The Importance of Resilience

Ahead of our CPD session at the University of Sheffield with the excellent John Hotowka we reflect on this increasingly important skill…

Defining Resilience

Let’s start at the beginning, what is resilience? Dictionary definitions include terms such as flexibility, durability, strength and speed of recovery.

One of the simpler definitions of resilience is “a person’s capacity to respond to pressure and the demands of daily life.” Another definition states, “Resilience is a person’s ability to bounce back from and grow and thrive during challenge, change, and adversity.” An implication in this definition, and others, is that bouncing back is not enough on its own, but that employees today must develop strategies so that future stressors don’t have as much of an impact.

The term “bouncing back” is often used to describe resilience, and this old school, “pull your socks up” approach can underplay the struggles that an individual must endure to emerge stronger from a stressful situation, and the challenges to be overcome in changing our behaviour and attitudes.

The scale of the problem, though, needs to be recognised as well. Currently, according to the Harvard Business Review, a  quarter of all employees view their jobs as the number one stressor in their lives, and the World Health Organization describes stress as the “global health epidemic of the 21st century.” How many of us work in constantly connected, always-on, highly demanding work cultures where stress and the risk of burnout are widespread…or feel like we do.

Worse, stress and burnout related to the increasing pace and intensity of work are on the rise globally. A survey of over 100,000 employees across Asia, Europe, Africa, North America, and South America found that employee depression, stress and anxiety accounted for 82.6% of all emotional health cases in Employee Assistance Programs in 2014, up from 55.2% in 2012. Also, a recent large-scale, longitudinal survey of over 1.5 million employees in 4,500 companies across 185 countries conducted as part of the Global Corporate Challenge found that approximately 75% of the workforce experienced moderate to high stress levels — and more specifically, that 36% of employees reported feeling highly or extremely stressed at work, with a further 39% reporting moderate levels of workplace stress.

Since the intensity of contemporary work culture is unlikely to change, the importance of building personal resilience is only going to become more important. We have referenced the future skills identified by the World Economic Forum before (read the article here) and one of them is Emotional Intelligence. Guess what, one aspect of Emotional Intelligence is resilience.

Resilient People

The good news is that although some people seem to be born with more resilience than others, those whose ‘natural’ resilience is lower can learn how to increase their ability to manage stressful situations, take back control and thrive at work.

Over five decades of research strongly suggests that resilience is built by attitudes, behaviours and social supports. Factors that lead to resilience include optimism; the ability to stay balanced and manage strong or difficult emotions; a sense of safety and a strong social support system. Developing resilience can be a challenging personal journey, but anyone can do it.

It is helpful to know therefore what resilient people look like. Typically, a resilient person:

  • is self-aware and able to recognise when pressure is causing a problem
  • has a sense of purpose and direction
  • takes a positive outlook on things and has confidence in their own abilities
  • makes connections to other people
  • has strategies to cope with in-the-moment pressure and long-term pressure
  • grows and develops

Strategies to Become More Resilient

To achieve the above requires taking positive action, being resilient is not a passive activity. The following set of actions are only scratching the surface of how to build resilience:

  • Nurture social support, interaction and networks. Good relationships with family, friends and others are vital. This includes being active in the wider community. If you are more of an introvert or isolated by geography or circumstances then there are also specialist websites and organisations; for example, The Stress Management Society  offers information about stress and provide techniques for coping.
  • Celebrate success. Take time at the end of each day to review what went well, no matter how minor, and congratulate yourself. This has the added benefit of training the mind to look for success rather than dwelling on negativity and ‘failure’.
  • Develop realistic life goals. This gives you a sense of purpose, but make sure you do something each day to move towards them. Again, small is beautiful; one small step amid the chaos of a busy day will help. The key here, though, is ‘realistic’. By all means be ambitious, but if you are not realistic then you are setting yourself up to fail.
  • Take positive action. Doing something in the face of adversity brings a sense of control, even if it doesn’t remove the difficulty. If you can, practise being straightforward and assertive in communicating with others. If people are making unreasonable or unrealistic demands on you, be prepared to tell them how you feel and say no.
  • Reinforce a positive view of yourself. Developing confidence in your ability to solve problems and trusting your instincts helps to build resiliency. Learning to be kinder to yourself in general can help you control the amount of pressure you feel in different situations, which can help you feel less stressed. Try to remember that nobody’s perfect and putting extra pressure on yourself doesn’t help.
  • Keep a realistic perspective. Place challenging or painful events in the broader context of lifelong personal development.
  • Practice optimism. Nothing is either wholly good or bad. If we allow our thinking to dictate how we view something it will take over. Make your thinking work for your benefit.
  • Use relaxation techniques. You may already know what helps you relax, like having a bath, listening to music or taking your dog for a walk. If you know that a certain activity helps you feel more relaxed, make sure you set aside time to do it.
  • Look after your body. Get enough sleep, be active and eat healthily. 
  • Exercise mindfulness. Fostering a mental state by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations, can be a powerful therapeutic technique.

Finally, if you work with, or for, those of a more ‘old school’ approach then you can explain that a broad set of skills and behaviours that enable resilience in the workplace are a good return on investment. A study published by PwC in 2014, found that initiatives and programmes that fostered a resilient and mentally healthy workplace returned $2.30 for every dollar spent — with the return coming in the form of higher productivity, lower absenteeism and decreased turnover. Proof, for those that neeed it, that companies stand to benefit from a more resilient workforce and building an organisational culture that encourages and supports resilience training just makes good business sense.

Remember, the ability to build resilience is a skill that will serve you well in an increasingly stressful world.

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