Resilience at work — why it matters

Should employers be doing more to support their employees at work? Tricia Palmer, HR consultant, leadership expert and personal coach considers various issues, resilience at work, and what might impact an individual’s level of resilience?

Much of the previous discussion has been on tackling issues after they have become a problem whereas, after over 40 years in the workplace, I am of the view that more needs to be done before individuals develop problems at work. Developing resilience is the key to unlocking potential and enabling people to bounce back in the face of adversity. This article considers the elements of resilience, and gives some pointers on how we can help individuals increase their resilience strength.

Resilience and optimism — the connection

Adversity is a fact of life. Resilience is that ineffable quality that allows some people to be knocked down by life and to bounce back. Rather than letting difficulties or failure overcome them, they find ways of resolving their issues and coming back at least as strong as before. Employers need resilient people, but what is it that impacts on an individual’s level of resilience?

Psychologists have identified some of the factors that make a person resilient, such as a positive attitude, optimism, the ability to regulate emotions, and the ability to see failure as a form of helpful feedback. Research shows that optimism helps blunt the impact of stress on the mind and body in the wake of disturbing experiences. And that gives people access to their own cognitive resources, enabling cool-headed analysis of what might have gone wrong and consideration of behavioural paths that might be more productive.

Resilience is not some magical quality; it takes real mental work to transcend hardship. But even after misfortune, resilient people are able to change course and move towards achieving their goals. It has often been believed that resilience is genetic, but there is a growing body of evidence that the elements of resilience can be cultivated.

This is an important insight when we consider that stress and mental health-related sickness is the number one reason for absence in many workplaces and is known to account for at least a third of all absences, let alone the significant cost to productivity.

The link with resilience, optimism and happiness is also intriguing. In her book Rainy Brain, Sunny Brain, Elaine Fox outlines many examples of where optimism increases our ability to deal with adversity. In a study by Barbara Fredrickson, she found that resilient people use optimistic thoughts and positive emotions to cope with difficult situations (such people use sayings such as “…every cloud has a silver lining”). She relates this to her “broaden and build” theory, where positive emotions broaden the range of ideas we have for dealing with a problem. In a well-known experiment, Fredrickson gave individuals positive and negative stimuli (sweets and funny video clips or a horror film) and then asked them to write down what they would do if they had a spare half hour. Those individuals who received a “boost” of positivity came up with far more ideas those who had watched the horror film.

This makes sense since one of the purposes of negative emotions such as fear is to narrow down our thinking to solely dealing with the potential of an immediate threat. We are programmed to see danger in order to survive, and this is related to what is known as “attentional bias”, where we filter out everything except what we are concentrating on. This is very instinctive, and is built into us in order to keep us safe. However, if individuals feel threatened they will close down and become less creative and productive. These negative emotions shut down our logical neocortex (the part of the brain that is responsible for logical thinking) which restricts our thinking power and traps us into a negative spiral of inaccurate perceptions and misinterpretations. This can often be seen in the workplace in times of crisis when, arguably, creativity is at a premium. The message here is that if you want a successful brain-storming session to deal with an intractable problem, it is necessary to try to get people into a happy, relaxed mood first and the ideas will flow more easily.

Over the last two decades, Fredrickson has been studying how positive emotions change the way our brain cells form. Her work with MRI brain scans has found scientific evidence to show that positive emotions do indeed build and broaden, whilst negative emotions narrow and limit (Positivity: Research to Release your Inner Optimist and Thrive, Barbara Fredrickson, 2011). This is reinforced by her work with people after the 9/11 attacks in New York, where she found that while there was profound grief and sadness, there was also a profound thankfulness to be alive. She noticed that those who were able to express at least some positive emotions were more resilient and less likely to slip into despair than those who were overcome by negativity. Apart from these immediate benefits, Fredrickson also found that this scope of “good moods” also helped people to build a range of personal resources to help them cope with adversity in the longer term, such as good friends, hobbies and a pleasant environment, While these may seem superficial in the wake of such devastation, they were all crucial in weathering the bad times.

