Several years ago, I was participating in a workshop around moral injury and war trauma in veterans.

A veteran detailed a horrific experience where through a combination of fatigue, bureaucracy and bad decision-making, he had left a reported IED to be defused by local forces, knowing full well it wouldn’t happen. His team had just come in after a long stint and were due for leave that day. He wanted to protect them from further burnout.

Tragically, a civilian convoy hit the IED, and this soldier suddenly saw his base flooded with injured, dying and dead civilians – harmed by an IED he ordered his team to leave for someone else.

The soldier detailed how his life had subsequently progressed. He was discharged from the army, became homeless, turned to substance abuse and lost just about everything before slowly rebuilding the broken pieces of his life. He was in a stable relationship, had secure work and was working with therapists to process what had happened.

After his presentation, the man left and the academics did what academics do: they debriefed and discussed his situation. The direction of the conversation was largely around what we could do to ensure that what happened to this person didn’t happen to other people. How could we provide a level of mental and moral resilience, such that these things wouldn’t be so damaging to warfighters?

For me, this question completely misunderstood the problem. This wasn’t a story about a lack of individual resilience. It was a conspiracy of systemic errors, tragedy and moral complexity.

Look at the systemic factors at play. First, there were problems with the local military operations that meant this soldier’s team were shouldering too much of the load. Second, deployment times and handovers weren’t designed in a way to ensure that teams were refreshed or replaced in a timely enough fashion to ensure they could do their jobs. Third, a lack of adequate mental health support on re-entry led to the soldier being dishonourably discharged. Fourth, bureaucratic issues in the funding for discharged veterans meant enormous loads of paperwork for a man suffering PTSD and therefore unlikely to be able to get through the tedium of such tasks. This is before we consider the moral and political complexities of the war in Afghanistan, where the soldier was deployed.

It is often said of PTSD that it is an ordinary response to extraordinary circumstances. I would argue that similar can be said for the kind of moral distress this soldier was feeling – his sense of responsibility, guilt and complicity was painful, but in some ways normal – even healthy.

His suffering is a recognition that he was caught up in events that mattered, and that his role in them also mattered. To suggest that what he needed was moral resilience seems to miss the point: his feelings weren’t the primary problem. The failure of his environment to support him during those feelings was.

I found myself thinking back to this conversation last week, when ABC Chair Ita Buttrose’s comments about millennial workers went public. In a Chatham House Rule conversation, Buttrose allegedly said that millennial workers “seem to lack the resilience that I remember from my younger days.”

“They’re very keen on being thanked and they almost need hugging – that’s before COVID of course, we can’t hug any more – but they almost need hugging.”

These comments are consistent with a particularly individualistic view of resilience that has become commonplace in workplace training, some forms of mental health coaching and – yes – in parenting circles. It’s an approach that treats resilience as a virtue – a character trait that marks a person as morally good.

To some extent, resilience is a virtue. A range of traditions, most notably Buddhism and Stoicism – recognise that a great deal of suffering is the product of the way we think about problems. We can be too attached to things that don’t matter and tend to catastrophise when things go wrong.

Overcoming this tendency is important. In an era where we face persistent, large-scale challenges like climate change, we need to be resilient. At times, we aren’t, through nothing more than what Aristotle called akrasia – weakness of will. However, we make a mistake when we see any evidence of a lack of resilience as an individual failing. In blaming the individual, we excuse the system.

For example, millennials working at Buttrose’s ABC have faced round after round of redundancies, intense political scrutiny and a heavily disrupted industry in recent years. As former ABC journalist Sophie McNeill wrote, “Lack resilience? How insulting. Us millennials at the ABC were usually paid less but expected to do so much more than many of our older colleagues, plus many are on insecure contracts for years.”

Resilience is a conditional good. Whether or not resilience is a good thing depends on what we’re being resilient to. If an employee is experiencing workplace harassment, is routinely looked over for promotion because of their race or gender, or has their labour rights undermined, we shouldn’t tell them to be resilient to it. We should encourage them to feel let down, wronged and betrayed – and to use those feelings as a spur to demand better treatment.

Just like the story of the soldier, we can see that young workers today face a complex system of different forces. Asking them to be more resilient or painting their struggles as a lack of resilience – a kind of moral failing – paints over the underlying problems rather than addressing them.

This isn’t to undercut or eliminate the importance of personal virtue and individual resilience. Sometimes, people will get comfortable. They may need to push a bit harder or learn to deal with hardship, and they should be encouraged to do so. Good leadership will help them in that project. In other cases, systems might be so oppressive as to prevent people from speaking out or demanding redress. Here, there is a very different role for resilience – it becomes a crucial survival tool, but one we should feel ashamed is necessary.

Framing resilience as an individual virtue also misses a range of things we can do to support people in difficult situations. Rather than expecting people to tough it out alone, seeing resilience as a systemic problem means understanding that it will need a collective solution.

It requires – as it always has – for people to lean on one another, to build supportive environments and, yes, the occasional hug. Requiring these things doesn’t demonstrate a lack of resilience – they are themselves acts of resilience. They are ways of enduring in situations that are challenging, stressful and difficult.

When we think of resilient communities, cities and workplaces, the people who are struggling aren’t problems that need to be fixed, they’re the canaries in the coal mine. When people aren’t flourishing, it’s not a sign they’re weak or broken. It’s usually a sign the environment they’re in is generating feelings of stress and burnout rather than helping them to cope.

Solving that problem doesn’t look like a pointed finger, it looks like a helping hand.

You can contact The Ethics Centre about any of the issues discussed in this article. We offer free counselling for individuals via Ethi-callprofessional fee-for-service consulting, leadership and development services; and as a non-profit charity we rely heavily on donations to continue our work, which can be made via our websiteThank you.