Challenges for Professional Services Staff: Resilience

“Evil begins when you begin to treat people as things.” (Terry Pratchett)

Working in a Professional Services role can be, amongst many other things, incredibly rewarding. The Higher Education sector is filled with many challenges, but that does not (always) detract from the positive aspects of a job well done and overcoming the latest challenges that are thrown into the ring. Increasingly, though, there is a need for personal and professional resilience.

Resilience is a double-edged sword in many ways. On the one hand, it is a strong and healthy trait to employ when working in the sector (across more fields than just Professional Services). On the other hand, it can become a stick with which to beat people.

On the surface of it, resilience seems like a good trait. People who are resilient are deemed to be able to cope much more with change. Elements of change management – or, at the very least, adapting to change – is an important part in many roles, especially in the current environment. Someone who is robust enough to roll with the punches (and I use that phrase deliberately), and manages to take all manner of things in their stride without any drop-off in the quality of their work, is someone with whom you want to be associated professionally. Someone you can depend upon, rely upon.

But what about when the concept of resilience gets a little ugly? A few weeks ago, a former colleague and I were discussing a post by Richard Hall on Wonkhe, focussing upon Higher Education as “an alienating labour of love”, in which he states:

“Practices like out-of-hours working, the development of resilience, and the need for continued mandatory “upskilling” are designed to make academics compete against each other – the old idea of a community of scholarship that includes students and support staff is nearly impossible to maintain if we are all alienated from each other and what we do.”

The post was focussing primarily on the experiences of academic staff, but the concept of community is one which will feature in the next post in this series, considering cohesive educational communities consisting of all staff and students (see also the previous post in this series, discussing resourcing). Let’s also leave aside the reference to “support staff” for a moment. Instead, the interesting, relevant point here is the reference to the “development of resilience”.

There were two keys points in relation to resilience that my former colleague and I were discussing: firstly, the concept of weaponised resilience, and; secondly, the degree to which resilience is seen as an integral part of so many roles.

The concept of resilience can become weaponised when the (honestly or otherwise) perceived absence of resilience is used against individuals. My former colleague mentioned how, in a particularly stressful year spent trying to deliver an impossible workload, she noticed a narrative had been allowed – even encouraged – to develop which presented her wider team as one which was not delivering what was asked of them because they were not sufficiently resilient. Regardless of the fact that the team consistently delivered an ambitious workload, and that many individuals were acutely aware precisely how much their own personal and professional resilience had, out of necessity, developed in the increasingly difficult environment, a degree of professional gaslighting had become the norm, encouraging the team to constantly push harder and harder, putting in further hours and losing sight of what a reasonable working environment looked like.

Sometimes, the environment in which you work can make you feel like Batman in the final scene of The Dark Knight. When Lieutenant James Gordon’s son asks his father why the police are chasing Batman, he replies, “Because he can take it.” I know of many Professional Services colleagues who endure a consistently unrealistic workload – in some instances regularly being the bearer of bad news and having to deal with less-than-professional colleagues in the wider university – with whom this resonates (I say this in a tongue-in-cheek way in relation to Batman, but the essence is true). When did we stop asking ourselves whether the resilience we are expected to demonstrate on a day to day basis is actually reasonable? As my former colleague and I concluded, “No-one can – or should – be expected to be continually resilient when the world is bollocking mad.”

So how can we make sure resilience becomes a healthy, positive concept again? First and foremost, I think everyone working in the sector needs to take an honest look at what we are expecting of ourselves and our colleagues, and then try to establish why we’re expecting this. Is it unreasonable? If so, why? Have we all been gaslit long enough that we’ve stopped asking what’s realistic, what’s exceptional (we all have time when our workloads are exceptionally busy due to the nature of our roles, and these should be taken into account), and what’s unreasonable?

The biggest onus here is on all those in management positions, as they have direct responsibility to their line managees and teams. And, if the issue is resource-based, as it usually is in some form or another, then there needs to be strategic consideration of how teams should operate in such environments without any undue pressure being placed on named individuals. People should not be allowed to become victims of their own success (success being a loaded and subjective term, here) and continually carry other colleagues simply because they’ve proven able to in the past. That sets a dangerous and unfair precedent and is helpful to no-one.

Resilience can be an excellent personal trait to bring into the working environment, and we all need to show a degree of professional resilience. But we also all occasionally need to take a step back and make sure that our concept of a reasonable day to day working environment has not been incrementally eroded to the point at which it no longer resembles a rational and deliverable workload. And, to feel empowered enough to do that on an individual basis, we all need to work together.

This post is based on part of a presentation I gave in April 2018: The Role of Professional Services Staff in Higher (Medical) Education. The talk focussed on thoughts and observations about the experiences of, and challenges facing, Professional Services staff in the twenty-first century environment, and their role in Higher Education communities. Seen through the filter of my own academic, personal, and professional experiences, the intention was to offer some food for thought (and discussion) on the role of identity and its importance in building cohesive educational communities which draw on the professional expertise of each and every individual.

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