Further studies have shown that optimism is linked with better health, stronger resilience in a crisis and even longer lives. In a study by Deborah Danner (University of Kentucky) the handwritten diaries of 180 Catholic nuns describing their lives since they joined convents in 1930 were examined. The diaries were reviewed to see how the nuns responded to life events, ie whether they reacted positively or negatively. As the nuns all lived in similar conditions and enjoyed similar diet and activity it was interesting to note the variation in their life spans. The study concluded that those who had written upbeat diaries outlived their more negative sisters by an average of 10 years. This is remarkable given that we consider that giving up smoking can increase your life span by three to four years. So negative thinking is over twice as dangerous as smoking!

In a study by Mika Kivimaki (University of Helsinki) the levels of optimism and pessimism were assessed in 5000 people and they were then followed for three years. Many individuals experienced traumatic events such as a death or serious illness of a member of their family. The levels of optimism people reported before the life-changing event turned out to be one of the best predictors of health and wellbeing afterwards, ie the more optimistic we are, the healthier we are.

The conclusion from this research is that this is not just down to positive thinking, but also because optimism allows us to engage in activities that put us in the way of opportunity which, in turn, gives us the resilience to not accept defeat. The more positive emotions we have, the more we can build up a well of positivity which can be accessed in times of adversity, As Fredrickson says “Pleasant experiences which can be so subtle and fleeting, can build up over time to change who we become”. Ultimately positivity improves our ability to deal with adversity by putting us in a stronger position to bounce back.

Learned optimism — Seligman, 2006

This may be all very well for those individuals who are naturally optimistic, but what about those of us who veer towards pessimism? Seligman, in his studies on learned helplessness also found that optimism can be learnt.

Let us first consider the concept of learned helplessness. In 1965, Martin Seligman and his colleagues were doing research on classical conditioning, or the process by which an animal or human associates one thing with another. In the case of Seligman’s experiment, he would ring a bell and then give a light shock to a dog. After a number of times, the dog reacted to the shock even before it happened: as soon as the dog heard the bell, he reacted as though he’d already been shocked.

But, then something unexpected happened. Seligman put each dog into a large crate that was divided down the middle with a low fence. The dog could see and jump over the fence if necessary. The floor on one side of the fence was electrified, but not on the other side of the fence. Seligman put the dog on the electrified side and administered a light shock. He expected the dog to jump to the non-shocking side of the fence.

Instead, the dogs lay down. It was as though they’d learned from the first part of the experiment that there was nothing they could do to avoid the shocks, so they gave up in the second part of the experiment. Seligman described their condition as learned helplessness, or not trying to get out of a negative situation because the past has taught you that you are helpless. After the dogs didn’t jump the fence to escape the shock, Seligman tried the second part of his experiment on dogs that had not been through the classical conditioning part of the experiment. The dogs that had not been previously exposed to shocks quickly jumped over the fence to escape the shocks. This told Seligman that the dogs who lay down and acted helpless had actually learned that helplessness from the first part of his experiment.

This was then found to relate to humans where there was a link between perceived lack of control (and therefore helplessness) and depression. Indeed, some theorists believe we have this the wrong way round and the helplessness is natural and the ability to overcome it is in fact what we learn. Nevertheless, there are grounds for believing that deliberately changing our thinking patterns will positively affect our abilities to deal with adversity. According to this view, how someone interprets or explains adverse events affects their likelihood of acquiring learned helplessness and subsequent depression. For example, people with a pessimistic style tend to see negative events as permanent (“it will never change”), personal (“it’s my fault”), and pervasive (“I can’t do anything correctly”), and are likely to suffer from learned helplessness and depression. (Learned Helplessness in Humans — Critique and Reformation, Seligman and Teasdale, 1978).

Martin Seligman offers us two ways for training ourselves to think more often like an optimist — namely, distraction and disputation. These are outlined below and are included here as practical pointers:

Distraction

Distraction involves thinking of something else when a negative thought enters your mind. For instance, if you want to redirect your attention you can first use a thought stopping technique. Some people keep an elastic band around their wrist, which they snap when they find themselves ruminating about some negative situation. This kind of approach can be effective when combined with an attention shifting exercise. For example, after stopping the negative thought, pick up a small object and study it intensely. Notice its shape and composition; think about its various uses and so on. This will help to completely shift attention from the negative thought pattern.

