Slack in the system

My very lovely and clever friend Charis Croft (@chariscroft) has been thinking a little bit about resilience and the role of redundancy in our professional and personal lives. Always a pleasure to hear her thoughts and have them enrich this blog!

This morning I read with great sadness the story of a junior doctor who has gone missing.

The news story focuses on her mention of Jeremy Hunt and the long working hours, with a throw away reference to ‘issues in her personal life’. I obviously don’t know the details at all, but I would imagine that the main cause of whatever has happened is more likely to be related to those personal tragedies. But it did make me wonder if perhaps the long working hours and the associated stress made her less able to cope with other issues.

The ability to cope with personal issues is, in some ways, the definition of resilience. And this story made me reflect that in order to cope, we need a bit of slack in the system. Taking it on a personal level, we can all work long hours for a bit, when things are ok, but when they go wrong, it leaves us without the ability to cope. Which means that even a small issue can blow up into a major stress. Let’s take a trivial example – say I have a problem with my flat and I need to be in so a plumber (or electrician or whoever) can sort it out. I need to change my working pattern to be at home (either home working or changing shifts or taking leave), which can be stressful in itself. Changing my working pattern probably means I have to change other arrangements I’ve made – to meet friends, childcare, to get something else done, whatever. And so you end up with a ripple effect of problems and logistics to be solved. And that’s just looking at the tangible impacts, the organisation. Most people only have certain mental reserves or energy to deal with problems and the more things I need to sort out the more I deplete those reserves. If work is relatively flexible and not overly full of stress (as I am lucky to enjoy currently) then this sort of situation is a fairly minor blip in life. If work is really busy and difficult and long hours, and the rest of your life is full to breaking point, then even this sort of issue can become something that feels onerous to cope with.

This effect becomes more pronounced if you extend it to a support network, whether external organisations or friends and family. If all our friends and support networks are equally stretched, they can’t help us either, even if we need it because we have no slack in our system. If my work means I can’t stay home for the plumber, then maybe I can turn to my partner, or parents. Except if they’re in the same position as I am and can’t flex. Or if they do, then something else, somewhere else, has to give. It’s no good having a comprehensive support network around you if they’re all too busy and stressed to give you their time and expertise when you need it.

People need time to resolve issues, and they need the system (by which I mean the social, economic system as a whole) to give them that. If they have support networks, the people in those need time to help others – and they need the system to give them that. If they’re working (whether paid work, childcare, essential housework, or all of the above) the whole time, there’s no way they can ever deal with an unusual circumstance or help and support others. The system of their life needs some inbuilt redundancy, some slack.

Junior doctors may be an extreme example, but I worry that we’re increasingly taking the slack out of the system across the board. You can expand the idea above from individuals to networks to whole systems and services. As budgets are squeezed tighter and tighter, processes and systems are being made more and more lean, and people are asked to do more and more. For clarity, I believe this is mostly right and proper and we should be expecting the greatest possible value for money from our services. But that has to be the best value overall. A system that is perfectly lean and efficient when everyone fits the pattern, when everyone is working well, but has no slack in it will fail when there’s something wrong or different. Much as a perfect machine can catastrophically fail when you get a bit of sand in it, a perfectly lean service can be really appalling when there’s a difficult issue to resolve – a person with higher needs than usual, or a staff member who’s off sick for example.

And when we get a really bad experience from a service we use? Well, that usually means we end up with a problem we have to solve using our personal resilience. Back to the start of the circle, but with ripples that are now growing in size and complexity.

If we truly want to design for resilience, I think we need to make sure that there’s slack in the system so that at good times it might look a bit inefficient, but so that it still works at bad times too.

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One Response to Slack in the system

  1. alisonblackwood says:

    I don’t usually comment on a post when I totally agree, but there are some really interesting points here. It did make me think of some of the stories I’ve heard when working with homeless charities – it is often something on the surface that seems quite trivial that, on top of other setbacks, tips things over and someone ends up without a home, which can end up with them sleeping in cars or parks. Giving people some slack, in the case of bereavements, household emergencies or relationship disasters should be the normal human response, and planning leeway into workplans as a contingency, the answer. But the current dispute about junior doctors contracts suggests that this isn’t as obvious as I seem to think.

    Liked by 1 person

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