Director Anita Douglas explains why the strains and stresses of the modern workplace are leading to a much greater need for resilience amongst the workforce.
Unless you have been lucky enough to be holed up in a remote corner of the globe for the last few years, you will have noticed, in board rooms and offices across the country, there’s a new word that has joined the corporate lexicon – and it’s not Brexit!
That word is ‘resilience’. Okay, so perhaps it is not a ‘new’ word in the strictest sense, but it is certainly a word that now carries a lot more weight and importance than ever before.
So, what exactly do we mean by resilience, and why are we only really starting to hear about it now?
Check the dictionary and you will find a definition somewhere along the lines of: “the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness.” Psychology Today defines it as: “…that ineffable quality that allows some people to be knocked down by life and come back at least as strong as before.”
Clearly these are traits to be applauded, but that still doesn’t explain why it has become such a topic of interest for so many organisations.
There are two parts to the answer to that question.
Part One: The Impact of Mental Health Issues
Firstly, we need to understand why the characteristics of resilience in an employee are so appealing to an organisation (it’s important to recognise that in this context, we are using the term resilience to reflect an individual’s ability to cope with the challenges, problems and setbacks experienced in the workplace with less stress and anxiety. Perhaps some would call this an individual’s ‘mental toughness’).
Quite simply, it is because mental health issues have a huge impact on businesses as well as individuals, with work cited as the most stressful factor in people’s lives and therefore arguably impacting on the mental health of individuals (ref 1). Stress has been labelled as ‘the health epidemic of the 21st Century’ (ref 2) and the Mental Health Foundation presents some stark statistics about the impact of common mental health problems such as anxiety, depression and stress (ref 3):
- In 2015, common and serious mental health issues were the third most cited cause of sick leave in the UK
- Mental health related issues accounted for 17.6 million days of sick leave in 2015
- It is estimated that the 2015 GDP could have been £25 billion higher were it not for the economic impact of mental health issues for both individuals and businesses
The clear inference from these statistics is that if, as an organisation, you are able to build a workforce of resilient employees who are able to bounce back with less stress to the problems, challenges or set-backs they face, you are less likely to be exposed to productivity risk as a result of sick leave related to mental health.
Part Two: Changing Tack
For some time, most commonly adopted approaches to tackling stress in the workplace attempted to reduce or even remove the causes of stress. Part of any organisation’s responsibility is to be aware of, and manage the sources of stress where possible, but often these triggers are part and parcel of working in business. Common examples are angry customers, mistakes made by self/others and workplace relationships etc. At times this approach of ‘curing’ triggers can have a limited impact and in fact, in some cases, actually caused performance to decline.
That is because, up to a certain threshold, experiencing stress can actually improve performance. This is backed up by academic research as seen in the Inverted-U Hypothesis.
The research suggests that performance increases with physiological or mental arousal and there is a point when pressure and performance peak simultaneously before dropping down again, creating the Inverted-U. The upward part of the curve can be thought of as the energising effect of arousal. The downward part is caused by negative effects or stress on cognitive processes like attention, memory and problem-solving.
Now what we’re seeing (and there’s a growing wealth of evidence to support it) is a change of focus to address the human element instead; to help individuals build their mental strength and resilience. Essentially what we are trying to do is help someone develop coping strategies and techniques to manage the situations that could cause unhealthy stress levels, rather than trying to tackle the stressors themselves.
Until recently this wasn’t common practice. Thankfully, mental health is finally being given the airtime it needs and resilience training is being adopted by organisations to support and develop their employees.
These combined factors are helping to put that word ‘resilience’ into everyday discussions about workplace and employee development. Previous assumptions that an individual’s resilience was a hardwired threshold have been debunked. Now that it’s generally accepted that resilience can be ‘taught’, management teams can see an opportunity to address an organisational weakness by developing the people that they already have.
In the long run this approach has the potential to reduce business costs and improve individuals’ quality of life.
To give this huge topic the focus it deserves, we are going to use our next few blogs to look at some of the techniques and strategies that can build resilience in the workplace.
We hope you find them useful.
1) Seager, C. (2014) ‘How much do you know about mental health in the workplace?’The Guardian newspaper https://www.theguardian.com/careers/quiz/mental-health-in-the-workplace-quiz (Accessed 19-02-2019)