'Manage Stress' or 'Build Resilience'?

Mental Health

A common observation on our courses is that ‘life’ is a whole lot more stressful than it used to be. And maybe you’ve said it yourself, after all the evidence would seem to back you up… 15.4 Million working days lost due to work-related stress, depression or anxiety in 2017/18 (HSE, 2017).

Countless studies have indicated a significant impact of workplace stress on our physical and mental health. Here’s a few to start with: Increases in; Cardiovascular Disease, Risk of Diabetes, Job Dissatisfaction, Rates of Absence, Turnover, Likelihood of developing Depression and Anxiety and even Premature death. Understandably therefore, the majority of research focusses on managing these negative consequences.

As such the business case for the establishment of wellness and stress management programs in the workplace is well documented. Many companies have come to appreciate that having ill and unproductive employees making products or interacting directly with customers, represents a significant is a business risk.

Yet this ‘Weakness’ based wellbeing model serves only to return employees to their ‘normal’ level of functioning, develop skills to cope in their current situation, and maintain their current level or performance.

Manage stress or build resilience?

But should that be the goal? Simply maintaining current levels of performance and productivity within an organization is not a viable business strategy, particularly if a company is to continue to perform in times of increasing economic uncertainty.

 “What got you here, won’t get you there" -Marshall Goldsmith

All this focus on ‘Stress Management’ has arguably led to reactive strategies and programs which help employees hang on by their fingernails. Any relief is short lived as the next inevitable challenge roles in.

For example; physical exercise to manage stress. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m as much a fan of burpees as you are. Exercise may well help deal with the immediate stress but will not change the way an individual perceives an event or situation.

How then does an organization support employee wellbeing to promote increased adaptability and performance?

Resilience 

The term itself is derived from the Latin ‘Resilire’, meaning ‘To Leap Back’, however a more recent definition for workplace resilience is;

“The capacity to mobilise personal features that enable individuals, groups and communities (such as a workforce) to prevent, tolerate, overcome and be enhanced by adverse events and experiences” (Mowbray, 2010).

I’ve ranted about the way ‘resilience’ is understood before, so I’ll spare you that again. The evidence tells us that resilience is up to 3 times more effective than exercise and social support alone. In fact, they;

  • Demonstrate a 10% - 20% reduction in depression, absence and loss of productivity, and even have greater immunity to certain illnesses.
  • Behave in ways that benefit other people and departments, improving product development efforts.
  • Are more innovative and creative.
  • Show greater job and career satisfaction, motivation and commitment and are less likely to leave.

 

So, how do we develop resilience in the workplace? 

Rather than dwelling on employee vulnerabilities and weakness, perhaps it is time we listen to the evidence and focus on the importance of ‘Strength Based’ strategies to support employees to manage, adapt and develop into the future.

Developing employee resilience can be up to three times as effective than standard stress management programs (Dolbier, 2007).

There is a sea of research out there, the majority of which identifies four key characteristics; Confidence, Social Support, Purposefulness and Adaptability. From this evidence we draw these four simple suggestions to help you and your organization develop resilient employees.

  1. Foster A Sense Of Community - People thrive on friendships and positive social interaction. Employee’s who have positive relationships in the workplace are more likely to enjoy coming to work and be productive when they get there.
  2. Build A Psychologically Healthy Environment – Encourage a workplace that has a pleasant and happy environment through recognition, reward, job security and a management style. Develop a culture that promotes mutual trust and respect.
  3. Promote Learning And Development – Developing new skills enhances a person’s capabilities, is empowering and supports their sense of wellbeing.
  4. Provide Resilience Training Opportunities –even though the term is so widely used, for many ‘resilience’ and how to develop it may be unfamiliar (or misunderstood). Engaging with evidence-based, structured resilience training programs can support employees to identify potential barriers and opportunities for their own development.

References
Health and Safety Executive. (2018). Work-Related Stress, Depression or Anxiety Statistics in Great Britain 2018.
Dolbier CL. Relationships of protective factors to stress and symptoms of illness. Am J Health Behav. 2007; 31: 423-433.
Mowbray, D. (2011). Resilience and strengthening resilience in individuals. Management Advisory Service, MAS.
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About the Author

Terry is Director and Head of Training at Oakwood. He helps clients promote a proactive, rather than reactive approach to both personal safety and the positive mental health of their staff. He has over 12 years teaching experience in these areas, and advises organisations in the development of appropriate risk assessment and policy.