Resilience in the Workplace

November 15, 2022
  • Private Banking
BBH Senior Wealth Planner Ross Bruch explores the two ways businesses and other organizations can create a resilient staff: growing resilience within an organization’s existing workforce and hiring candidates that demonstrate resilient character traits.

Success requires persistence, the ability to not give up in the face of failure.



Coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic, employers face an unprecedented environment as they try to rebuild and strengthen office culture, employee teamwork, and overall morale. Many of these same organizations spent the past three years navigating the increased employee discord and burnout that fueled the workplace phenomenon commonly referred to as the Great Resignation. While pandemic-related disruptions have diminished from their peak, employers will continue to face the difficult task of trying to improve worker satisfaction and engagement for years to come. Although the pandemic may have exacerbated the problem, studies show that worker dissatisfaction and malaise were on the rise long before offices were forced to shut down in early 2020.1

A quick internet search for “solving worker burnout” produces a long list of activities and tasks to engage in to reduce stress, anxiety, and exhaustion. Generally, scientific research supports the idea that many of these self-care type suggestions may be useful in making improvements to one’s overall well-being.2 However, the use of these tools is only part of the equation. They may provide individuals with small positive boosts in an attempt to minimize stress and anxiety, but typically do not single-handedly offer the degree of help that is necessary to combat significant professional obstacles, dissatisfaction, and negative mindsets that currently plague some office cultures. If organizations wish to rebuild their workforces to be more productive, engaged, and satisfied than ever, they should find ways to foster a key component of well-being in their staff: resilience.

Resilience is a difficult concept to define because it has a wide variety of applications and because individuals exhibit it in different ways – it can manifest as a trait, a process, or an outcome, for example. Many think of resilience as the ability to bounce back from hardship or adapt well in the face of adversity or stress. That is part of resilience, but its importance and usefulness are often more extensive. Resilience inspires us to engage in problem-solving, remain task-focused, and not ignore or avoid difficult issues. It encourages us to build an optimistic mindset – one in which we can focus on a positive (yet realistic) future. And it helps us emerge from adversity stronger and more resourceful. In other words, resilience is a trait that appears to help workers avoid burnout and malaise. Thus, the best way for employers to reduce staff turnover and increase productivity and drive in the coming years may not be through attempts to improve general well-being, but instead by developing a highly resilient workforce. This is an important distinction because finding ways to minimize stress is often reactionary, while building resilience is a proactive step toward avoiding the issues in the first place.

Let’s explore the two ways businesses and other organizations can create a resilient staff: growing resilience within an organization’s existing workforce and hiring candidates that demonstrate resilient character traits.

Growing Resilience

Resilience is not something that can be easily created or stumbled upon. While some individuals possess greater amounts of resilience, often due to learning how to successfully navigate adversity and challenges early in life, most people need to work hard to improve their resilience. Luckily, this is not an impossible task – resilience can be both taught and learned. Yet even with the guidance of a parent, mentor, or coach, developing resilience requires hard work and a basic understanding of its core components. The University of Pennsylvania’s Resilience Program, led by Dr. Karen Reivich, co-author of the book “The Resilience Factor,” has identified six resilience competencies that are capable of contributing to greater resilience:3

  • Optimism is the ability to expect a positive outcome. This often incorporates an understanding of what can and cannot be controlled. Optimistic people are able to focus on the fact that even in difficult situations, things are likely to improve in time – and that belief can be powerful in helping them cope with and adjust to hardship. The key to this competency is that it is based in a positive yet realistic outlook. Being overly or unrealistically optimistic about the world inevitably leads to greater disappointment and dissatisfaction if events do not turn out well.

     

  • Mental agility is the ability to view a situation through the lens of different perspectives and to think creatively and flexibly. Gaining a different viewpoint over a negative situation can help an individual challenge his or her own negative thoughts as well as find new solutions to a problem, thereby providing a greater likelihood for a positive outcome.

  • