stay afloat but the resilience chat has highlighted capitalist flaws and fragilities; consequences of elevating individualism over community.

In these seminal, norm-shifting times, resilience cannot become a shame-inducing synonym for putting up and shutting up. We shouldn’t learn to deal more stoically with stress, bullying or overwork. The more it’s misused to mask constitutional problems and heap onus upon individuals, the more they’ll feel inadequate, inelastic, unable to manage multiple duties.

Cut yourself some slack instead?

Presumably it’s the ‘resilient’ among us that rise to the top (bar those hauled up by the hand of nepotism) but overly persistent, single-minded people don’t always make great leaders. Along with paying staff properly; prioritising work quality over presenteeism; abandoning the idea that home life never enters the professional arena; and communicating compassionately and transparently, employers need to embrace a less top-down approach. Empowering staff to make decisions and working collaboratively is the way forward, and a tokenistic attitude to wellbeing for positive PR – introducing ping-pong or unlimited holiday and expecting workhorse culture to change – won’t crack it.

“We call for a shift from the individualised, psychologised imperative to women and girls to care for themselves (because no one else will) to resources required to sustain a climate that nourishes gender equality and a more just world,” argue Orgad and Gill. “How government can truly invest in caring workplaces that not only recognise that people have lives and caring responsibilities outside work, but support them in carrying them out.”

With our systems exposed as less than fit for purpose we have an opportunity to look at the bigger picture; thinking about reform, using resilience models in moderation, remembering self-improvement is great and all but not when it allows society’s faulty constructs to remain unchecked. So instead of chasing resilience in 2021, how about we try cutting ourselves some slack?

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