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How to build resilience: Why resilience is a top skill needed in today’s workplace

Workplace environments are at a breaking point. Employees are under enormous pressure to adapt continuously to new technologies, shifting priorities, and ways of working — and they aren’t equipped to keep up.

Why Resilience is a Top Skill Needed in Today’s Workplace

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What is resilience in the workplace?

Why is resilience in the workplace important?

Resilience improves organizational and employee performance

What difference does a resilient leader make?

Examples of resilient behavior

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

Building workforce resilience: 8 tips for leaders

Most successful learning and development interventions for building resilience

How coaching builds resilience

Resilience in the workplace: final thoughts

Often, neither are their organizations.

In my work as a researcher at BetterUp Labs, I have an opportunity to speak with business leaders across multiple industries about their biggest challenges. 

One constant theme — change at breakneck speed — has become the norm in business today, and it’s overwhelming our workforce.

But why do some people seem more able to cope than others when faced with workplace challenges? Why do some bend while others break?

This quality is known as resilience, and it comprises emotional and physical well-being, a positive outlook in the face of challenges, and higher levels of motivation and employee engagement.

A resilient workforce is happier and more productive. It can strengthen your organizational resilience against external shocks.

This article will examine the importance of workplace resilience and offer tips on how to cultivate greater resilience both personally and as a leader.

What is resilience in the workplace?

The American Psychological Association defines resilience as “the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress — such as family and relationship problems, serious health problems or workplace and financial stressors.” 

At BetterUp, we believe that resilience can help people not only recover from challenging experiences, but that it can also facilitate their growth and development. 

Data from our members shows that those experiencing higher change (stress) also experience higher growth.

Coping with change can be difficult for most of us. As humans, we are biologically wired to prefer routine, so we often focus on the negative during uncertain times. We also may not have developed the skills that can help us manage stress and navigate a stressful situation or unexpected challenge.

But change can actually offer the opportunity for employees to learn and develop — if they have the resilience to help them through. 

Consider the nature of a palm tree. Palm trees are able to weather storms because they have a stable foundation that enables them to flex with strong winds. 

They’re able to bend — but not break — despite the conditions.

Like the palm tree, employees who develop resilience factors can learn how to bounce back from change and even grow from difficulties and adversity.

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Why is resilience in the workplace important?

Given the rapidly-evolving needs and landscape of organizations, cultivating employees’ ability to not only bounce back but also grow from challenges and adversity is a key strategic priority. 

People perform better if they aren’t just keeping their heads above water or constantly needing to recover from extreme stress, but instead are energized by the opportunities for growth and self-learning that come with constant change.

Here are the top five reasons building workplace resilience is important.

1. Resilience improves employee well-being

Workplace stress takes a massive toll on the American workforce, resulting in 120,000 premature deaths per year and healthcare costs amounting to 5-8% of total annual national healthcare costs. 

Resilience as an individual psychological capacity can act as a buffer. Indeed, it is no accident that many leaders have successfully navigated enormous adversity or challenges in their past.

2. Resilience increases flexibility

Resilient people are more flexible and able to adapt to fast-paced environments and ever-changing circumstances.

Resilience helps employees maintain a positive attitude in the face of challenges, making them more able to adapt to new situations.

3. Resilience improves communication

Disagreements and personality clashes are inevitable within any team. 

Building resilience can help employees overcome differences and reduce negative feelings toward one another through more effective communication.

This improves overall team cohesiveness, boosts morale, and increases performance.

Plus, colleagues who are resilient are more likely to speak up and share their ideas, which can lead to innovation that can improve the organization’s results.

Organizations that fail to empower employees to communicate with management and contribute their ideas are potentially missing out.

4. Resilience leads to innovation

Resilience improves your team’s well-being, giving them a more positive approach to their work. This improves their problem-solving abilities and leads to innovation.

By contrast, employees who lack resilience are more likely to perceive challenges as threats, which inhibits their performance and ability to innovate.

Greater flexibility and improved team collaboration can also lead to higher levels of innovation — which is essential for any business to survive in today’s turbulent world.

5. Resilience reduces burnout

Burnout occurs when employees lose their passion and drive for their work — and 76% of them have experienced it at some point in their lives.

The cost of burnout for businesses is high — employees suffering burnout are 63% more likely to take a sick day and 23% more likely to need to go to the emergency room.

Employers should be on the lookout for presenteeism as an early sign of burnout.

Presenteeism is when a person is physically present but no longer mentally or emotionally engaged with their work.

It can lead to absenteeism, which costs money for your organization, reduces productivity, and reduces team morale.

why resilience in the workplace is important

Resilience improves organizational and employee performance

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

Research shows that resilience can be a powerful buffer that enables organizations to remain profitable and competitive even during turbulent times. 

