Bloomfest 2022: Bruce Daisley on misplaced notions of Fortitude

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In the final of our exclusive curtain-raiser series for Bloomfest 2022 The F Word, former Twitter VP and now best-selling author Bruce Daisley covers F for Fortitude, and asks: Does the idea of ‘resilience’ do more harm than good?

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Bruce Daisley

Why are we so enchanted by the concept of resilience, the capacity to recover from adversity? It certainly has a fairytale like quality, sweeping away tragedy to make way for triumph is a satisfying story arc. 

Who amongst us can resist being charmed by the indefatigable bouncebackability of a plucky competitor, or from wishing for a resilient response from someone recovering from a personal misstep. 

But such is the easy appeal of resilience, it has become our hopeful expectation for victims of misfortune. 

If something goes wrong, we’re ready and waiting for a resilient response. Anticipating adversity to be followed by a fighting response certainly has a storybook thrill to it but perhaps there’s reason to reflect on the mechanics of this expectation. 

If we look for those who stumble to get up and win, then surely it places demand and responsibility on victims of adversity? 

I found myself in Beirut in August 2020 when a catastrophic explosion ripped through the port area of the city. Unbeknownst to most Beirutis, 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate had been carelessly stored in a port-side warehouse for almost a decade. 

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Aftermath of the 2020 Beirut explosions

When it ignited it generated a bigger blast than that which had destroyed Chernobyl. 

The explosion, only superseded by those that hit Hiroshima and Nagasaki, was powerful enough to shake the windows in Cyprus, 150 miles across the Mediterranean. 

Shockwaves caused death and destruction across the whole city, leaving 200 people dead, seriously hurting 6,000 more and damaging tens of thousands of buildings. 

Injuries caused by shattered glass and collapsing construction left many with injuries that will transform the remainder of their lives. 

At the time the locals were united in their bruised feeling of distress. The soundtrack of streets the following day was a scratchy tinkle-tinkle of glass being swept up. Broom-wielding Beirutis wore defeated expressions, but their despair was tinged with hope. 

There was a widespread expectation that this would be the moment that inspired a programme of international support. ‘The world has to help us now,’ more than one person said to me. 

Instead, news outlets from the BBC to the New York Times reminded their audiences of a different narrative, ‘The Lebanese are famed for their resilience’ was the BBC’s take. 

A correspondent for the New York Times concurred: ‘Anyone who knows Lebanon has heard this: The Lebanese are resilient.’ 

The expectation of resilience was playing out right before my eyes, the assumption of recovery now looked like something more toxic. 

We’re hopeful you’ll get back up from this, it appeared to say, and if you don’t then maybe you want to ask yourself why not, after all that’s how all the best stories end. 

This expectation of resilience frequently serves the purpose of making help unnecessary, if a victim proves unable to cope it suggests an additional weakness, maybe they weren’t worth helping in the first place. 

In this light an expectation of resilience is no longer the spellbinding final act of a story, it is something akin to victim blaming. 

The Beirut example might help us reframe what growing resilience talk serves to cover up.

By calling for a resilient response we both gloss over the hardships that we hope individuals will recover from but also save ourselves having to ask if some of us are affected disproportionately by these injustices. 

Asking for resilience is like asking someone get out of the hole circumstances have put them in, like blaming a flower for not blooming in an unwelcoming bed. 

In everyday life, the demands for resilience have continued to grow, business leaders have responded to rising reports of employee burnout, a problem estimated to cost UK employers up to £56 billion in 2022, by commissioning resilience webinars and feeding a boom for corporate subscriptions to wellness apps. 

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay
Exhausted: Should companies be dealing with burnout in a different way?

The inference is that resilience is something individual, that some of us are blessed with and that others need to be schooled in. 

‘I got sent on my company’s resilience training and I don’t feel any better,’ one worker at a major technology company told me. 

Maybe it’s not unreasonable to ask why workers aren’t exhibiting the fortitude of their forebears. What is it about a workforce who’ve seen their working day increase by two hours a day since the arrival of email on smart phones and a further forty-five minutes a day since the pandemic that makes them seem like they can’t cope? 

In the face of surging levels of burnout, bosses throw up their hands and speculate why their employees these days seem to be so lacking in steely grit. 

It’s easier to sign-up the company up for Headspace than to rethink our relationship with work.

There’s a storied history to such distractions, back in 2003 the UK’s Health and Safety Executive issued its first ever ‘Improvement Notice’ to West Dorset General Hospitals’ NHS Trust, instructing them to resolve dangerous stress issues there. 

The response of the Trust was to invest in a clean up operation by sending their employees on resilience training. 

An audacious reframing of responsibility that seems to have acted as a template for big business over the subsequent two decades. 

‘If you mention resilience round here you’ll get thumped,’ a doctor at a busy NHS hospital in north London told me. 

The medical staff had been offered a course of resilient coping instead of more resources and they’d seen right through it. 

Increasingly a boss might get on the phone to commission resilience training, but the weary workforce sees corporate gaslighting.

While asking for resilience feels like an honest invocation, the term has been heavily politicised. 

Next time you see someone who has been asked to show a resilient response, you might wonder why they found themselves knocked down in the first place.

Fortitude: Unpicking the Myth of Resilience by Bruce Daisley is published by Cornerstone Press.

To see Bruce in action, join him and an incredible lineup of speakers at Bloomfest 2022 on 30th November. 

Tickets are available here: BLOOMFEST2022 deadline to register is 27 Nov for the event on 30 Nov.