So it seems that our dose of ‘real’ winter might be over for another year. Reflecting on our reactions to the snow over the past week, it seems to me that the nation has exhibited something of a split personality.
We’ve seen rolling coverage of travel disruption and accidents, people struggling to get on with their lives as normal and the inevitable discussions about why we always grind to a halt when other countries seem able to cope perfectly well. Strange, then, that we’ve also been treated to the usual double-page spreads of snowmen, sledging in the park and beautiful shots of white rural landscapes! Indeed, an air of the holiday season returned, with many celebrating unexpected ‘snow days’. So which one of these personalities represents us as a nation?
The resilience of society when it comes to these kind of events is closely linked to the mindset of its individual citizens. In the case of the snow, how badly do we really want to make it into work? The temptation is to look back on the notoriously bad winter of 1963, when people ‘got on with things’ (relatively few schools closed for example, compared to the thousands shut at some point this week). So can we say that our levels of resilience have fallen over the past 60 years? If we sum the attitudes of the 60 million plus UK citizens, are we willing to do what it takes to keep working or are our reserves of well-being so depleted in mid-January, after months of darkness and with the problems of cash flow after Christmas, that we all just need a rest?
For some people the motivation to work whatever the circumstances comes from their profession. In roles that are vital to the wider functioning of society or that have a special duty of care for others, the option to take a snow day doesn’t exist. Doctors, police and other emergency services are required by the nature of their role to be resilient. For those who work in service industries, or roles that allow for a degree of flexibility, choices exist beyond pulling on the wellies and trekking into the office.
Quite rightly, technology gives many of us much more control over when and how we get our work done, so it’s surely wrong of us to continue to judge resilience to bad weather by the number of bodies reporting for duty. When the motivation is there, many (not all) employees can find a way to contribute to our employer’s enterprise that does not have to involve hours spent sitting in traffic.
Away from the snow’s effect on work, we also saw the true spirit of resilience last weekend in the efforts of many football fans who cleared pitches up and down the country to enable games to go ahead. For want of a better word, the goal (sorry!) of seeing their team was strong enough to get fans involved – imagine if employees were this engaged in their work!
Of course, resilience is a concern for society as a whole; the way our infrastructure is prepared to cope with extreme conditions, natural disasters, security threats or even economic circumstances. If measures are not in place it is even more difficult for individuals to overcome these types of challenges. So the resilience of the nation is, to some extent, at the mercy of government priorities: for example, is three weeks of snow disruption each year enough to make significant investment in infrastructure and support services worthwhile?
The Cabinet Office provides pages of advice about resilience on its website, including preparing for an emergency to reacting to it, plus advice for communities on how to be resilient. Clearly there are many organisations that we need to be resilient for the UK to keep going when things go wrong: transport providers, schools, hospitals, energy companies - the list goes on. But the efforts from each of these organisations, private or public, don’t automatically combine to create a nation that is more than the sum of its resilient parts. Our ability to withstand setbacks as a society, or an economy, depends on effective coordination – both in terms of attitudes and resources – and therefore requires a body to ‘own’ the concept of a resilient nation. For example, in New Zealand the Dynamic Organisations initiative brings together businesses to review their ability to respond to crises, at an industry and national level. They are a driver for organisations to increase their individual and collective resilience levels in that society.
Making our society resilient in all weathers isn’t about sending people on training courses to learn skills that help us to cope better. It’s about developing a mindset and connecting that with the more systemic development of resilience – building it into the way we live our lives. The kind of debate that has been taking place in Davos, on the subject of Dynamic Resilience, is welcome evidence that the issue is being recognised by our political and business leaders. Like all these things though, it’s important that this translates to real behaviour and benefits to society …for when we get our two weeks of snow next year!
image used under creative commons from: rucksackkruemel
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Professor Cary Cooper, Director and Founder of Robertson Cooper Ltd, Distinguished Professor of Organizational Psychology and Health at Lancaster University.
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