In their book The Agility Factor, Williams, Worley, and Lawler highlight that organizational agility is highly correlated with organizational resilience, and together both factors determine the adaptive capacity of an organization. 

This adaptive capacity enables organizations to quickly perceive and respond to changes, whether it’s grabbing hold of a new business opportunity or addressing a potential threat.

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

BetterUp Labs found that employees with greater psychological resilience experience less stress, while people with low resilience are 4X more likely to burnout.

Workforce resilience is also associated with increased employee engagement, job satisfaction, and organizational commitment. 

This is likely because people who are better able to bounce back from stress and adversity apply those skills to the workplace as well. 

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.

What difference does a resilient leader make?

The resiliency of leaders impacts how they lead, which in turn affects the performance and engagement of their teams. 

BetterUp Labs has found that when leaders experience stress, they report engaging in fewer inspirational leadership behaviors, such as sharing optimistic visions of the future, setting ambitious goals, and communicating confidence in reaching those goals. 

Leaders are also less likely to engage in fundamental management behaviors, such as clarifying roles and goals and recognizing performance.

Instead, stressed leaders are more likely to take a passive approach to leadership, only intervening once there are performance problems or avoiding making decisions or taking responsibility altogether. 

This can have a trickle-down effect on their teams, influencing their attitudes and behaviors toward their work.

In contrast, our research shows that resilient leaders are more likely to engage in inspirational leadership behaviors, such as providing creative perspectives to help problem-solve or encouraging others to meaningfully contribute and participate.

Examples of resilient behavior

What makes some employees more resilient than others? 

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

Resilience requires emotional intelligence. Research shows that resilient employees engage in three behaviors that help them remain focused and optimistic despite setbacks or uncertainty.

Emotional regulation

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

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

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

Storming out of the room or responding in anger may be less desirable than taking a few deep breaths or addressing the issue.

Self-compassion

This behavior focuses on bringing mindful, kind, and forgiving attention to our experience rather than harsh self-criticism. 

It can help support resilience because it helps us soothe difficult emotions and harness powerful sources of motivation during challenging times.

For a resilience example, consider the reaction we might have to being denied an internal transfer to an aspirational role. 

Self-compassion allows us to recognize our own disappointment, sadness, and rush of insecurity as legitimate and 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 and shifting 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.

As an example of resilience, consider what happens when you realize you’ve been left off a meeting invitation. 

You can choose to tell yourself a story about an intentional act of disrespect from your coworker — or about the kind of annoying mistake you yourself too often make. 

Reframing your thinking to something that results in more positive emotions generally creates more possibilities.

examples of resilience

skills-high-performing-teams

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

The good news? Building resilience is possible. In fact, we found that people low in resilience can see a 125% increase with just three to four months of coaching. 

Even throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, our members grew in resilience by 17%. 

How can we go about developing 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 factors that drive it are within our power to change. 

With that in mind, here are six steps to start building your foundation.

1. Pay attention to your health

People are more likely to be resilient when in good physical health. The relationship is bidirectional. 

Research has found that while physical health supports resilience, resilience also leads to better physical recovery.

2. Get enough sleep

BetterUp Labs has found that employees that get adequate sleep are 4.2X more likely to be resilient.

So, how much sleep is enough? While it varies from person to person, the Sleep Foundation recommends a range of seven to nine hours per night for the average adult.

If you struggle with falling or staying asleep, consider incorporating a nighttime routine to help your body and mind wind down. 

Try to avoid screen time for at least two hours before you go to bed, and try a relaxing activity, such as reading, meditating, gentle stretching, or yoga.

3. Reframe threats as challenges

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

Challenge appraisals focus on the possibility of growth or benefit and the perception that we have the capacity and resources to cope with the situation. 

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

Threat appraisals involve the perception that the situation is beyond the person’s ability to handle and involve fear, anxiety, and anger, which tend to encourage people to go into fight, flight, or freeze mode. 

Threat perceptions tend to initiate an emotional coping response rather than a problem-solving response.

4. Manage your mindset

Resilience is influenced by our beliefs, attitudes, and mindsets. 

For example, self-efficacy will determine whether we approach a situation with energy and vigor or 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 with a more internal locus of control believe they control their own outcomes and are better able to cope with them rather than feeling victimized. 

People with an internal locus of control are 6X more likely to be resilient. Becoming aware of mindsets that don’t serve you is the first step to changing them.

5. Get connected

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

A person’s social network provides a critical buffer against the stresses on resilience, not only because the social support helps people manage stress, but also because strong connections help 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.

6. 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. Mindfulness training, such as meditation, can help you gain greater self-awareness.

While we can build resilience, these steps aren’t entirely straightforward. 

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.

Building workforce resilience: 8 tips for leaders

Leaders can help contribute to a more resilient workplace culture by helping their teammates build greater resilience.

1. Understand the 5 pillars of resilience

The first step to building a resilient workforce is to understand what resilience is. A useful way to conceptualize resilience is through the five pillars.

  1. Emotional well-being — The foundation of resilience
  2. Inner drive — This is what gives us self-motivation
  3. Future focus — Having a positive attitude helps improve problem-solving, the ability to accept failure and adversity, foresight, and vision.
  4. Relationships — A strong social network is important for resilience. In the workplace, people who have better relationships with colleagues are more resilient.
  5. Physical well-being — Colleagues suffering from poor physical health are likely to be less resilient.

2. Assess your team resilience

Consider asking your employees to complete an anonymous survey to assess their levels of workplace resilience and satisfaction, or include questions related to resilience and stress in your Health Risk Assessment.

The results will show you what impact the work environment has on your team and allow you to take measures to mitigate or eliminate stressors.

3. Build a culture of trust

When employees feel trusted, supported, and valued, they are more resilient to unexpected challenges.

Take care of your employees’ well-being, as this will not only help them feel supported, it will also increase productivity.

Empower your teammates by encouraging them to share their opinions and maintain open and honest communication.

Encouraging your colleagues to contribute their ideas can help improve motivation levels and inner drive, as well as improving their emotional well-being and future focus.

3. Create a resilient work environment

Employees value flexibility. In fact, 97.6% of remote workers say they would like to continue working remotely at least some of the time for the rest of their careers.

Remote workers are twice as likely to enjoy good mental health than those who don’t have remote work options, which makes them more resilient.

Creating a flexible work environment also communicates to your team that you trust them to do their work.

Giving your employees flexibility will improve their emotional well-being and increase their inner drive.

4. Provide support services

Employee support services you could provide include mental health support, coaching, or even access to medical care.

Knowing they are being taken care of will build your team’s resilience.

Support services can help with emotional and physical well-being, future focus, workplace relationships, and inner drive.

5. Promote autonomy

Letting your team members get on with their work without micromanaging will help them feel trusted and empowered. It can contribute to greater employee resilience.

When people feel empowered, it improves their emotional well-being, inner drive, relationships, and future focus.

6. Manage your team’s workload

Identifying when colleagues are overwhelmed and redistributing tasks where necessary is important for your team’s well-being and performance.

People don’t perform well when they are under too much pressure. It can lead to presenteeism and burnout.

As a leader, making sure your team can cope with their workload will help ensure their emotional and physical well-being, inner drive, relationships, and future focus.

7. Reward good work

Employees like to feel appreciated. Rewarding good work can keep motivation high and increase resilience.

Rewards can improve the emotional well-being of employees by helping them feel valued and appreciated while also increasing their inner drive.

8. Give resilience training

The image below shows the results of resilience training given to 115 entrepreneurs. 

It shows that resilience training reduces distress, fragility, and depression while leaving people energized, engaged, and fulfilled.

results of resilience training

Most successful learning and development interventions for building resilience

Organizations have introduced a variety of Learning and Development (L&D) programs today aimed at helping employees better manage stress — but most are missing the mark. 

Initiatives such as global well-being programs are beneficial to employees, but they don’t have the components or structure that support the development of meaningful and lasting behavior changes.

Based on a meta-analysis of 37 studies of resilience programs in organizations, research shows that individually-focused resilience development programs, such as one-on-one coaching and mentoring, tend to perform better than group-level training, computer-based training, and train-the-trainer programs.

These results support what we’ve seen working with organizations developing resilience. 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 different people respond to the same stressor in different ways, and we come from different circumstances and work contexts. 

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

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

How coaching builds resilience

Coaches can work with employees in multiple ways to help them develop skills that increase their workplace resilience. 

Here are a few examples of interventions a coach would use to help an employee.

Teaching reframing techniques

The way in which someone views an event — including its meaning, magnitude, and what is required to overcome it — is one of the most significant contributing factors in resilience. 

Coaches can teach employees cognitive reframing techniques, which 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

At both an individual and organizational level, 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 build these skills by highlighting their strengths and exploring how to use them to address challenges.

While the world of work won’t slow down, organizations can help equip their employees with the skills they need to adapt. 

Resiliency is key to creating an agile workforce — and helping employees learn how to not just adjust but even to thrive in change.

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Resilience in the workplace: final thoughts

Resilience is an essential quality for dealing with stressful situations at work and in any other area of life. 

People who are resilient have a positive attitude, which helps them problem-solve in challenging circumstances while also having the emotional and physical strength to bounce back from shocks.

While some people are naturally more resilient than others, resilience can be learned. 

Leaders should focus on cultivating their personal resilience as well as strengthening that of their teams.

Why not enlist the help of an expert BetterUp coach to build resilience in your team, increase productivity, and make your business more resilient to external shocks?