Why building resilience is a top skill for the workplace

August 9, 2021 - 24 min read

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What is resilience?

Why is resilience important?

Resilience in the workplace improves organizational and employee performance

The importance of resilience in leaders

What does resilience look like?

How to build resilience at work: a step-by-step guide

Building workplace resilience in your employees

Building resilience starts now

This includes family and relationship problems, serious health problems, or financial stressors.

But what does that mean for employees and leaders in the workplace? How does resilience play a part in company and employee well-being?

And how can individual team members develop resilience skills to better the team as a whole?

Let’s take a look at some answers to these questions. We'll also provide a step-by-step guide to developing mental fitness and mental toughness among employees and building resilience in the workplace.

Plus, we’ll show you how to become a resilient leader who is prepared to face stressful situations as they arise.

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What is resilience?

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There are many ways to explain what resilience is.

In the world of positive psychology, resilience is being able to recover and adapt quickly from a traumatic event or stressor. In other words, it’s a kind of inner strength.

Generally speaking, people consider others to be resilient when they:

  • Have a consistently positive outlook
  • Deal with each difficult situation they face with ease
  • Don’t exhibit excessive negative emotions during difficult times

Resilience in the workplace can help people recover from challenging experiences. It can also assist their growth and development. Data from BetterUp members shows that those experiencing change also experience growth.

This is in part because having already dealt with a specific situation, employees are better prepared to deal with others.

It can be helpful to consider how physical resilience works.

If you go to the gym every day and lift weights, your muscles will grow more resilient to those exercises. You can use that increased strength in other situations, such as when carrying a heavy box of groceries inside.

Emotional resilience works in a similar way. When you practice resilience, it’s like you’re working out your ‘resilience muscle’, getting stronger every day.

Why is resilience important?

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Given the evolving needs of organizations, growing resilience is a key strategic priority.

People will perform better if they aren’t just keeping their heads above water.

Instead, opportunities for growth and self-learning that come with change will energize them.

Let’s illustrate with an example:

Say you’re in a middle management role, such as a sales manager. Your team isn’t performing very well this quarter. It’s becoming a challenge for your mental health, productivity, and general well-being.

A manager with low workplace resilience is likely to crumble under pressure in this situation. This is going to have a negative impact on workplace culture and employee engagement. It may even further impact team performance.

You’re also likely to see that the manager’s lack of personal resilience affects team resilience.

A sales manager with a high degree of psychological resilience will likely overcome such a challenge with ease.

They'll shelter their team from pressures (where appropriate). They'll also bring in further workplace training or procedural efforts to get their team closer to expectations.

Workplace stress takes a massive toll on the American workforce.

It results in 120,000 premature deaths per year and makes up 5-8% of total annual national healthcare costs.

So, developing a resilient workforce is also important for influencing positive health outcomes.

Resilience in the workplace improves organizational and employee performance

In today’s organizations, resilience has become a key human trait required for peak performance. It's an increasingly important characteristic for organizations to cultivate in employees.

Research shows that resilience can be a powerful buffer.

It enables organizations to remain profitable and competitive, even during turbulent times.

In their book “The Agility Factor,” Williams, Worley, and Lawler highlight:

  • Organizational agility highly correlates with organizational resilience.
  • Both factors determine the adaptive capacity of an organization.
  • This adaptive capacity enables organizations to perceive and respond to changes quickly.

Resilience also shapes the way employees respond to and manage the stress of change.

BetterUp Labs found that employee resilience is associated with decreased stress. We also found that people with low resilience are four times more likely to experience burnout.

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Resilience is also associated with increased work engagement, job satisfaction, and organizational commitment. This is likely because people who are better able to bounce back from stress and adversity can apply those skills to the workplace.

Rather than giving up due to the inevitable setbacks they encounter in the course of their work, they’re able to carry on and focus on the big picture.

The importance of resilience in leaders

The resiliency of leaders impacts how they lead. It also impacts the performance and engagement of their teams.

We've found that when leaders experience stress, they engage in fewer leadership behaviors.

These include:

  • sharing optimistic visions of the future
  • setting ambitious goals
  • communicating confidence in reaching those goals

Leaders are also less likely to engage in fundamental management behaviors such as:

  • clarifying roles
  • designing goals
  • recognizing performance

Instead, stressed leaders are more likely to take a passive approach to leadership. They'll only get involved once there are performance problems. They might also avoid making decisions or taking responsibility altogether.

