Opinion: should we question the rhetoric of resilience and re-embrace traditional forms of workplace resistance?

By Caroline Murphy and Juliet McMahon, University of Limerick

The notion of employee resilience has gained significant traction of late, particularly amid organisational psychologists and human resource management practitioners. The topic has even made it into the remit of trade and mass-market books intended to cater for the corporate manager, and their employees. Titles include "The Resilient Employee; an essential guide to coping with change and thriving", "Managing for Resilience" and "How to be more resilient at work".  The central premise is that individuals who are "resilient" have the capacity to adapt positively to challenges and adversity they encounter. 

But what's behind the rise of organisational interest in resilience? From a management perspective, the answer may lie in the contemporary organisation of work. Seeking maximum productivity from workers through "time compression" has long been a feature of industrial systems. Such forms of time compression as just‐in‐time production and LEAN work systems have further helped to intensify working practices in many industries (see this piece on conditions in Amazon).

Traditionally, these represent the types of issues that would have traditionally been met with resistance from the workforce. But in the absence of strong representation at workplace level, resistance is more difficult to coordinate, leaving employees to face the challenges of intensification on an individual basis. Indeed the concept of resistance has been turned on its head with workers being convinced that any inability to deal with the challenges of more intense working patterns are in some way as a result of inherent personal failings or weakness. It's seen as a lack of resilience rather than justifiable opposition.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's The Business, business consultant Danica Murphy on understanding and using stress to build resilience 

Touted as a personal quality which can be honed and developed, the idea of resilience has even greater appeal to employers who may be engaging in significant restructuring or other organisational changes. It is unsurprising then that resilience has became a more recognisable term in organisational use since the global financial crisis. A significant industry has developed around the provision of resilience "training" for employees

But is resilience as beneficial to workers as claims suggest? Should it be viewed as a Trojan horse through which management can exert uncontested power over workers, and quell attempts at resistance?

There is growing evidence that suggests working conditions for many workers have become increasingly harmful to wellbeing. These conditions are largely driven by neoliberal capitalist agendas, employment relationships which largely benefit the employer and efficiency rather than welfare focused human resources' practices.

For many workers, workplace benefits are now being eroded and replaced with nothing more than a greater sense of resilience.

Resilience training has a potential dark side, which is ignored. It has the capacity to alter and shape employees' frame of reference and mindset in an insidious manner. From an industrial relations standpoint, it can viewed as outsourcing the duty of care within the employment relationship. It replaces the onus on employers to negotiate, consult or engage with employees with a short, swift training programme designed to shift the employees' mindsets from one of resistance towards one of acceptance and resilience.

Numerous studies have linked higher levels of resilience to higher levels of job satisfaction, lower levels of work-related irritation, lower intentions to quit a job, superior performance in demanding job situations, better coping skills and a better ability to cope with organisational change. However, some experts warn of the potential for individuals to remain tolerant of unpleasant or counterproductive circumstances in their workplace.

A recurrent theme of the literature on outcomes of workplace resilience training is the view that resilience is an asset to an employee. But it's an asset at the disposal of the employer, since the benefits of resilience for the employee are largely couched in the broader benefits to the organisation. Resilience has become part and parcel of the armoury of management practices designed to instil individualism and weaken worker resistance to change.

READ: How workplace resilience impacts individuals, teams and firms

Amid increasing neoliberalism, financialisation and technological disruption, it is difficult to see where future prosperity for workers is to be found. Perhaps the time has come to question the rhetoric of resilience, and re-embrace traditional forms of workers resistance? Labour history has proven the power of worker resistance in the achievement of benefits that many of us now take for granted in our working lives, such as the 40-hour week, paid holidays and protected leave. For many workers, such benefits are now being eroded and replaced with nothing more than a greater sense of resilience.

Dr Caroline Murphy is a Lecturer in Employment Relations at the Kemmy Business School at the University of Limerick. She is a former Irish Research Council awardee. Dr Juliet McMahon is a Lecturer in industrial relations at the Kemmy Business School at the University of Limerick

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