One day in 1998 (when I still had a full head of hair) as I was waiting for a haircut I picked up one of those glossy magazines that are a feature of hairdressing salons the world over. Although the specifics escape me, being an Oxford Street salon it was more Vogue than New Idea.
As I casually flipped the pages I stopped at the blaring headline for one of those quizzes that are a staple of those thick and glossy magazines: Are You Depressed…. And Don’t Know It?
I hadn’t quite been feeling myself so with a sense of curiosity more than anything else I took a few minutes to answer all the questions via multi-choice answers.
My score put me in the category of you’re-not-depressed-but-you’re-not-far-off-either.
Financing both my upcoming wedding and my first home purchase, combined with the stagnating results across the two Sydney temp divisions I was responsible for, just at the time my employer was gearing up for an IPO, had led to a slow but unmistakable increase in my stress levels. Tightness across my shoulders had become normal and seemingly permanent.
Banking my annual leave for my January 1999 honeymoon meant I hadn’t taken a decent holiday for over twelve months. I was falling asleep at weeknight rock concerts, causing mirth among my friends, which should have been a sign that I was running on empty.
Recruitment in the 1990s was very different culturally to what is the norm today. Very few people worked part-time, flexi-time or anything other than (a minimum) of 8 am until 6 pm, five days a week. Lunch was eaten at your desk with anything like a break-out space still 8-10 years away.
‘Mental health’ was a term only used in the (inevitably negative) context of people who had suffered a nervous breakdown, or similar. There was no thought of being pro-active in order to avoid such an occurrence as the prevailing corporate culture ensured that anything other than thriving, or at the very worst, coping, with a work-hard-play-hard environment had you consigned to being ‘weak’.
Resilience was viewed as a core competency in becoming, and staying, a high performing recruiter (and, no doubt, in many other jobs).
Thankfully, the corporate culture in Australia has come a long way since then with organisations such as R U OK? leading the conversation about the importance of pro-active mental health awareness.
A very important new insight into resilience and mental health has come from research that has been undertaken over the past eight years by Dr Adam Fraser (a popular speaker at previous RCSA events) in conjunction with Dr John Molineux of Deakin University.
“….one fascinating discovery has uncovered a misconception or distortion too many of us have bought into, that we lack resilience.
The belief that people lack resilience has become an excuse to lay blame on the human capitol (sic) in organisations rather than address the real issues.
Fraser nominates the real organisational issues as things such as outdated technology, reactive cultures, unrealistic workloads and a lack of clarity around what is important.
”Rather than address these issues it’s far easier to blame the people and tell them to harden up. We often hear, “Our employees need to be more resilient”, “They will just have to have more resilience when it comes to the pace of change.
It’s a crock! Our research shows that people today are too resilient. Far too resilient.”
Fraser goes on to elaborate about some groups of workers that were part of the study. Here’s what was discovered about school principals and their leadership teams, specifically:
“Our studies show that resilience is a huge issue for them but in reverse. They are so resilient they have a warped view of what stress is. They are so hardened that events which would normally crush the average person are seen by them as just business as usual.” (my bold)
How do workers under this sort of high stress typically respond? The research concluded that instead of easing up to look after themselves they doubled down and in doing so exacerbated the problem.
The startling conclusion about resilience from Drs Fraser and Molineux:
“People today are not lacking resilience, they are lacking the permission to take care of themselves, the ability to recover and refresh and the capacity to get past guilt so that they can embed rituals that allow them to do things that fill up their tanks.” (my bold)
In turning the perception of resilience on its head they also redefined what being a high performer really means in today’s work environment.
“Being a true high performer in today’s business landscape is knowing when to rest and when to push.”
Fraser fires a parting broadside at traditionally-minded employers and leaders while placing responsibility for the solution as much with employees as the people who employ them.
“While resilience is a critical skill, we have overplayed it and it has become a tool to make us feel weak and ensure that burn out and exhaustion is our bedfellow.
I encourage you to not go to the dark side of resilience. Ask yourself do I need more resilience or do I need recovery and self compassion?”
That’s wisdom I sure could have done with 21 years ago.