Another effective technique is to short circuit thought processes. When a negative thought strikes, we can resolve to think properly about it later, say at 7pm that night. If at the same time as making this commitment, you also note down your initial thoughts, this can reduce issues’ negative power. It helps to ventilate your concerns, reducing their emotional impact, freeing you to consider the matter rationally.

Disputation

This is about arguing with yourself to dispute a negative interpretation of events. While distraction is good first aid when dealing with negative thoughts, disputation tends to be more effective in properly addressing them.

The four elements of effective disputation are:

  1. Finding evidence to counter pessimistic beliefs. The best way to dispute a negative belief is to show that it is factually incorrect. Pessimistic responses are often over-reactions led by our emotions, rather than a sound evidence base.

  2. Finding alternative explanations. Most events have many causes. Pessimists have the habit of latching onto the most pervasive, most permanent and most personal. Ask yourself are there any less destructive causes. Then focus on changeable, specific and non-personal explanations.

  3. Exploring the implications of your pessimistic beliefs. Where you have rational evidence that your negative explanation is true we need to reconsider the implications of this belief. This is sometimes called de-catastrophising.

  4. Examining the usefulness of these beliefs. Sometimes the consequences of holding a belief matter more than the truth of that belief. A bomb disposal expert could suddenly think about the possibility of a bomb exploding, but this is not an especially useful response.

While the first part of this article has concentrated on resilience and optimism in individuals, the writer fully recognises that there are many other facets to building resilience, including having meaning and purpose in your life and holding beliefs (some form of spirituality), as well as maintaining good health and support networks. However, as optimism and good mental health appear to play such a significant part in resilience I have chosen to concentrate on this element. Let us now turn to considering the impact of resilience from a team and organisational perspective.

Building resilience — individual, team and organisational perspectives

Resilience is as central to wellbeing as it is to team and organisational performance. No wonder there is a surge of interest in resilience-building, as organisations and their employees are faced with constant change and new challenges. In the work context, resilience operates at three levels: individual, team and organisation. At all levels being resilient implies being able to bounce back and thrive in the face of tough challenges both at work and in life in general. Beyond that, each kind of resilience has very different characteristics and drivers — but most importantly, all three can be improved and developed. As we have discussed previously individual or personal resilience is an asset that helps us to remain healthy and effective in good times and bad. It is not a fixed set of traits reserved for superheroes — it is the normal process and outcome of managing life’s challenges. Personal resilience can always be improved even if it is good to start with, and doing so has a proven effect on increasing confidence and success.

Resilience for teams — when teams are well chosen and managed, high wellbeing and performance can be sustained over the long term, even in difficult circumstances. This in turn improves staff engagement, teamwork, retention, productivity, and other measures of business performance. This aspect of resilience is explained in more detail below.

Resilience for organisations — one aspect of this involves planning for natural disasters and threats to IT systems, but our main concern here is with improving the personal resilience of leaders and the combined resilience of teams.

Recent research linking leadership style with wellbeing and performance in the team shows how much can be gained through effective management of the sources of workplace pressure and support. In summary, a leader who provides positive pressure (challenge), backed up by appropriate support, can improve the team’s performance by increasing the wellbeing of its members. This process of “topping up the wellbeing reservoir” can be described as building team resilience, because high levels of wellbeing create an environment where the team as a whole is better equipped to deal with the pressures of uncertainty, change, work demands, and so on. For example, when levels of wellbeing are high people are less likely to feel threatened by new developments and more likely to behave in a constructive way towards each other. They see unfavourable feedback as less hurtful, take favourable feedback on board more readily, and use less contentious interpersonal tactics such as manipulation or aggression. These advantages in turn strengthen the team’s ability to cope with pressure through collaboration, innovative problem solving, etc.

