An article in the Globe and Mail this spring about resilience was a breath of fresh air—no talk about “grit” or bootstraps or changing your own response to a situation. It was written by Michael Ungar, the Canada Research Chair in Child, Family, and Community Resilience at Dalhousie University and leader of the Resilience Research Centre there. The research shows that what’s around us is much more important than what’s inside us when it comes to dealing with stress.
The article was adapted from Ungar’s book, the now-published Change Your World: The Science of Resilience and the True Path to Success. I know, the title is a little cringey. And honestly, some of the book veers into self-help-style prose even as it decries the self-help industry. But on the whole, there is quite a lot that it interesting here. I was looking at it for an upcoming project on help-seeking, but it keeps coming to mind during discussions about self-care and burnout among library workers.
Ungar writes of the myth of the “rugged individual” who can persevere through their own determination and strength of character. We get fed a lot of stories about rugged individuals, but Ungar has found that when you look closely at them, what you find instead are “resourced individuals”—people who have support from the people and environment around them.
“Resilience is not a do-it-yourself endeavor. Striving for personal transformation will not make us better when our families, workplaces, communities, health care providers, and governments provide us with insufficient care and support.” (p.14)
Ungar is mostly focused on youth but also writes about workplaces, even though this is not his direct area of research. Two passages in particular caught my eye: “Every serious look at workplace stress has found that when we try and influence workers’ problems in isolation, little change happens. … Most telling, when individual solutions are promoted in workplaces where supervisors do not support their workers… resilience training may actually make matters worse, not better.” (p.109)
A now-removed article in School Library Journal explained how one library worker changed herself to deal with her burnout. The reaction to this article was swift and strong. Many of us know that individual stories of triumph over adversity are bullshit, particularly when we have seen those same efforts fail in our own contexts. I have found it validating to find research backs that up.
Ungar does allow that there are times when changing oneself can work—either a) when stress is manageable and we already have the resources (if you can afford to take two weeks off to go to a meditation retreat, why not), or b) when there is absolutely nothing else you can do to change your environment or circumstances (your job is terrible but you can’t leave it and you’ve tried to do what you can to improve things, so sure take some time to meditate at your desk to get you through your day). But most of us live somewhere between perfectly-resourced and completely hopeless. So what needs to be fixed is our environment, not ourselves.
I have noticed resilience has been coming up as a theme in my own university over the last year or so—workshops on becoming more resilient or fostering resilient employees. Ungar says “To be resilient is to find a place where we can be ourselves and be appreciated for the contributions that we make.” That’s not something individuals can do by themselves. People in leadership positions would do well to better understand the research behind resilience rather than the self-help inspired, grit-obsessed, bootstraps version. Workshops and other initiatives that focus on individuals will not fix anything. At best, they are resources for people who are already doing pretty well. At worst, they add to the burden of people already struggling by making them feel like their struggles are caused by their own insufficiency.
Anyway, these are just some thoughts based on a single book; I’m nowhere in the realm of knowledgeable on this subject. But I thought it might be helpful to share that there is research that backs up the lived experience of the many library workers who struggle in their organizations, despite their own best efforts.