How to build resilience in the workplace
1st October, 2019
In this article, Vicky Dymoke, European
Marketing Director at Aetna International, discusses the best ways to foster
resilience at work and to ensure employees have the tools they need to meet
stressful challenges head on.
It’s no exaggeration to say that stress
is the health epidemic of the 21st century. In fact, it has been called exactly that
by the World Health Organisation. Research shows that more than 70% of people
regularly experience psychological and/or physical symptoms from stress, and
that more employees are absent from work because of it than because of physical
illness or injury.
When you factor in the financial cost
of absenteeism and presenteeism to the UK’s economy, estimated to be in the
region of £18 billion a year, it becomes clear why creating a mentally strong
and healthy workforce is such a key priority for so many companies.
Unfortunately, this is often easier
said than done. Everyone reacts differently to stressors, which can be
triggered by a wide variety of situations. Tough workloads, long hours, tricky
cultures, frustrating bureaucracy, career aspirations that feel stunted, even
just being over-tired can all play a part.
And of course, stress is on a spectrum.
A little can be good for us, keeping us alert and motivated if we experience it
without threat or fear. This is the type of stress psychologists refer to as
‘eustress’, something we need to keep us working towards our goals and feeling
good about life.
On the other hand, sustained and
chronic stress, experienced over a period of time, can really take its toll.
This can lead to impaired attention and decision-making skills, poor mental and
physical health, and eventually emotional exhaustion and burnout.
With such serious consequences,
organisations are increasingly seeking ways to support their staff to stay sharp,
productive and coping well with whatever situation arises. And at the core of
many of these efforts is a desire to foster a sense of fortitude, of
determination, endurance and drive. Or to put it another way, to foster a sense
The word resilience comes from the
Latin resilire, which means rebound. It was initially a physics term,
used to describe the ability of a material to change shape and then resume its
original form, or, in other words, to describe its tolerance to
Today, resilience is more commonly
defined as being able to adapt positively despite adversity, and to bounce back
after setbacks. It implies the ability not only to withstand hardship and
failure, but to grow exponentially from these experiences. It’s a sense of
competency and inner strength, of feeling that you are able to handle whatever
life throws at you and confidently navigate the lows as well as the
Without doubt, in the
globally-connected, ever-changing, fast-paced world we live in – sometimes
described in the military terminology of VUCA (an acronym for Volatile,
Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous) – the capacity to tolerate a measure of
disruption is most definitely still a useful skill to have.
With the psychological flexibility to
weather everyday pressures, employees are able to look at stressors as
challenges to be overcome and adapt more easily to difficult circumstances.
They’re also primed to learn from unexpected events and proactively prepare
themselves for future challenges, all without negatively affecting their health
As you might expect, turning the tide
on employee stress and embedding a different paradigm within a company isn’t
something that happens overnight. After all, resilience is a complex and
multi-dimensional construct, influenced by environmental, inter and
intrapersonal factors. An individual’s resilience will be impacted by a whole
host of dynamics, such as their upbringing, personality and social support
network outside of work – things that employers have no control over.
However, that is not to say resilience
at work can’t be learnt, honed and increased – it can.
To promote resilience throughout your
company, the first step is to make a commitment that this focus will come from
the top. A culture that values openness, respect and positivity primes a path
for psychological safety, where employees can speak up without fear of
recrimination if work is getting on top of them. Offering employee assistance
programmes (EAP), which give 24 hour access to confidential counsellors via the
telephone, can also make a difference in getting help to those who need it.
This type of open atmosphere allows
people to feel that they exert some personal control over what is happening to
them in the workplace. In turn, a sense of autonomy brings an intrinsic
motivation to actively ‘do what you can’ when faced with a work challenge,
rather than dejectedly give up at the first sight of a hurdle.
It’s also important to remember that
leaders of teams play a big role in mitigating stress. After all, effective
leaders need to be effective managers of their own health and well-being.
Leading by example is a powerful message, and sets the tone for those who are
more junior to feel comfortable keeping track of their own self-care as
standard. It can be as simple as setting clear boundaries about work hours,
taking a lunch break away from desks or just generally monitoring when you are
working to capacity.
To build resilient teams, leaders need
to instil a sense of realistic optimism about tasks, a sense that good things
will happen and future outcomes will be favourable. This doesn’t mean operating
on blind faith that everything will turn out fine or ignoring the need for risk
On the contrary, cultivating optimism
in your team encourages personal accountability to reach objectives, and
ensures perspective when evaluating risks appropriately.
Research has shown that people who are
naturally resilient have an optimistic explanatory style; they interpret
challenges as temporary rather than permanent. This leads to a greater feeling
of agency – and thus action – in the potential result.
For those who are not so naturally
resilient, this is a good practice to mindfully become aware of. You might also
have read in the news recently that greater optimism has been linked to a
longer life – another good reason to adopt this habit!
While personal attributes, such as
optimism, self-efficacy and a sense of control, all play their part in
fostering resilience, there is another contributory factor that should not be
ignored – a sense of social connectedness.
Positive relationships are tied to an
all-round better sense of well-being, and can greatly bolster resilience by
offering encouragement and reassurance in times of need. Of course, at work,
teams can fall prey to conflicts and pressure, but with the right guidance they
can also create the foundations of strength that result in unparalleled
support, optimised and sustainable performance, agility in reacting to change
and a high level of engagement.
Not every working day will be a
positive one – life just isn’t like that. But putting in place the structure to
overcome occupational stresses can ensure that employees are always equipped
with the tools that help them quickly bounce back.
For businesses, building resilient
individuals is the first step to building resilient teams and, over time, a
truly resilient organisation.
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Vicky Dymoke is European Marketing Director at Aetna International. For more information, please visit www.aetnainternational.com