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Growing into the future

Alan Heeks explains why value-based work teams need ‘super-resilience’, and how Nature helps
Alan Heeks

Work has become more demanding for most of us, but the greatest pressures fall on teams in public service provision, such as health and education, and other values-based work such as social enterprises and charities.

What’s tough for these ‘front-line’ staff is that their primary aim is to deliver a service to clients: often the demands for help keep growing, and the resources to meet them keep shrinking.

When the human resources are constantly overstretched, it’s very hard to find time for reflection or renewal.

The risk of burnout

A team manager in an NHS hospital commented, ‘we’ve had years of rising demands and shrinking resources. It’s reached a stage where the quality and resilience is being ground out of my team. There’s a high risk of staff burnout and service failures, and the future outlook is literally unthinkable.’

This manager is not alone: you can hear similar concerns in many social enterprises, charities and throughout the public service sector. I’ve been working with front-line teams like this for several years: the imbalance between demands and resources, and the risk of burnout, has worsened a lot in recent years, and radical change is needed from somewhere.

I’ve coined the term ‘super-resilience’ to describe the major step-up needed to thrive in the years ahead. There are no magic answers to the future pressures on values-based teams. Whereas resilience can be misused to mean coping with more cuts, super-resilience implies creative jumps, systemic changes which somehow enable people under pressure to stay resourceful.

Bringing stressed staff and managers into a nourishing environment helps their own problem-solving greatly.

Learning from Nature

Wisdom Tree is a small team I set up in 2014 to offer resilience training for work teams, individuals and community groups. A distinctive feature of our approach is learning from Nature, and in Nature. The setting for many Wisdom Tree programmes is Hazel Hill Wood, an education centre in a magical 70-acre wood near Salisbury.

From experience in setting up both Hazel Hill Wood and an organic farm education centre in Dorset, I have realised that cultivated ecosystems offer a very practical, down-to-earth model of resilience for people and organisations. This is one of various approaches Wisdom Tree offers: we also draw on mindfulness, eco-psychology, emotional intelligence and more.

Exploring super-resilience

Wisdom Tree is now starting to design programmes exploring super-resilience for values-based work teams and for individuals. Here are some of the elements we’re including:

Deepen your roots: when trees and plants are stressed, they deepen their roots to find more resources and gain stability. These qualities will be crucial for individuals and work teams.

Composting problems: this is one of the insights people can gain from ecosystems. In organic farms and gardens, future growth comes from composting plant and animal waste. Imagine you could upcycle negative feelings and fretful thinking: there’s a lot of energy and insight to be harnessed here.

Cultivate community: the biggest difference I see between resilient front-line teams and struggling ones is interpersonal relations. Here too, ecosystems have a lot to teach us, for example:

  • Symbiosis: if each part of a system gives what it can, the total resources are enriched
  • Wild margins: innovation and creative solutions often come from the margins. In a team, this is the diverse, oddball characters or crazy ideas who need to be tolerated and included
  • Root networks: plant and trees exchange resources to support each other, and teams need to find ways to do this more deeply

Growing through failures: a likely result of the continual squeeze on front-line teams is more service failures. We’re already seeing this in the NHS. Sadly, one element of super-resilience needs to be handling such failures. There are ways to prepare for them: by warning client groups and lowering their expectations; and by building the trust, mutual support and resilience in staff to accept and build on setbacks.

Alan Heeks and Jane Sanders of Wisdom Tree are co-leading a weekend workshop at Hazel Hill Wood on October 13-15, titled Dare to Imagine: Growing into the Future – exploring super-resilience with Nature’s help.

Author of ‘The Natural Advantage: renewing yourself’ and many other books, Alan Heeks provides organic growth approaches for people and their work that help to build resilience and wellbeing. He has spent 20 years exploring this by creating innovative learning centres, running workshops and groups, and sharing these experiences in his books and blogs.

Click here for workshop bookings and enquiries.

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