Taking stock of the pandemic response: building human resilience in civil services

By on 06/07/2021
Building resilience: former permanent secretary and leadership coach Una O'Brien shares her advice for strengthening resilient. Credit: Randy Fath/Unsplash

Managing COVID-19 has placed huge demands on public and civil servants everywhere. Una O’Brien, leadership coach and former permanent secretary at the UK’s health department, explores what research tells us about strengthening personal and team resilience

Every crisis elevates some buzzwords and for me “resilience” will forever be associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. The fragile systems of preparedness in many countries contrasted with the incredible determination of public and civil servants who have worked tirelessly to support their governments.

Attention now is turning to reviews of those systems with questions about why they fell short and what needs to be done to prepare better for future challenges. In May, for example, Alex Chisholm, permanent secretary at the Cabinet Office in the UK, said the government had already started a review of national resilience. He expects a “re-setting of the dial in terms of how much we prepare for low-probability, high-impact events”.

This left me wondering about the human side of resilience. What about leaders and their teams across government? While soldiering on can work in the short term, it cannot be sustained for long. So, while we wait for the outcome of formal reviews of systems, what can leaders in government departments do to strengthen their own and their teams’ resilience in the months ahead?

Insights on resilience

A look at some of the evidence on resilience can help to frame the questions we must ask when considering our resilience.

With a background in health policy, I’m drawn to longitudinal studies, and for lessons about resilience you can’t do much better than the Kauai study.  Starting in 1955, researchers followed a multi-racial cohort of children born in Hawaii, all growing up in difficult family circumstances. Academics observed the children over several decades to see how factors such as stress, poverty and family discord affected their development and ability to cope with adult life.

The children who thrived over the years had four distinct mindsets and behaviours. They displayed a tendency to perceive experiences, even traumatic events, in a positive light. They had an active approach to problem-solving, developed an ability to ask for and make use of help, and they formed close ties and strong relationships with others.

Research published earlier this year in the Harvard Business Review (HBR) also highlighted the importance of tight bonds and networks in building resilience. The authors drew on interviews with 150 leaders, some during the pandemic. The main finding is the value of having a diverse network of relationships, both professional and social. Those with such networks look to them for their resilience needs – whether that is a conversation about perspective or practical support with handling a work-surge.

Former journalist and editor Diane Coutu drew on both research and interviews with people who had gone through difficult experiences to dig deeper into how resilience works for HBR. In our everyday lives, the concept is often likened to “grit” and “bouncing back”, but Coutu reveals a deeper terrain, summed up in three words: realism, improvisation and meaning.

When it comes to resilience, a staunch acceptance of reality – not avoiding or hiding from difficulty, but really fronting up to it – is key. A second factor is an ability to improvise, to use creativity and imagination to find “work arounds”. But, perhaps most significant, is meaning. This comes through in the testimonials in Coutu’s article, where having a purpose and finding meaning even in hardship helps to build a bridge from the present challenge to a better future.

From theory to practice

I’ve seen all of these “practices of resilience” at play during the pandemic, as part of my work as a leadership coach. Leaders and teams who’ve managed the best have reached out for help from others and used innovative methods to work around their daily challenges. They have also shown empathy for one another and allowed time for non-work interests and volunteering. They had rotas to manage the long hours worked by staff, held breaks in meetings, made sure people took some annual leave, and encouraged unstructured discussions to help make sense of the wider realities and keep a guiding sense of purpose.     

Now is a good time for a resilience stock take, to frame your experiences of the pandemic and really understand and assess human resilience, both within yourself and your team. There is no shortage of challenges awaiting public and civil servants, from the COVID-19 recovery to the climate emergency. We must learn lessons from these moments and ensure we are prepared to meet these challenges.

Here are some questions, drawing on the evidence, that might help you in your stock take:

Think back over the last 18 months to particular moments when you faced and overcame difficulties. What sorts of actions did you take and how did others contribute?  What got you through and how might that be of help today and in the future?  

Looking to the future, what conversations are you having about the realities you and your team are likely to face in the coming months?  How can you ensure that everyone has a voice and that difficult choices are spoken of and heard? 

Where are your networks? How might they help with opportunities and innovation and how could you help them?

What steps could you take to cultivate a positive mindset and to re-connect with the underlying purpose and meaning of your work?

There is no better place to end than a note from Viktor Frankl, the Austrian neurologist and Holocaust survivor. He believed that we should see setbacks as an opportunity to learn. He encouraged us, when facing difficulty or adversity, not to ask, “why me?” but rather, “what does this moment ask of me?” Perhaps if you have time for only one question it should be this.

About Una O'Brien

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