The Unbearable Heaviness of Too Much Resilience

2 years ago
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“We’re doing the best that we can do with what we have right now, and that’s all we can be expected to do. The present situation is beyond just being resilient.”

—Anonymous Care Worker

The Oxford Dictionary defines resilience as ‘the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness’. Combined with notions of resilience as a muscle—described as ‘strengthening your resilience muscle’—it makes sense that as a society we believe that overcoming stress and adversity invariably makes us tougher.

The US Marines have a saying that ‘pain is just weakness leaving the body’. Equally, Nietzsche’s saying, ‘that which does not kill us, makes us stronger’ has been covered extensively in song by modern musicians ranging from 2Pac to the Wannadies.

As the sector is currently trying to get by in the face of the present Omicron wave, and navigate through Government imposed reforms and regulations to boot, we see the workforce landscape littered with resilience training, and links to articles about how to be more resilient.

Much like organisational mindfulness initiatives prior, the onus is on workers to fix themselves and be tougher, nevermind that organisations and governments have had a hand in creating the present operating landscape in which we find ourselves.

Yet, following this metaphor of resilience as a muscle, it would be safe to say that overdeveloped muscles can be unhealthy, if not even, freakish. Simply put, our strengths can also become our weakness in a perverse case of too much of a good thing.

It is perhaps not a coincidence that in our sector’s present state, while many are touting the resilience mantra, others are saying that they’re fed up with being resilient.

Deconstructing the quote at the start of this op-ed, there is a clear sense that the worker and their colleagues have been pushed to their limits. Equally, they are compelled by others to push on. Inherently, we’re seeing the two faces of resilience.

A study conducted by Adrian Furnham and colleagues identified that when people deal with stressful circumstances, some assume a fearless approach and inflate their sense of self, while others adopt avoidance as a coping mechanism, where they become emotional and fear rejection.

According to Furnham, although resilience is a positive trait, it can also have a dark side. He and his colleagues offer the following:

“The Bold personality was found to be a positive predictor of resilience. One such example is the trait ‘self-enhancement’, which is defined as a disposition to be overly positive towards the self or possessing unrealistic self-serving biases.

The overall impact of Bold personality may benefit resilience by providing additional protective resources through a combined effort of personal self-confidence, focusing on the positives and ignoring the negatives both personally and socially, and blaming others for their own failings.”

In short, although the bold personality trait is considered the better indicator of resilient traits, the traits that allow us to be resilient also inhibit awareness of our limitations and overestimate our abilities—limiting our ability to be effective leaders.

Simply put, the right leader is not the most psychologically resilient person; resilience is not enough. Traits like integrity, and a strong sense of duty of care towards staff and elders, are vital elements of the leadership equation.

In times of stress and trauma, we all want a strong leader who seems impervious, and can shield us from what seem like impossible goals and unpleasant work circumstances. Yet, these same leaders can also be the instigators of these impossible goals and circumstances.

As demonstrated by our experience with the COVID-19 pandemic, viruses are more difficult to live with when they are more resistant.

Merlin Kong is Head of innovAGEING and Director of the Centre for Workforce Development & Innovation, Leading Age Services Australia.