Although the impact of the leader’s style and approach may be more significant for the team as a whole, individual team members also have an impact on levels of wellbeing and team resilience. So, for example, a team member who has difficulty managing their own frustration may behave in an aggressive manner towards their colleagues. This in turn could damage wellbeing and team resilience by undermining confidence, trust and co-operation. From an individual perspective, the question here is what we can predict about a person’s attitudes and behaviour, particularly when selecting new employees. This is important when considering how it will affect the wellbeing of others and the ability of the team to respond effectively to pressure.

Resilience for organisations — an idea “whose time has come”. It has been a long journey over two decades, from the first striking evidence of how resilience training could boost individual and organisational success, to the current level of interest the topic is receiving in many organisations. There is now clear scientific evidence linking personal resilience development to measurable outcomes including increased sales, retention and job offers (for job seekers who have been unemployed for a year or more). Forward-thinking organisations are incorporating resilience-building into their wider programmes and initiatives. Resilience-building can now be taken far beyond its traditional place within the confines of one-day workshops and other short, one-off training interventions. There is a strong argument for shifting from a “remedial” approach to one of “comprehensive psychological fitness for all”, whereby organisations treat resilience as a normal process and outcome for which individuals need to take personal responsibility, but which can be supported in a wide variety of ways by their employers.

Measuring team resilience — one way to identify and address issues of team resilience is to undertake a team assessment. A detailed assessment instrument based on the work of Derek Mowbray (2012), Cary Cooper and Ivan Robertson (2014, 2016) in defining and measuring individual and collective resilience identifies eight dimensions of team resilience. These are defined below, with corresponding suggestions for developing team resilience. I thought it would be helpful to re-create them in their entirety here to give HR professionals and managers some practical pointers on how to tackle these issues, and whilst many of them are simply good employment practice all too often we forget their importance in supporting wellbeing and resilience.

  1. Purpose and remit — it is important to ensure that there is clarity, alignment and positive focus in the team’s goals, priorities, expectations and values. The manager can ensure this through:

    • widening or increasing involvement in forward planning

    • defining a team vision or purpose statement

    • making a clear link between the organisational strategy, team goals and individual work objectives in PDRs and giving and receiving feedback in regular one-to-ones

    • working to formulate and debate the team’s values and behaviours

    • exploring opportunities for the team and/or specific members to take a more proactive role

    • regularly using positive review techniques to review strengths and achievements.

  2. Relationships (internal) — The quality of collaborative working and personal relationships within the team will impact on team resilience, and these can be improved by:

    • developing confidence and capability in the team around communication, influencing and conflict management

    • using personality assessment instruments to build a shared understanding and benefits of the diverse preferences and styles within the team

    • building opportunities for paired working, shadowing, etc. into work routines

    • establishing peer-to-peer communication or knowledge sharing forums

    • involving appropriate people in the team in the organisation and maintenance of social events and routines

    • designating subject matter expert roles within the team, with a remit to support and inform colleagues

    • process mapping to clarify dependencies within the team

    • setting collaborative team goals as well as individual goals and focusing on how as well as what is delivered.

  3. Power dynamics (external) — The nature and extent of external control over the team’s work and reputation can have a positive or negative effect. The team manager can help by:

    • developing confidence and capability in the team around influencing and negotiation

    • finding ways to give team members exposure to important external stakeholders — meetings, presentations, job swaps, mentoring, etc

    • introducing account management style working, with explicit responsibility for the management of key relationships

    • working to define the value offered by the team to its stakeholders — to build team confidence and sharpen external communications

    • events, communications or publications to showcase the work of the team

    • "market research" to clarify stakeholder needs and expectation

  4. Workload — there needs to be balance and feasibility with respect to the team’s work and deliverables, and this should be carefully managed through:

    • re-negotiation of key stakeholder expectations — for example, on timescales for delivery

    • audit of work processes and capacity (using lean or a similar methodology) to identify opportunities for waste elimination, balancing workload, maximising digital efficiencies, etc

    • agreeing team standards for work-life balance and wellbeing, eg taking work home, lunch breaks, taking annual leave, sending and answering emails “out of hours”

    • acting as a role model for work-life balance and wellbeing

    • introducing offsite or walking meetings

    • improving outcome definition and measurement — in relation to team members’ output and performance.

