More and more organisations are talking about building it. But what does being resilient mean, and what role can OSH professionals play? Peter Crush investigates.
If there’s a word OSH professionals are likely to be hearing more of, it’s resilience. ‘It’s still relatively new in an occupational context,’ says Lynda Folan, doctor of organisational psychology and author of Leader Resilience. ‘But as organisations have recognised the difficulties navigating a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world, there has been a massive focus on resilience.’
Broadly defined as the ability to cope with, and not be deflected by, change, resilience appears easy to define but, as with many emerging specialisms, the details are more nuanced.
‘At an organisational level, it’s much more about the maintenance of the “system” functioning, regardless of what destabilisations there are,’ argues David Denyer, professor of leadership and organisational change at Cranfield University. ‘This is important to understand from an OSH perspective, because there is a difference between resilience and risk-based thinking. Resilience is less understanding risk better, more ascertaining whether your system is resilient regardless of the things that can impact it.’
He adds: ‘Safety management is a sub-component of it. In uncertain times, organisations have a tendency to batten down and control risk; resilience is being aware of this, but having an adaptive capability.’
Knowing this difference matters, experts argue, because there is a more HR-focused interest in resilience, which looks at individuals. So a confusing narrative is forming which says organisational resilience is the sum of having lots of resilient people.
‘We need to be careful to say that organisational resilience must be about the organisation – its ability to “flex” to the needs of the moment,’ says Kate Field, global head of health, safety and wellbeing at BSI, the business standards and improvement company. ‘Individual resilience has been used the wrong way – as an inoculation against work-related stress, rather than changing working conditions. The more accurate way to think about organisational resilience is almost like it’s a dynamic risk assessment around processes and how they need to adapt.’
There needs to be a priority placed around psychological wellbeing but the emphasis should be, argues David, on developing new skills, ‘being both compliant, but also an innovator’.
He adds: ‘That’s why it cuts through to being a leadership challenge. Think of it as being able to provide options. When people and organisations are under stress, it’s because they have run out of options. Resilience isn’t about stopping bad things from happening, but more about finding out what the other options are. To this extent, having resilient people can support an organisation’s own resilience efforts.’
So how should OSH professionals support and build resilience? ‘I think where people are being set up for failure – that’s where identifying training needs and structures becomes important,’ argues Shona Hirons, global resilience coach and founder of Mindset in Motion. ‘The key is trickling the concept throughout the leadership team, and fostering more empathetic leadership – which enables people to speak up.’
Lynda says: ‘We must build resilience into all aspects of the organisation’s functioning. Individual resilience is enhanced when people have the capacity to constructively process their experiences and have rewired their brains for optimism.’
Top tips: How to be resilient
Gavin Scarr Hall, director of health and safety at professional services firm Peninsula, offers his advice:
- Focus on what is in your control It is easy to feel overwhelmed by events both in and out of the workplace, but sometimes it is best to focus on the things that you can control. Small victories are still victories and celebrating them will boost your mood and increase your sense of what is possible.
- Stay calm in a crisis Maintaining composure can help you make logical decisions. A roomful of calm heads can turn a chaotic mess into ordered actions that achieve a solution.
- Be proactive Problems do not resolve themselves. Resilient people pick up on little issues and deal with them before they gain momentum.
- Develop a support network Working with like-minded colleagues boosts confidence and offers an outlet for stress that works both ways.
- Reflect and learn We all make mistakes at work. It is how we learn from them and take those lessons into the next situation that builds real resilience.
Tools and training
At critical data, communications and network provider Arqiva, Sally Ford CMIOSH, director of resilience and risk, helps people do this. Her job sits in operations and her role helps ‘people, processes and physical assets adapt and be successful’. ‘From an OSH point of view our emphasis is giving people the tools and training to be able to react better, but also improve the design of work, so people can “fail” safely,’ she says.
Sally suggests OSH professionals are well positioned to champion resilience. ‘The skill-set required is then expanding on this,’ she adds. ‘You can also improve resilience by identifying things that could impact success before they happen; that is, classic risk analysis.’
According to Nick Wilson, former GB Health and Safety Executive inspector and director of health and safety services at WorkNest, the key is remembering resilience is not about seeking perfection. ‘Yes, you can aspire to it,’ he says, ‘but resilience is about understanding why things happen and not pointing fingers.’
Proving an organisation is resilient can be tricky. ‘Measurement is critical,’ says Lynda. ‘We have seen the development of resilience diagnostics specifically for the organisational context. There are also individual diagnostics that allow people to self-report, as well as team and organisational resilience measures.’
But, says Nick: ‘We also need to remember that measuring things not happening is not an indication that we are resilient. It’s how you cope when things do happen that’s the key difference here.’
Those who understand resilience will create better, safer, shock-resistant organisations. Nick concludes: ‘It’s the organisation’s responsibility to point people in a common direction. This is the sum of how people behave and react.’
Resilience in numbers
1%-5% Impact of resilience – or lack of it – on global GDP growth, according to the World Economic Forum.
44% Reduction in workers’ depression symptoms that can be achieved with resilience training, according to studies.
71% Reduction in workers’ depression symptoms that can be achieved with resilience training, according to studies.
Forbes. (2020) Resilience: the key to future business success. (accessed 26 October 2022).
McKinsey & Company. (2022) Resilience for sustainable, inclusive growth. (accessed 26 October 2022).
PR Newswire. (2019) High agility, low resilience employees have higher risk of burnout, depression, anxiety and absenteeism, survey reveals. (accessed 26 October 2022).