Tag Archives: efficiency

Resilience and Efficiency

Efficiency tends to make people think of saving money and doing the most for least. The trouble with supposedly ‘efficient’ systems is they don’t have any slack in them, so as soon as there’s a problem or a setback, there’s trouble.

In workplaces this can mean having to work overtime if something goes wrong with a project or someone is ill. In healthcare it means not having the beds or staff to deal with something out of the ordinary. Like a pandemic. In education it can mean things like teachers not having the time to comfortably adapt to changes – as we’ve seen in the last year. In the short term, this kind of efficiency can seem cost effective. As soon as circumstances change, it doesn’t work and the cost can be high.

Resilience means being able to adapt. It means being able to afford to take time off when you’re ill, and not having to work people to exhaustion to make up the gap. Resilient approaches are also kinder, gentler ways of working. It assumes you should have options and scope for flexibility and that maybe short term profit isn’t always the most important thing. Assuming you’ll need the option to cope is a good idea, rather than just demanding more from people in times of difficulty.

Efficiency can also result in the normalising of crisis. You set something up so that it is running at capacity. You know perfectly well that things never run smoothly all the time, so the whole approach assumes that the answer it to pile on more pressure in times of difficulty. Once things become difficult, crisis becomes normal because there’s really no room for recovery or getting back on top of things This leads to people always having to work overtime, feeling constantly pressured to skip breaks,  and other such toxic things. Quality of life is undermined by work systems that are designed in this way. What is put forward as efficient can often turn out to be exploitative.

Other kinds of efficient systems require people to work like machines, operating at rates that leave no time for being sociable, or thinking about anything, or anything else human. We shouldn’t be asking people to work like machines – and in the long run this also breaks people, which isn’t efficient for us as a society. It certainly isn’t resilient, either.

The idea of resilience may be a good way to counter toxic narratives around efficiency. Resilience suggests pragmatism. If people aren’t prepared to treat other people kindly, they might be prepared to consider that resilience is a better strategy than short term efficiency.


Contemplating resilience

I’m writing this on a Friday morning. This is part of a new cunning plan about how I organise my time, and it has paid off well. I’ve shuffled about so that I don’t have to be online at any specific time in the morning. Anything that needs to happen before lunchtime is set up the day before, or earlier. This has worked out well. It means if I have a sleepless night, or am otherwise ill, I can get to the computer whenever, and nothing is messed up.

This shift also means that if I’m having a bad day for concentration, I’m under no pressure. This is as well – this is a blog post brought about by being short of useful ideas, written on a day when I’m in a lot of body pain and don’t have much energy. It’s a slow process, having ideas and writing.

I’ve become much more possessive of my time and energy. I’ve had to, there just isn’t enough of it to go round. I’ve started asking ‘what’s in it for me?’ What do I want? What do I need? These are not questions I am good at answering, but I’m going to keep asking them.

Flexibility helps. Giving myself more wriggle room for the really bad days, helps. Slack in the system helps. We live in a society that prizes efficiency, but, what efficiency really means is nowhere to go if something goes wrong. Efficiency doesn’t give you enough hospital beds in a pandemic. It doesn’t give you resilience in face of sudden change. It doesn’t give you options. Working when ill isn’t as efficient as taking time off to recover, but an overly efficient system won’t let you have time off. Ironically, trying to be efficient isn’t efficient as soon as the situation changes. There’s a lot to be said for trying to be resilient in the first place.

For me, resilience looks like being able to afford to stop and rest whenever I am too tired to continue. Days off at need would be helpful, but I’m not quite up to that, yet. I can work very short days when I need to, and on the day of writing this post, I’m contemplating that choice. I could push on with an interesting piece of work I have on the go, but I’ll do a better job if I’m not so tired. I can’t remember the last time I wasn’t tired, but it was probably more than a year ago.

Working hard doesn’t save anyone. It just grinds you down and reduces your quality of life. If your financial situation is so bad that you have no choice but to work long hours for little pay – that’s truly awful. I’ve done some of that kind of work, and I know that we need radical political change. No one should have to break their physical or mental health to be able to afford to eat. No one should be worked to death so that the billionaires, the shareholders and the people who profit from other people’s labour can keep doing that.

I want everyone to be able to take time off when they need it. I want everyone who is ill to be able to afford to rest and recover. Financially vulnerable people working when ill have certainly been part of how covid is getting around and a kinder, fairer system would have protected us all from the consequences of that.


Inefficient efficiency

‘Efficiency’ is one of those words politicians like to use. They talk about cutting back on wasteful, needless spending, trimming the fat out of the system, making everything streamlined and cost effective.

Efficient hospitals have no spare beds to deal with entirely predictable winter flu crises.

Efficient councils have no resources or workforce ready to deal with unexpected problems, be that flooding, heavy snow, trees brought down in gales, power cuts, lack of drinking water and so forth.

Efficient schools can’t cope in the years when there are more children than expected needing school places.

Efficient work places can’t cope with employee illness. They have far less scope for resilience when faced with unexpected challenges or setbacks.

Life seldom goes entirely as predicted. People get ill and a system that assumes it needs no slack in it to offset against sick days and people not being able to deliver, is a system bound to fail. Systems that don’t have anything to spare for the unexpected have no choice but to squeeze people harder in order to get the same results. Squeezed, pressured people get sick and ill – and the efficient system isn’t equipped to deal with that and can only respond by squeezing harder and making everything worse. Stress related sickness costs economies a fortune.

Paring everything back to the bare minimum to cut costs and avoid ‘waste’ is often a really inefficient choice. Any system working this way is incredibly vulnerable to the slightest problem.

In a crisis, efficiency kills people. Cuts to the NHS in the UK led to an estimated 10,000 deaths this winter. That’s a very high price to pay for saving money. Why on earth would be let ourselves be persuaded that saving money is more important than saving lives?

When a pared to the bone system hits an inevitable crisis, it costs a lot of money. One way or another. It may not be an immediately obvious cost. It may be a long term cost in health, skills, social engagement. It may be a long term cost that will increase crime, or violence, or abuse. Efficiency is incredibly costly when it falls apart.

To cope with life’s variables and uncertainties, we don’t need to be efficient. We need to be flexible. We need to have options. Take a long term look at the cost/benefit analysis, and slashing everything back turns out not to be even slightly cost effective. Flexibility and adaptability are key survival skills for all things in all contexts. Efficiency can deprive us of scope to adapt, and room for innovation.