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We should be talking about capacity and not resilience

If resilience training wasn’t a thing before the pandemic, it is now.  During 2020 and 2021 as we experienced increasing numbers of employees with mental health issues, workplace stress, burnout and increased sickness absence, it seemed resilience training was the panacea. As an author and trainer, I received a lot of requests for help in this area.

But not just resilience training, we saw time management, mindfulness, meditation and yoga offered to staff who were experiencing difficulties managing the different ways of working with a view to helping people stay focused and get the job done.

The impact of this was felt even before the pandemic. We are still living in the wake of over four decades of downsizing which was widely used as a reactive strategy to deal with sudden changes and a proactive tool for maximising short-term profitability.  We took away people but maintained the workload demand.  Increased workload and responsibilities resulting in an inability to detach from work, fatigue, depression and anxiety persist despite spending time money and effort improving employee resilience.

If we think of the definition of resilience as “the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness.” or  “the ability to bounce back—a capacity to absorb negative conditions, integrate them in meaningful ways, and move forward”, then it becomes obvious that we are really asking people to just put up with working conditions and find coping mechanisms to continue to do the work.

Absorbing negative conditions shifts the blame and responsibility away from badly organised workplace systems and onto individuals.

Given the term capacity exists in both of the definitions above and that it seems you have to have capacity before you can be resilient, how come we aren’t having more conversations about capacity or rolling out capacity training?

Recent research indicates that when we’re presented with a problem, our instinct is to ‘add things’ (resilience and other training) rather than ‘remove things’ (look at capacity and workload and take things away). This instinct can be found everywhere. We set up extra meetings to figure out why work schedules are too cramped, but in doing so add more red tape, more decision points.  We get up earlier or stay later to accommodate our ever-growing to do list rather than taking things off the list.

So, what’s the answer?

Firstly, we have to think about the capacity of an organisation and its people:

  • Strategy – where we are going over the next 5-10 years (at least)?
  • Work – what is the work that needs to be done in order to achieve the strategy?
  • Structure – are we organised in a way to perform the required work?
  • Systems – have we got the right systems, processes, and technologies to enable the work and structure?
  • People – what competencies and capabilities are needed in the structure to perform the work?

Secondly, we need to look at an individual’s adaptive capacity.

Broadly, and more scientifically, adaptive capacity can be described as the ability or capacity of a system (or person) to modify or change its characteristics or behaviour in response to existing or anticipated external stresses. The term is used often to describe adaptations to climate change.

For our purposes, it simply points to whether an individual has the mental, physical and temporal space to not only do what is required of them, but to respond positively when things don’t go according to plan, and even to seize opportunities that may exist as a result of new conditions.

You will know you have adaptive capacity if:

  • Your fuse is sufficiently long enough that you don’t lose it every time something unexpected happens
  • You have space in your diary for a conversation about a. new and exciting opportunity
  • You get to the end of the week feeling productive rather than busy or exhausted
  • You are reading and learning about trends in your industry or related to your role and work

You know what might help people be more resilient at work?

  • Taking a lunch hour
  • Working in 25-minute blocks with 5 min breaks (thank you pomodoro method)
  • Less wasteful meetings
  • Realistic timeframes
  • Appropriate workloads
  • Packing up and going home on time.

Focusing on increasing resilience through training or coaching programs can help, but without reviewing capacity and systems then it will be throwing good money after bad.

Donna McGeorge is a best-selling author and global authority on productivity. Her book series, It’s About time covers meetings, structuring your day, and doing more with less is available in bookstores around Australia or can be ordered online via Donna’s website.

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