This can have a trickle-down effect on their teams. It influences employees’ attitudes and behaviors about work.

In contrast, resilient leaders are more likely to engage in leadership behaviors. This includes providing creative ideas, problem-solving, or encouraging others to contribute meaningfully.

What does resilience look like?

What makes some employees more resilient than others? What are their resilience examples?

It’s not that resilient individuals have fewer stressors at work. They are just better equipped to cope with the challenges they face.

A 2003 study highlights some characteristics that resilient people embody.

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These include:

  • Having a realistic sense of control over one's choices
  • Understanding the limitations over such control
  • Seeing change as an opportunity or challenge (rather than a setback)
  • Secure attachments with others and the ability to engage their support
  • Personal goals
  • Strong sense of humor
  • Patience
  • High tolerance of negative affect
  • Optimistic outlook
  • High level of adaptability

You can distill these characteristics even further:

Research shows that resilient employees engage in three specific behaviors. These help them remain focused and optimistic despite setbacks or uncertainty:

Emotional regulation

This skill involves the ability to watch, recognize, and respond to our emotions effectively, so they don’t impede our functioning.

Developing strong emotional regulation skills helps build resilience. It allows us to keep functioning through a wide variety of internal experiences, including those that are difficult.


For example, having the ability to notice when something a coworker says bothers you lets you pause and make a decision about how to respond.

Taking a few deep breaths and then calmly and logically addressing the issue is generally better than storming out of the room.

Self-compassion

This behavior focuses on bringing mindful, kind, and forgiving attention to our experience. It aims to reduce harsh self-criticism.

It can help support resilience because it helps us soothe difficult emotions and find sources of motivation.

For example, consider the reaction you might have if you are denied an internal transfer to an aspirational role.

Self-compassion allows us to recognize our disappointment, sadness, and insecurity as normal. We allow ourselves to feel it rather than beating ourselves up for both the failure and not being over it the next day.

This doesn’t mean wallowing, but it acknowledges and honors our humanness in a way that is ultimately strengthening.

Cognitive agility

This skill involves recognizing when our thinking about a situation has negative results. Then, we shift how we think about it in a way that benefits us.

It helps support resilience because it allows us to continue functioning regardless of the situation.

For example, consider a situation where your boss makes a big decision about your department that you disagree with. Perhaps they didn't consult with you first, and you feel they should have.

You might feel you’ve been disrespected or that your manager has purposefully left you out of the equation to get their way.

Cognitive agility allows us to consider all possible aspects of the situation. Perhaps they need to make a decision instantly, or maybe they don’t believe it’s an issue that concerns you, and you have a mismatch of expectations.

This kind of resilience will give you the ability to discuss such issues with decorum and openness to the other person’s viewpoint.

Of course, resilience applies not only to events such as this. You can also use it on a daily basis to navigate smaller uncomfortable or stressful situations.

For example, consider what happens when you realize you were left off a meeting invitation.

You can choose to tell yourself a story about an act of disrespect from your coworker. Or the story can be about the kind of annoying mistake you yourself also often make.

How to build resilience at work: a step-by-step guide

The good news? Resilience can be learned. In fact, BetterUp found that people low in resilience can see a 125% increase with just 3-4 months of coaching. Even throughout the COVID-19 crisis, our members grew in resilience by 17%.

How to build resilience? By understanding it.

Resilience is a factor of mind and body. It should be encouraging to know that, as important as resilience is, many of the resilience factors that drive it are within our power to change.

With that in mind, here are eight steps to start building your resilient foundation:

1. Pay attention to your health

People are 3.5 times more likely to be resilient when in good physical health. The relationship is bidirectional. While physical health supports resilience, resilience also leads to better physical recovery.

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2. Focus on your physical well-being

BetterUp found that employees that get adequate sleep are 4.2 times more likely to be resilient.

Sleep isn’t the only aspect that influences your resilience from a physical perspective. To improve your physical well-being and boost your resilience levels, focus on:

3. Practice relaxation techniques

Part of developing resilience is training the mind to stay relaxed, even in the face of stressful situations.

