Columns / Positive Cultures

How resilient is your workforce?

Can they bounce back after a bad run of accidents?

December 4, 2012
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Resilience is a major catchword in current research on stress, occupational and otherwise. The argument is that some individuals are just better able to endure stressful situations than others, and further, may even come out of an ordeal stronger than before. Others are more prone to collapse under pressure, and be much worse off than before in the aftermath of a hard time. While there are many ways of characterizing the former group, i.e., the stress-resistant individuals, “resilient” is the term I see most often of late.

 In the growing literature, the resilience concept is increasingly visible. It isn’t that happy, optimistic, fulfilled people never face adversity; it is that when they face the kinds of challenges that we all inevitably do, they show resilience in the face of their trials. They overcome them, or learn to live with them, and maintain their positive outlook, which keeps them moving upward and onward. Positive Psychology finds that individuals’ perceived happiness has surprisingly little to do with their present circumstances (be they very good or very bad), and surprisingly much to do with their resilience. 

Sport psychology is a growing passion of mine and in the first chapter of a book I recently purchased on the topic, I came across what the author terms the “mental resilience” of top caliber professional athletes. At the absolute highest levels in any sport, the differences across teams in level of physical ability are relatively small. The top teams and the top players are the ones with a great skill set plus the ability to focus and bounce back, to interpret a loss as a temporary setback, and even as a growth opportunity — resilience. The “lack of short-term memory” is resilience in action.

Cultural implications

There is a broader, cultural level at which the concept of resilience is becoming more visible. In years past, there was not explicit focus on being able to bounce back from adversity, to bend but not break, to learn from mistakes and move on. It was just expected that you pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and move forward — “cowboy up”.

In my academic life, I see the current generation of students as generally less resilient than their predecessors. Many observers of our culture and our educational system see the same. My classroom observations are admittedly anecdotal. And  there are numerous exemplars of young people who have endured major hardships and setbacks. Through grit and determination they rise above their problems to be successful. That said, the current crop of young people that I work with does seem to me, as a group, more lacking in personal resources for dealing well with adversity and disappointment than their predecessors.

I’ve discussed with  academic colleagues how best to help the so-called “fragile” students, the ones who are struggling with the pressures of their college life and career. I don’t mean in the slightest to make light of academic pressure, or of the students who struggle under the weight of it. I can’t imagine participating in these discussions to the same extent a generation ago.   

It may be that the current generation has been brought up on such a heavy dose of self-esteem protection, and concomitantly such a low dose of personal accountability, that, lacking the experience, they just have not learned how to overcome obstacles on their own.

As a cohort they have generally been buffered from experiencing setbacks — that, after all, would make them “feel bad” about themselves. And they have received the proverbial trophy for showing up.

Ego protection

One prominent unintended consequences of widespread ego-protection is that anything less than the trophy — a C grade, for example — can be completely mystifying to the young recipient. And, it is less unusual these days for a parent (can you hear the helicopter nearby?) to get actively in the loop and pick up the issue, on behalf of the dazed and confused student. “I’m sorry, professor, but a C is not a sufficient trophy for all the effort my child put into showing up for your test.”

Specifically in the EHS context, how do you and your organization respond to the proverbial “bad run” of accidents? If the response is a hopeless/helpless, “what can you do?” attitude, accepting that “accidents are just going to happen,” you perpetuate a downward spiral, a self-fulfilling prophecy which ultimately breeds a culture of defeat — a negative safety culture. No resilience there.

Suppose instead that you study and learn from the bad run, and become re-dedicated to and re-focused on safe work. A “we will redouble our efforts and we will get it back on track” attitude encourages and, critically, energizes the actions required to, in fact, turn things around.

Is your safety culture that resilient? Durable positive safety cultures invariably are. They must be.  

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