Professor Sir Cary Cooper: A strong sense of purpose can build resilient organisations

These have been very difficult times, with the triple unprecedented events of the pandemic, Brexit and the ensuing recession once government financial support for employers/employees disappears.

The mental health of all employees has taken a severe tumble as the Office for National Statistics (ONS) wellbeing survey, published in June 2020, found during the first lockdown, with 70% of a large sample saying they were stressed and anxious, and 70% worried about the future. Creating a more resilient organisation is now a bottom-line priority of most businesses, and the public sector, if we are not only to survive but also to grow our economy with the challenges ahead.

Individual, as well as organisational, resilience is comprised of several main characteristics: having a sense of purpose, being adaptable, having a safety need of a social support system and having self confidence in the future and in your own or organisational capabilities. Employers can create a more resilient workplace, and enhance employee wellbeing, by showing a strong sense of purpose and self confidence in the future, modelling adaptability themselves. As George Bernard Shaw wrote in his play, Mrs. Warren’s Profession: ‘People are always blaming their circumstances for what they are. I don’t believe in circumstances. The people who get on in this world are the people who get up and look for the circumstances they want, and if they can’t find them, make them!’.

But strong leadership requires bringing along their employees, it necessitates engaging employees in the ‘sense of purpose journey’. That way employers get buy-in from the changes that will be needed as organisations cope with the changing circumstances. Employers also need to listen to their staff about issues that they are now concerned about, particularly flexible working: this is about enabling people who can, to work in a much more flexible way than they did pre-Covid, some substantially but not exclusively from home, while others substantially from a central office environment creating a flexible and agile working life. This enhances resilience because it gives employees the autonomy and control in their job that they have been craving for over the last decade, with the lack of autonomy a leading cause of stress and low productivity.

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And finally, a resilient organisation also should ensure that their pool of line managers should have the social and interpersonal skills to manage in these difficult and uncertain times; this requires more training of managers from shopfloor to top floor in their emotional intelligence, and recruiting managers in the future where there is parity between their ‘people skills’ and their technical skills. Our future as a country depends on resilient workplaces, keeping in mind what Studs Terkel wrote in his acclaimed book Working: ‘Work is about a search for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor, in short, for a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying’.

Professor Sir Cary Cooper is the 50th anniversary professor of organisational psychology and health at the Alliance Manchester Business School, president of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) and co-author of the book Building Resilience for Success