Here are a few ways you can practice relaxing:

  • Spend time with friends and family
  • Find activities that help you relax, like drawing, gardening, or cooking
  • Try out relaxation and meditation apps

4. Practice reframing threats as challenges

Cognitive appraisal is the way in which we view an event or situation — including its meaning and what is required to overcome it.

When we see something as a challenge, we recognize the possibility of growth. We also perceive that we have the resources to deal with that situation.

That view results in feelings of energy, anticipation, and excitement. These feelings tend to mobilize people for action and problem-solving.

When we see something as a threat:

  • We perceive that the situation is beyond our control
  • We develop fear, anxiety, and anger
  • We feel a fight or flight response

5. Mind your mindset

Our beliefs, attitudes, and mindsets influence our resilience.

For example, self-efficacy will determine whether we approach a situation with energy and vigor,  or if we withdraw and retreat. To a large degree, self-efficacy can be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Another important mindset is the extent to which we believe we have control over the outcome of our lives, a construct known as the locus of control.

People who believe they control their own outcomes are better able to cope with them rather than feeling victimized. People with an internal locus of control are six times more likely to be resilient.

Becoming aware of mindsets that don’t serve you is the first step to changing them.

6. Get connected

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The social support network that surrounds the person is one of the most important external resilience factors.

A person’s social network provides a buffer against the stresses on resilience.

This is because social support helps people manage stress. It’s also because social support helps people solve their challenges and find new opportunities.

In fact, one reason extroverted individuals tend to be more resilient may be because they are more likely to reach out to others when they need help.

When building resilience, you are raising the hood and tinkering with the processes of your own internal engine, after all. Most of us will benefit from support in building resilience.

7. Practice self-awareness

Paying attention to the stories and self-talk we do in our heads can help us recognize when our resilience is stressed, or we need some maintenance.

Make a point of noticing what you tell yourself to get an early warning that resilience is low.

8. Watch your stress levels

Everyone gets stressed from time to time. Some get overwhelmed by stress and let it impact their resilience. Others are highly tuned to recognize when they are becoming stressed and do something about it.

Aim to identify how you feel and act when you’re stressed and what helps you to de-stress, so that you can catch yourself before you spiral.

Don’t forget, though, that there are good kinds of stress too.

Building workplace resilience in your employees

Organizations have introduced a variety of L&D programs today aimed at helping employees better manage stress. Unfortunately, most are missing the mark.

Initiatives such as global wellness programs are beneficial to employees. The problem?

They don’t have the components or structure that support the development of meaningful and lasting behavior changes.

One-on-one coaching and mentoring tend to perform better than group-level training. It also outperforms computer-based training and train-the-trainer programs.

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These results support what we’ve seen working with organizations to build resilience. BetterUp has seen that after just three to four months of coaching:

  • Resilience increased by an average of 9%
  • Burnout decreased by 19%  
  • Stress decreased by 24%

Coaching is effective because it is personalized to the individual.

We all have traits and qualities that make us respond to stress in different ways. We all come from different circumstances and work contexts.

Coaches are able to meet employees where they are. They are better able to understand the whole person and help them develop skills in the context of their unique work situations.

Coaches also provide the needed support when doing the hard work of making changes.

How coaching builds resilience

Coaches can work with employees in many ways to help them develop skills that increase their resilience. Here are a few examples of interventions a coach would use to help an employee:

  • Teaching reframing techniques. How someone views an event is a significant contributing factor in resilience. Coaches can teach employees cognitive reframing techniques.

These will help them see the new possibilities in a situation. With this new perspective, employees are better able to bounce back, grow, and move through the challenge.

  • Providing social support. Social support is a critical factor in our capacity to bounce back from challenges, stress, or hardship. The trusting relationship between a coach and client can provide a source of social support for the client.

Coaches can also help clients build or draw on social networks from within the organization and outside support.

  • Developing strengths. Increasing an employee’s confidence and self-efficacy can create buffers against stress. Coaches help employees by highlighting their strengths and exploring how to use them to address challenges.

Building resilience starts now

Organizations can help equip their employees with the skills they need to adapt. Resiliency is key to creating an agile workforce. Employees also learn how not just to adjust but thrive in change.

Of course, building resilience in the workplace is not going to happen overnight. It is a trait that you need to develop over time.

So, if you’re looking to develop mental fitness and resilience, why not check out how BetterUp can help?

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Published August 9, 2021

Shonna Waters, PhD

Vice President of Alliance Solutions

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