Earlier in our New Economy Programme series, we held the webinar Climate Emergency: Shaping a Meaningful Local Response with Peter Lefort.
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Peter Lefort is the Sector and Partnerships Lead for Cornwall Council’s Carbon Neutral Cornwall programme, working towards carbon neutrality across Cornwall by 2030. He has worked in climate change for ten years, as a campaigner, facilitator, and network manager, and specialises in the resilience of individuals, organisations, and systems.
Peter has also written for Stir Magazine. Read one of his articles from the archive here:
Burnout to Resilience: Changing the way we do change
by Peter Lefort
This article was first published in Stir Magazine, Autumn 2019. To support our journalism, purchase this issue or an annual subscription.
The benefit to resilience becoming a recent buzzword is that everyone recognises it as a ‘good thing.’ Nobody wants to be less resilient. But the more and more we become familiar with a thing without any deeper understanding of how to get it, the more like a fairytale it becomes.
Resilience is more than the ability to recover from shocks, it’s also the ability to respond to change in a positive way. We don’t need to experience a shock in order to be resilient, but unfortunately there is often a pattern in which we think of resilience through its absence, broadly defined as burnout. If I’m not burned out, then I don’t need to be resilient. But burnout is not the opposite of resilience, and this polarisation makes it almost impossible to wrap our heads around what resilience would actually mean to our everyday experience.
We don’t currently have a shared language for resilience, nothing deeper than the word itself, and even that has been co-opted as the latest trend. To truly understand what it is, and to be able to prioritise it, we have to contextualise from the opposite of burnout to a different part of the same patterns.
Another problem is that burnout is often only defined in relation to the workplace, but just like resilience the word ‘work’ is dangerously easy to oversimplify. In the UK, the Health and Safety Executive took a rather functional view, conducting research into how workers in different jobs are affected. Unsurprisingly, health care, social work, and education came out as the worst affected. However work is not restricted to paid employment. Viewing burnout as something which only manifests in an office, or another occupational space, overlooks the fact that work can be anything where you have an external responsibility, with family as a huge example. The home can be as much of a cause of burnout as a classroom or an office, but if we only look for it when we are being paid, then our ability to avoid it or recover from it becomes seriously restricted.
This is where resilience begins, in the realisation that it is not only a suit of armour you wear as you stride into your workplace. It is a much more holistic approach. Burnout manifests in patterns, and these patterns permeate all aspects of our lives. You have a desire to prove yourself, so you work harder, you neglect your own needs, you withdraw as things get harder, you realise that others have noticed that you are acting differently, and your desire to prove yourself resurfaces again.
This is one manifestation of the burnout cycle, a useful way of thinking about how burnout is not an isolated experience but a series of interconnected patterns of trigger and response. The good thing about patterns, however, is that they are often easy to recognise when we start to look.
We all have drivers which make us more susceptible to burnout.
These drivers are like imaginary voices in our head, constantly framing our experiences through a distorted lens. In reality, it’s only a framework, but most people can recognise which ones are particularly challenging for them:
1. Be Perfect – Everything you do has to be 100% right. If you make one mistake, you’ve failed.
2. Try Hard – You have to put all your effort in all the time. If you take a break, you’ve failed.
3. Be Pleasing – It doesn’t matter how you feel. If you don’t please everyone else, you’ve failed.
4. Hurry Up – Everything needs to be done now. If you’re late, you’ve failed.
5. Be Strong – You mustn’t show any weakness. If you ask for help, you’ve failed.
Some of these traits can have positive consequences, but they become drivers when they become irrational, when they become bottomless pits which can never be filled. Like the burnout cycle, they are our internal assumptions of external expectations. Sometimes our assumptions are correct, and we are in a toxic situation which needs to change. But often only our assumptions need to change, in order for us to avoid spiralling down. We need new patterns.
Enter, at last, resilience.
Resilience can help us break unhelpful patterns and to form new ones, giving us the ability to recognise our drivers for the irrational voices they are. Yet still it is hard to prioritise. Consider what gives you resilience. It could be a connection to nature, or feeling understood, or laughter. These are all powerful concepts, but they are hard to actualise. They need to be broken down before they can become practical.
You might answer more along the lines of having a bath, taking the dog for a walk, or curling up on the sofa to watch television. These things are more tangible, but they are also easily dismissed. We are trained to describe them as “doing nothing.” Doing nothing as a concept is as irrational as our drivers. We are never doing nothing, what we mean is doing nothing of consequence. Feedback loops so strongly dominate our lives, from social media to performance reviews, that if we don’t see impact from our actions then they can be considered wasted.