  5. Information and resources — the availability, quality and reliability of information and resources will impact on a team’s success. The manager’s role here is to:

    • audit provision of information and resources to the team to identify critical improvement areas

    • establish service level agreements with providers of critical information and resources

    • delegate responsibility for maintenance and improvement of key information sources.

  6. Change — the extent, pace and responses to change affects the team. The manager can influence this by:

    • instituting regular and frequent communications to ensure shared and current understanding of transitional progress — including myth-busting, and acknowledgement of unknowns

    • co-opting resisters, enlisting them to take a constructive role in planning and de-risking change

    • looking for opportunities for the team to be proactive, rather than “victims” of imposed change

    • offering support for developing personal resilience, such as training and coaching

    • reinforcing enduring touchstones — team purpose, values and expected behaviours

    • taking time explicitly to acknowledge what is ending — relationships, old ways of working, etc and the emotions that may accompany these transition.

  7. Systems — the team’s ability to operate effectively is affected by its understanding and commitment to the wider system of which it is a part. The manager has a responsibility to make this clear by:

    • helping to map the wider system and key actors in it

    • finding a way to bring representatives from key stakeholders together to ensure understanding of other’s priorities and perspectives, shared interests and values, synergies, etc

    • providing a shared resource (such as an online area) for key stakeholders

    • developing systems leadership capability within the team

    • clarifying and making more visible the impact of teams work for residents/other end users.

  8. Fulfilment — The extent to which the work of the team offers scope for personal satisfaction will have a serious impact on the success of the team. Managers need to be mindful of individual satisfaction and performance and how this impacts on the team as a whole. The following actions will help with this:

    • giving regular, high quality feedback to team members and remember to say thank you

    • ensuring discussion of career development/progression opportunities is an integral part of the team’s PDR process

    • offering coaching and mentoring opportunities to team members

    • helping team members to connect their work to the wider purpose of the team and of the council

    • using positive review techniques to acknowledge achievement and strengths

    • reviewing job roles to ensure opportunities for control, leadership and frequent connection with others — offering opportunities for development, secondments, stretch assignments, job rotation, etc

Conclusions

Resilience is a vital part of life — it is not just about bouncing back from adversity but also about enriching and broadening ourselves, both at home and at work. In The Resilience Factor (2002), Karen Reivich and Andrew Shatte argue that:

“…resilience is a mind-set that enables you to seek out new experiences and to view your life as a work in progress… it creates and maintains the positive attitude of the explorer. It confers the confidence to take on new responsibilities at work, to risk embarrassment by approaching the person you would like to know, to seek experiences that would challenge you and connect more deeply with others. We call this application of resilience reaching out. By reaching out, your life becomes richer, your connections to others become deeper, and your world becomes broader.”

All employers would find these types of individuals an asset to their organisation, as they are more creative about solutions to problems and more able to seek out new challenges. It is often difficult for employers to effectively influence individual resilience, which may have been set by early life experiences, but it is possible to create an environment where optimism, positivity and resilience is encouraged and rewarded. The influence of peer pressure is hugely important in modifying behaviours. Positivity breeds positivity as much as negativity breeds negativity. Role modelling and language have a significant impact on how teams operate, and we have all known successful teams who take their lead from their manager.

The link between resilience and our ability to cope with stress cannot be under-estimated. We know that stress is a transactional situation, which is neither all internal nor all external. It is how we perceive a situation that is all important in determining our ability to deal with it. Resilient individuals tend to see issues as challenges to be resolved through a range of interventions, while less resilient people will consider them as threats which are out of their control. This leads to all the responses we are familiar with — tunnel vision, reduced awareness and missed information. We know the physical aspects of long-term stress will cause significant health problems, so ensuring that people are as resilient as possible makes both good business and moral sense, and therefore should be an issue that employers take seriously and invest in.

Seek further advice

If you’d like to provide your employees with access to confidential telephone counselling service where they can get help with any problem they may be experiencing, including mental health and wellbeing issues, contact Health Assured, the UK’s leading employee assistance programme and wellbeing services provider: 0844 891 0350.