In today’s workplace, individuals increasingly face dynamic and difficult challenges that require adaptation. In fact, the acronym VUCA has been coined to describe the volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous characteristics of modern work. Given the rapidly changing nature of work, the potential for job stress is quite high. Work stressors are problematic in that they can cause an array of adverse cognitive and emotional reactions such as distraction and anxiety. When left unmanaged, stressors may even contribute to psychological, physical, and behavioral difficulties, including sleep disruption, depression, and aggression.
From an economic perspective, billions of dollars are lost annually from stress-related absenteeism, decreased productivity, and increased workplace errors and accidents. Reports from the Treasury Board of Canada, among others, indicate that mental health challenges have been linked to an ongoing tide of long-term disability claims among federal public service employees. As such, public service employers would be well advised to mitigate the high costs of work stress by fostering resilience in their people.
What is resilience?
How are some able to weather even the toughest challenges, handle ambiguity with ease, and readily thrive in anxiety-provoking situations? What differentiates the hardiest of individuals from those who shrink at the slightest signs of adversity?
Resilience has been defined as the ability to survive – even thrive – in the face of tough situations. Resilience acts on thought processes and emotions, protecting people from stress. Research indicates resilient individuals tend to reliably demonstrate several defining characteristics. In general, they are intelligent and creative problem solvers who confidently approach hardship with an “everything happens for a reason” mindset.
Most importantly, those who are resilient demonstrate positivity, which is useful for managing and overcoming stress in a number of ways. Rather than dwelling on what is wrong or difficult, the resilient:
- Take a glass half-full approach. They reappraise bad circumstances to find the positive aspects of the situation.
- Engage in problem-focused coping. Rather than dwell on the bad feelings stressful situations can elicit, they focus on finding the root cause of the issue and generating solutions.
- Reaffirm their positive sense of self. Negative events are seen by resilient people as an opportunity to focus on their positive personal traits, essentially boosting their self-confidence.
How Can Workplaces Foster Resilience?
Knowing the characteristics that define resilience, it becomes possible to develop this quality in the following ways:
- Seek it from the start. If resilience is truly job-relevant, consider measuring it as part of the hiring process. For instance, consider using personality instruments to gauge natural inclinations toward positivity and creativity. Given that intelligence is also a predictor of resilience, consider incorporating assessments that gauge critical thinking and reasoning skills to hire adept problem solvers.
- Foster positive thinking. Keep people focused on the benefits of unexpected changes. Highlighting new opportunities or showcasing the “bright side” can redirect energy toward overcoming obstacles rather than being overwhelmed by them. Coaching related to emotional intelligence can also help individuals manage their emotions, harness the power of positivity, and recognize their impact on those around them.
- Encourage contingency planning. To guard against the unexpected or deal with ill-defined circumstances, consider routinely creating plans that anticipate potential issues or problems. Asking “what could happen?” in advance may reduce ambiguity, lessen the need to create last-minute strategies, and alleviate anxiety about the unknown. Time management training and SMART goal-setting may increase planning skills and enable more effective coping with the rigors of daily work demands.
- Promote problem-focused coping. When issues arise, acknowledge what has happened, but refocus efforts on the controllable aspects of the situation. Encourage individuals to investigate root causes and build solutions to move forward as a means to cope with dynamic situations. Training in assertiveness, conflict management, and negotiation may also help people build resilience and work through problems more productively.
- Cultivate mindfulness. Encourage others to “be present” rather than being swept up in the past or the uncertainty of the future. Activities such as meditation and expressive writing have been scientifically proven to enhance coping, improve emotional processing, boost self-esteem, and even increase life satisfaction.
A resilient workforce is a robust workforce. The ability to identify what resilience is and how to cultivate it can help employers select, coach, and manage in ways that tap individual strength, flexibility and ultimately, performance.
Glenda Fisk is an Associate Professor in the Industrial Relations Program at Queen’s University. Her research and teaching programs are tied together by an interest in how employees cope with, and react to, challenging work conditions.
Jodi Himelright is the Founder and Principal Consultant of Excelis Leadership Consulting, Inc. Her work primarily focuses on the assessment, development, and coaching of global leaders to increase their effectiveness and impact.