Resilience and mental wellbeing

I’m fascinated by the topic of resilience and the interplay with mental wellbeing. Both have been at the centre of a much discussion in the world of work over the last few years and whilst I’m by no means an expert on the specific topics, I wonder whether both are two sides of the very same coin.

The archives are full of books and articles telling us how to build resilience at work, we talk about grit and determination and we have developed models and assessments to determine the level of resilience of employees and candidates. Meanwhile at the same time, we’ve raised the importance of understanding mental wellbeing in the workplace, identified means of supporting and analysed the impact that mental health related absences are having on productivity.

I can’t help thinking that we are missing something much deeper that lies at the root cause between the two issues. Something that is changing our relationship between human being and work, or indeed human being and life itself.

As I write this at the moment I have two children waiting exam results, one for GCSEs, one for A-levels. Already the amount of institutional pressure that is placed on them is enormous. “Unless you get x, you won’t get y”. At the same time, they’re bombarded with images and messages of societal perfection, of friends and lovers and situations which have no resemblance to the reality of most ordinary people.

All before they enter into the world of work, where will tell them that they will need to work until they’re 70 or older. Where we will resist providing them with stability of employment, savings for the future, career paths or development and we will constantly tell them that the jobs they are doing now will no longer exist in the future.

And then we will inform them that they need to build resilience, and we will show them how through a model and share a TED lecture from an expert on it. Have a lunch and learn too. Before reminding them of our mental health awareness week and the fact that they need to look after themselves, because they’re our most important asset. And it’s ok to talk.

I don’t know, but it all seems a bit confused to me. We have the power to change the root cause as well as treat the symptoms, but somehow we divert less energy time and focus there. Wouldn’t it be great if we lived in a world where our natural resilience was good enough and we created the environment that nurtured mental well-being?

Just a thought.

7 tips for better HR practice

  1. Express a view – don’t fall into the trap of, “it’s my position to advise, you make the choice”. Not only does this annoy managers, it also disempowers you and makes you inessential. Why bother asking you if that’s all you do? Don’t be afraid to express a view and explain why you feel that way, even if others don’t agree no-one will ever disrespect you for having an opinion.
  2. See the person – its easy to get into the view that you need to be commercial, tough and driving the agenda of “the business” and forget about the primary aspect of your role. You can be all of these things and still see the human impact. Never forget to see the person in all choices and decisions, that is your unique lens.
  3. Don’t hide behind policy – similarly to “only advising”, hiding behind policy disempowers you. We know that there are good reasons to have policies, but you need to be able to explain why they’re appropriate and useful, not just quote them. Most decisions will always lie in the margins.
  4. Avoid the gossip – you will be party to important, confidential information throughout your career and how you use it and react to it will determine your professionalism. Avoid gossip at all costs, lead with integrity and dignity and never ever use knowledge as power.
  5. Write for your mum – when you commit anything into writing, ask yourself how you would feel if your mum or dad, or significant other were to receive the letter. Is it clear, does it show the tone and warmth you want it to? Could someone understand it who had no technical knowledge or background? Does it make sense?
  6. Seek to understand – in pretty much any situation there will be information and then THE information. Seeking to understand, to explore and asking good questions will help you to better lead a situation. Assume not only makes an ass out of u and me, it also leads to poor decisions.
  7. Language matters – You are not HR and they are not THE BUSINESS. End of.

The myth of the external candidate

I’m always slightly nervous when it comes to comparing internal and external candidates. In many ways it is like moving house. On one hand you have you have the wonderful description of a potential property and beautifully taken photos and on the other, you have your current abode, lived in and known.  You can take a few visits, have a look around, you can even get a surveyor’s report, but it will never amount to the knowledge and experience you have from years lived within, learning the good the bad and the indifferent.

Of course there are ways you can be more objective about the comparison, you can run aptitude tests, profiling and be as structured in the assessment as possible. But I’m not sure you can ever completely counterbalance the opportunity of being unknown. Let’s take something like stakeholder management. An external candidate will give you examples of where they’ve been successful, how they’ve managed competing demands and ultimately you can only assume this to be true. The internal candidate may tell you the same, but you’ll also have the feedback from the stakeholders themselves.

The only way I’ve found to approach this situation is to add in the equivalent of a balancing number. On one hand assume that the external candidate will be 15-20% less good than you assess them to be. On the other add a factor for growth to the internal candidate, based on your knowledge of their current performance.  Then look at the two adjusted performances and try to make a comparison based on this revised approach.

Ultimately, if an internal candidate can get within distance of the external candidate based on this assessment it feels like the right thing to do to allow them to develop and grow. It’s not the most scientific approach, I grant you, but in the absence of anything genuinely more objective, I’ll be sticking to my old school ways.

Lead change with care

I’ve written before about toxic cultures, but I was struck by the story that I read over the weekend about the legal case being brought against former executives of France Telecom. I’m no expert on the case in hand, but the story sets out a culture of harassment  through constant change and disruption as efficiency savings were sought.

There’s a huge spectrum ranging from the extreme cases detailed in this story through to the ordinary change of organisational life and we need to be careful not to conflate the two, but there are reminders in the extreme that can help us in our everyday practice. We can all argue that, “it’s not like that here”, but it never hurts us to check and be sure.

The first check point is when we stop seeing employees as human beings. You can pick this up through the language that is used in organisations, the way that senior leaders talk about people as a collective. Most organisational change will have a human impact, but when we fail to genuinely recognise that, problems are not far away.

When change becomes a thing in itself, you’re facing a second check point. Organisations that become focused on change, but without realising why. The impact on people throughout is disorientation and confusion, neither of which are good for mental wellbeing. Most people can go through significant change and transition when they understand the why, but struggle when they feel constantly done to.

Finally, when leadership teams lose touch with their teams you’ve reached the third checkpoint. As a leader you can only make good decisions if you are well-informed. One of the most important sets of data is the feedback from the people who work in the organisation itself. I’m not talking about the annual survey alone, but about the informal feedback that tells you how things really are.

Put simply, leaders have an overarching responsibility for every single employee in their organisation. That doesn’t mean we should avoid tough choices or decisions, it doesn’t me would should be change adverse, but it does mean that we need to care. Hopefully none of us will ever experience the extremity of the France Telecom situation, however, each day as we go about our work, we should always check in and make sure we are staying true to our responsibility to our people.