Last reviewed 12 May 2016

“Resilience” continues to be the buzz word of the moment, its value hotly debated as organisations seek ways to maximise it. While the concept is not new, Dawn Nolan finds it moving up the priority list as managers focus on building a robust, mentally fit workforce to survive and thrive in the face of disruption.

You only have to scan a few job specs to see how resilience has become one of the most sought-after skills in today’s demanding, resource-stretched world, where unpredictability and change is the new norm.

Mental stress

Restructuring and job losses, increased workloads and perceived pressure from managers have taken their toll on today’s workforce. And with worries about money on top of the constant strain of needing to do more with less, it is hardly surprising that work-induced stress, depression and anxiety continue to affect workers’ sanity and health.

Figures from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) show stress accounted for 43% of all working days lost due to ill health in 2015. What is more, mental health conditions cost UK employers an estimated £26 billion a year. A sobering statistic that consists of staff turnover, absenteeism and, increasingly, its insecure cousin “presenteeism” — otherwise known as working when ill but not fully functioning — resulting in reduced productivity.

Hardly a week passes without a new survey pointing out the detrimental impact of stressed-out workers on productivity, employee engagement, corporate reputation or retention. That said, CEOs are waking up to the real risk of damage to companies’ long-term success with the realisation that the largest cost savings to be had are in the areas of preventing absences and addressing risks before they become more costly.

It is against this backdrop, that finding ways to build resilience and a sustainable workforce is working its way up the corporate agenda.

What is resilience?

Definitions abound (and are evolving) but the advantages of honing this skill to help businesses bolster confidence and withstand a whole heap of unpredictable situations are well documented. “Not only can emotional resilience improve wellbeing, but it has also been shown to improve performance and creativity,” argues Business in the Community, whose Emotional Resilience Toolkit, Healthy People = Healthy Profits looks at how promoting health and wellbeing helps win the battle for survival. It basically defines resilience as “hardiness” or “inner strength” and says “it essentially refers to a set of conditions that enable individuals to adapt to different challenges in their life”.

Business psychology firm Robertson Cooper describes personal resilience as “the capacity to maintain wellbeing and work performance under pressure, including being able to bounce back from setbacks effectively”.

Resilience training

One response, as more companies look to optimise health and mental wellbeing to enhance business performance is in the form of resilience training for employees. Banks and law firms are among those getting in on the act.

The general idea behind these dedicated workshops and resilience programmes is increased self-awareness and personal empowerment: individuals and teams learn to self-manage their physical, psychological and emotional health so they can identify and maintain healthy levels of stress and quickly recover from challenging situations if and when they arise. This affirms the notion that, rather than simply being a trait you already possess, resilience is a process with strategies, skills and tools that can be learned and developed.

Cognacity reports that, in the past two years, it has provided resilience training to 6000 employees in 60 global blue-chip companies across a range of business sectors. “It is critical to target interventions effectively, and to know where your organisation’s main strengths, weaknesses and risks lie,” it warns. With any “resilience project”, you need to “benchmark your company’s risk of stress, burnout and disengagement against established norms”. Its risk management tool is supported by a “predictive model that allows for the proactive management of risks for employees, teams and individuals. This allows targeted, evidence-based interventions to be implemented.”

With regard to return on investment, resilience training providers promise attractive benefits ranging from reduced absenteeism to increased motivation and enhanced productivity. Specifically, Cognacity says businesses have reported a 17% improvement in employee engagement levels with its workshop participants seeing a 20% reduction in overall risk of stress-related ill health.

Positive Psychology Guru Martin Seligman asserts that “managers can change the culture of their organisations to focus on the positive instead of the negative and, in doing so, turn pessimistic, helpless ‘Walters’ into optimistic, can do ‘Douglases’”. (His case study in the Harvard Business Review article Building Resilience depicts Douglas and Walter at opposite ends of the continuum of reactions to failure.)

Seligman explores what businesses can learn from a pioneering army Master Resilience Training (MRT) programme for fostering post-traumatic growth. In a nutshell, it is about “teaching leaders how to embrace resilience and then pass on the knowledge”.

He also reveals that studies of people who do not give up confirm they have a positive mindset which says: “‘It’s going away quickly; it’s just this one situation, and I can do something about it.’ That suggested how we might immunise people against learned helplessness, against depression and anxiety, and against giving up after failure: by teaching them to think like optimists,” he explains.

So how is resilience training different to other leadership training? Seligman acknowledges that the MRT programme is essentially management training: “Enhancing mental toughness, highlighting and honing strengths, and fostering strong relationships are core competencies for any successful manager.” However, he points out: “Leadership development programs often touch on these skills, but the MRT program brings them together in systematic form to ensure that even in the face of terrible failures… army sergeants know how to help the men and women under their command flourish rather than flounder.”

Change management

For organisations looking to harness resilience to drive their change efforts, understanding the link between wellbeing, resilience and change management is vital.

Specifically, the paper Embedding Well-Being and Resilience to Support Change Management, promotes the idea that “leading with a focus on wellbeing and resilience can help you to manage the psychological impact of change, by creating a sense of direction and a better working environment for employees who you are taking through it”.

“When people are energised, feel good psychologically and resilience levels are high their response to change improves significantly. This presents an opportunity for organisations undergoing change everywhere,” urge the report’s authors Robertson Cooper MD Ben Moss and Business Psychologist Ryan Tahmassebi.

In his foreword to the paper, Cary Cooper, wellbeing expert and Professor of Organisational Psychology and Health at Manchester Business School, encourages organisations to think about the connections between their change and wellbeing strategies — and how one can positively influence the other.

The Resilient Change model describes it based on a people-driven approach underpinned by wellbeing and resilience and depicts a longer-term, strategic approach to change management.

The report also warns that to successfully embed resilience across the whole organisation your strategy needs to create “a sense of authenticity, connecting leadership, management and employees’ sense of motivation to bring wellbeing and resilience to life across the business”.

Looking forward

The mental health charity Mind, in How to Promote Wellbeing and Tackle the Causes of Work-related Mental Health Problems recommends that you carry out a policy and practice review to make sure your HR policies are joined up and inclusive of mental health.

Initiatives promoting exercise, counselling or financial management can help prevent illnesses and minimise their impact. Similarly, resilience is a key component in the wellbeing of individuals so taking steps to boost it can lead to a healthier, more productive workforce.

No longer a “nice to have”, prioritising wellbeing makes financial — as well as moral — sense. As Nuffield Health’s joint research with Ashridge Business School found, FTSE 100 companies that do this outperform the rest by 10%.