Updated: Dec 30, 2022
Have you ever wondered how successful people thrive in their work?
It’s tempting to assume that their success lies in their talent, intelligence, or their will to take on extra commitments. While those traits do play a role in someone’s success, they don’t tell the whole story. Rather, the most important piece of the success puzzle is one’s resilience.
Today, we'll examine what resilience means at the workplace, why it matters, and how to build it in our fast-paced modern work landscape.
What is resilience in the workplace?
Resilience at the workplace refers to the ability to cope with the inevitable challenges and stressors of work.
Resilience buffers against occupational stress
The effects of a stressful workplace have been reported as early as 1978 by Pines and Maslach (1). They introduced the term ‘burnout’ to describe employees’ experiences of physical and emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and a sense of low personal accomplishment.
Fortunately, resilience has been proven to buffer against workplace stress (2). This is due to the array of positive states including optimism and openness to experience associated with resilience. Additionally, resilience promotes problem-focused coping, allowing employees to develop creative solutions when met with workplace challenges.
Researchers also found that a resilient mindset is positively reflected in our physical wellbeing (2). Naturally, employees that are physically healthy perform better at work and better adapt to adversity.
Resilience in action
Management consultants S. Maddi and D. Khoshaba studied resilience at the workplace over a decade (3). They observed employees of a large US telecommunications firm while they were being deregulated. The company underwent radical change and livelihoods were at stake. Almost 50% of the employees lost their job and a further two-thirds experienced significant stressful life events such as divorce and illness.
However, one-third of employees not only survived the massive hurdles they faced, they even flourished. The researchers found that their resilience helped them retain their positions, get promoted, and even start their own companies. But what exactly makes these people so resilient?
Three elements of resilience
According to the psychologist, Suzanne Kobasa, there are three elements that are essential to resilience (4):
Resilient people embrace challenges. They confront failures as opportunities for growth rather than a paralyzing event.
Resilient people practice commitment. They commit to their goals, relationships, health, and their values.
Resilient people exercise personal control. They focus their time and energy on things they have the most impact on. Doing so allows them to feel empowered rather than anxious about uncontrollable events.
How do we build resilient teams?
Resilient employees are better equipped to overcome difficulties whilst sustaining performance. Fortunately, there’s a range of possible ways to develop organizational resilience.
1) Plan for challenges ahead
By anticipating common challenges and providing employees with go-to resources, we can assure them they’re supported in times of need. These resources may include escalation protocols, troubleshooting guides, and even employee support groups.
Companies may even document important standard operating procedures and make them accessible to all employees. Another valuable resource is a list of contacts of people to seek support from when particular challenges arise.
2) Offer resilience training
Expert-facilitated group sessions that teach employees the essence of resilience is a worthwhile investment. These sessions are effective as they cultivate team cohesion by developing a group understanding of what resilience is. Employees may also be guided on how to maintain composure during times of heightened stress.
For example, the team at Wisdom Labs found that multimodal learning and skill development solutions promote the greatest chance for resilience to become a core organizational competency (5). By including a combination of mobile learning, onsite training, webinars, and peer-to-peer learning networks, participants reported statistically significant improvements in resilience, stress management, collaboration, and wellbeing.
3) Conduct reflection sessions
After any stressful event, gather the team for a reflection session. Encourage everyone to share how they felt and how they coped. The team can then carve out action plans in case similar challenges recur. Most importantly, use this chance to thank your teammates for their hard work.
This gives employees a space to express their woes and switch off from ‘emergency’ modes of operating. Additionally, it’s a great practice for developing a compassionate work culture, which has been studied to boost positive emotions and enhance work relationships (6).
4) Compartmentalize workload
Deliberately compartmentalize your workload into high effort (e.g. strategy or brainstorming) and low effort tasks (e.g. emails). This is because switching between tasks actually increases stress and reduces productivity according to the American Psychological Association (7). Hence, as much as possible, we want to avoid context switching.
This strategy may be overly regimented for some. But it creates the optimal environment to effectively process information and make quality decisions while decreasing cognitive strain. Overall, it helps us be more resilient when dealing with high effort or more stressful tasks.
5) Learn to detach
Mental focus, clarity, and energy cycles are typically 90-120 minutes long. Hence, it’s useful to step away from work after each “work cycle” for even a few minutes to reset (9).
An empirical study shows that briefly detaching from work activities daily can promote greater clarity, creativity, and focus (8). This expands our resilience in the long term as we’re deliberately preventing burnout.
Both employees and companies are certain to benefit from a more resilient workforce. By expanding our capacity for resilience, we’re well on our way to creating thriving cultures that can positively impact society as a whole. It may require some time, money, and effort, but by putting thoughtful strategies in place, resilient teams can surely be built.
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