Doing nothing is a myth.
It is a myth which fills the void left by our inability to define the consequences of resilience. We need to retrain our brains to move beyond immediate feedback loops and believe that if we are more aware of our own needs then we are more able to do the things we want to do. Thankfully, this is not something we should be expected to do on our own. Retraining our brains in isolation is nearly impossible, but when we learn new behaviour collectively it is much more likely to stick. But before we consider how others can improve our resilience, we need to understand how they can threaten it. And how we can do the same to others.
When we examine our own drivers, it is equally as important to examine how we trigger those messages in other people. Sometimes the drivers which are strong for us are the ones we expect to be strong for others; if Hurry Up is important to you then you might give others the message that it should be important to them as well. Sometimes, however, it can work the other way; if you are driven by Be Pleasing, you might not mind or notice whether others please you. These discrepancies highlight the irrationality of the drivers but also the way in which they do not exist in isolation. Work and external responsibility creates patterns in which certain behaviour is rewarded or punished, based not on objective usefulness but on an individual’s drivers.
When we bring organisations in, these patterns can become institutionalised. Consider the drivers in relation to business, which speaks to the idea that nothing is ever enough. There’s always more you can do. This approach makes some perverse sense when your ambition is to maximise profits, but when it follows people from the private sector to the public or third sectors, it can create a toxic environment which can exploit the ambition for social change.
Too often our organisations push the responsibility for resilience onto the individual.
“You need to be more resilient.” Many of us will have been either told that or said that at some point. At the very least we will probably have thought it, about ourselves or about others. As well as feeding the very drivers which initially exacerbate the problem, this attitude ignores the systems and patterns which permeate work culture and pull us towards burnout. This personalised responsibility becomes another form of invisible work.
Invisible work is often farmed out without a thought, and certainly without systems of support to bear it. Arlie Hochschild coined ‘emotional labour’ to describe the necessity to “induce or suppress feeling in order to sustain the outward countenance that produces the proper state of mind in others.” This labour can be found in workplaces of all kinds. In the home, women are often expected to hold ‘life admin’ without expressing it – or ‘nagging,’ as it is often dismissed. In professional spaces, hierarchies can be used to pass along anxiety, as no-one wants to hold it themselves. Where does the worry land in your organisation? Often it is with the same people, who come to take on that invisible labour without support or recognition.
If we are to develop a new economy and a new society, we need new systems and patterns which create collective responsibility for resilience. We need the people around us, who have the power to trigger our drivers, to become our allies. Allies, in this context, means people who we know understand what we need in order to be resilient. When we have allies for colleagues, or friends, or family, then it can transform the spaces in which we work and allow us to share the responsibility for resilience with others.
This is already happening in many organisations, where collective resilience is recognised as vital to a functioning team. In some workplaces, meetings start with a check- in, a space for everyone present to air how they are feeling and what they are holding. To some this might seem trivial, but in practice it creates space to appreciate that we are not robots with a singular focus, we carry our worries and concerns with us whether or not they are acknowledged.
Larger changes are also taking place.
The provision of mental health first aid continues to grow across the UK, and the benefits are systemic. In 2018 the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health published research in which 59% of participants reported that staff were actively seeking more support than before. It’s not enough to provide support, our workplaces must incorporate resilience into our roles, so that taking action is a part of work, not apart from it.
There is a deeper reason why resilience should be seen as more than just avoiding burnout. If we strive, personally and collectively, to avoid what feels like the natural conclusion to working for social change, then we are implicitly accepting that conclusion. Developing our own resilience is only one part of affecting change. The other part is to change the way change happens. Just as much as we need to be resilient, we also need to challenge that need. Resilience should not be the threshold for keeping our heads above water.
Andrew Stirling at the University of Sussex describes the difference between controlled transition and caring transformation. His context is environmental, where transition represents a limiting and top-down approach which affords small shifts which allow us to keep doing what we’ve always done. This is the same danger with resilience as a buzzword, when change is represented through personal actions which never question the path or the destination. Transformation, on the other hand, allows us to change the path and change the destination and find new solutions which don’t generate the same underlying problems.
The destination we need is not one which requires us to be resilient simply to cope with the pressures of work. We need resilience in order to develop more effective, collaborative, open and emotionally stable systems in all aspects of society. Once we’ve done that, who knows where it might lead? ∞