How to build resilience in the face of constant change

New research offers strategies to manage work-related pressure

It's interesting to discover, when you start delving into why resilience has become a hot topic, that a  whole industry has grown up in business to help people build up their resilience.

It begs the question, what happened to our relationship to work in recent years? Have we become namby-pamby weaklings, unable to cope with day-to-day trials and tribulations? Or has work and its demands upon individuals grown more pervasive and led to higher levels of stress?

Organisations such as The Resilience Institute and The Resilience Project in Australia were formed explicitly to help adults and children cope with unexpected changes and challenges they face in life.

But it is in workplaces where resilience is most valued and valuable. As constant change becomes the new normal, and those in work toil for long hours, it's not surprising that resilience is seen as a desirable quality.

Peter Heslin, an associate professor in the school of management at UNSW Business School, is quite clear about the reasons.

"Many people think good management is about doing more with less. The result is that people are having to work harder and constantly produce more, with less administrative support. Managers and employees alike are being seriously squeezed," he says.

‘The most effective businesses work out how to lower the heat in the kitchen and understand the benefits of treating their people well’


The worried well

Around five million Australians work more than 40 hours a week – the 38-hour week is a rarity, according to 2015 figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics. The stress of trying to cope with increasing workloads is taking its toll on employee health.

Stuart Taylor, founder of The Resilience Institute, calls them "the worried well" and says stress-related illness is costing the economy more than $14 billion a year in absenteeism and presenteeism.

Taylor knows what he's talking about, having been diagnosed with brain cancer in 2001, which he puts down to a highly pressurised job that prioritised success ahead of his health.

His response to the diagnosis was to leave the corporate sector and put his energies into a three-year research project exploring the impact of worrying at work. The results from a survey of 16,000 employees from 250 organisations showed that 31% of staff were frequently stressed out.

Taylor says many workers have not developed the necessary coping mechanisms to manage work-related pressure.

"Rather than remaining calm, focused and in the moment, we worry," he says. "The challenge, I believe, is for individuals to build their personal resilience to a point that, when faced with concerns such as fear of redundancy or role changes at work, they can bounce forward rather than being stuck in rumination."

Job crafting

Heslin and his co-researchers, Scott Seibert and Maria Kramer, in their recently published paper, Developing career resilience and adaptability, have been working on exactly that challenge by developing a range of strategies for building and maintaining career resilience to deal effectively with the stress of modern workplaces.

The first stage, says Heslin, is to work on developing a psychological robustness, as a foundation for applying other behavioural strategies.

One of the keys to this is acknowledging and accepting negative emotions when they arise – such as anger, anxiety, frustration, self-doubt and sadness – in order to move beyond them as swiftly as possible.

"The way emotions are acknowledged matters," says Heslin.

"For instance, instead of saying to yourself, 'I am so anxious', it's better to instead say, 'I am having the feeling that I am anxious', thereby reminding yourself that just as day follows night, uncomfortable feelings will inevitably pass."

The researchers point out that often, individuals make a poor choice in how they respond to negative emotions, such as when celebrities read a misleading story about themselves. Some choose to ignore it, while others get heated and upset.

Once an individual has learnt how to instil a more positive mindset, Heslin and colleagues outline four behavioural strategies that are the resilience pillars on which to build a successful career.

The first is to cultivate a good relationship with your boss; the second is to take up opportunities for learning and development; third, to seek out suitable job challenges that fit; and finally, to develop good support networks.

It's easy to see how the first two and building good networks might help build resilience. The third – seeking out job challenges that fit – is rather more subtle and harder to achieve, in that it requires individual initiative to seek out challenges that specifically meet career goals and personality type.

Part of this can be achieved by "job crafting", say the researchers. An idea "whereby you turn the job you have into more of the job you want", such as by reducing or expanding certain tasks so that the time spent is more rewarding or energising.

‘The feeling is that if we get this right, we can operate in a high trust, high performance culture’


Shared responsibility

All the emphasis on self-help and assertiveness may suggest that a lack of resilience is viewed as an individual's problem to sort out. But Heslin says that the best organisations share responsibility for building resilience in their workforce.

"The most effective businesses work out how to lower the heat in the kitchen and understand the benefits of treating their people well. Yes, there are important strategies that an individual can learn to do, but ultimately leaders should pride themselves on creating environments that foster resilience," he says.

Taylor believes that leaders are far more aware of the business advantages of a resilient workforce than they were a decade ago.

"I'm seeing in 2016 a very different picture to 2004 when I was just getting into the space. Over the past decade, there has been a shift away from traditional forms of leadership towards more compassionate leadership," he says.

"It's important for leaders to learn the art and science of personal resilience for themselves," says Heslin.

"You can't teach it until you know it, and leaders need to apply resilience building strategies and model them to their workforce. Strategies such as setting learning goals, acknowledging and being at peace with setbacks, and building support networks.

"It's about taking the time to do these things even when they are difficult."

Tangible benefits

Heslin, who conducts resilience workshops for business clients, says that for some, resilience training has an image problem because it is perceived as a sign of weakness.

"A problem has been, how do we euphemistically label a resilience workshop so that signing up for it doesn't imply weakness? Perhaps by calling it  'Achieving your potential'?"

But among Heslin and Taylor's bigger clients, such as BHP Billiton, IBM, Toyota, Wesfarmers and Westpac, there is no question about the benefits of building resilience. In fact, it's seen as a necessity.

Taylor says the conversation often starts with, "'Gee, we are going through lots of changes'. But, increasingly, there is awareness that this is about more than helping people deal with change; it's recognising that change is continual. So the question becomes: How do you help people to build their confidence and ability, rather than just facing things stoically?"

For that reason, resilience is being seen as a competency in itself that has tangible, business benefits.

"There is more understanding of the link between acquiring resilience skills and improved business performance. If I heard the term 'soft skills' used once about resilience, I've heard it a million times, but now it is being regarded as one of the hard skills," says Taylor.

"The feeling is that if we get this right, we can operate in a high trust, high performance culture. And that's worth a lot for any business."


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