Building resilience in the workplace

Karen Rayner
Karen Rayner | June 09, 2020
Well-being
Building resilience in the workplace

Resilience is the ability to adapt and recover – to bounce back – following a challenge or problem. Resilient people respond well to a changing environment, deal with obstacles and move on quickly. Resilient companies do the same. As we work on ways to cope with the impact of Covid-19, it’s the perfect time to ask: how do we build resilience at work?

Why is workplace resilience important?

You can’t plan for everything.

Take workplace health and safety as an example. The traditional approach is to analyse possible emergencies, threats and hazards, and to document the things people need to do if they come across these situations. Then, when something goes wrong you can find the specific solution to that specific problem, solve it and move on.

However, it’s not always that simple. It is extremely difficult to account for every single situation that might crop up, especially when the work environment is always changing. How many companies actually had a pandemic contingency plan in place before 2020?

Resilient companies effectively react, respond and recover in the face of change

Resilient companies create policies, not to cover everything that could possibly go wrong, but to provide direction on dealing with things when they go wrong. What should people keep an eye out for? What situations are they empowered to figure out for themselves? When should they involve HR, H&S, legal or leadership?

Resilient organisations are change-ready. They acknowledge change is inevitable and have strategies and business continuity plans for dealing with it. They’re not caught on the back foot or unable to react to unexpected developments, which means they share some similar characteristics. Brent Gleeson presents 15 fundamental pillars of organizational resilience including a culture of accountability, distributed decision making authority, and collaboration.

Leadership commitment to building a resilient culture is also key. Leaders need to empower and support people at all levels of the organisation to collaborate and solve problems; to become resilient workers.

Resilient workers cope well with adverse situations and stress

Everyone sits somewhere on the resilience spectrum. Most of us find our capacity for resilience changes from day to day and situation to situation. Certainly it is easier to bounce back when our reserves aren’t completely drained by constant stress. At this time, people working at home alone and essential workers on the front-line will have very different stressors (and a lot of them!) Resilience is the common factor in how well people deal with their specific situations - and not everyone believes they’ll cope well.

There is a wealth of scales and measures of resilience. Check out this article for an analysis, and you can try out this quiz to see how you fare. But most at least partly agree on what constitutes personal resilience.

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People who cope well with change tend to do well outside of their comfort zones and have faith in their own abilities. They are more likely to have a good support system – at work, and in their personal lives – so they don’t feel like they are on their own when dealing with things. They are also open minded, adaptable, and likely to help others with their own challenges.

The good news is you can learn to be more resilient.

Learning resilience at work

Building personal resilience starts with being mindful, accepting that change is going to happen (and needs to be dealt with). Resilience also involves reframing challenges as opportunities: paying attention to the positive aspects of experiences and minimizing the negative.

Organisations can help with this by creating a positive and supportive culture where people feel like they can trust and rely on those they work with. Open and effective communication is important; not just between peers, but between leaders and workers (listen to everyone!) Encourage people to lean on support networks within their teams, across and outside the business, and foster an environment where asking for help is a positive. And this applies just to remote teams as well.

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Resilience training is also available and typically involves a combination of skills-based training, coaching and mindfulness exercises. This training is associated with increases in performance, subjective well-being, and reduction of psychological disorders.

Practical things you can do to aid resilience:

Make sure people know who they should go to for support and assistance. This may be their direct manager, a mentor or advisor, an HR rep or a more experienced team member.

Encourage people to take the initiative when the unexpected occurs. Let them decide how best to deal with the situation (within reason). Provide guidelines for escalation. Communicate your expectations, and communicate the expected impact of changes to the work situation.

Debrief after problems to help people reflect on what happened and how they coped. Did they react positively? If not, what would have helped them? Which type of support could make the most difference - is it tools or equipment? Training? Guidance? What would they change about the current state of affairs? Understand exactly how that change impacts their work.

Implement well-being initiatives. Being resilient is easier when people feel physically, mentally and emotionally fit. Consider flexible working options, offer healthy snacks and drinks, limit after-hours demands and encourage social interaction. If everyone’s working from home, be sure to schedule regular check-ins and team catch-ups to combat isolation.

Building resilience requires a commitment from the company and the people who work there. Leaders should anticipate changing conditions and any trade-offs (how do we juggle safety, quality and deadlines?), and be able to steer the company accordingly. The people doing the work should have a say in the policies and procedures governing how work is done. And everyone should be talking - always - about the current situation and ways to protect well-being and manage work safely.

For more information and a set of questions you can ask to help build a resilient workplace, check out our Health & Safety Question Guide.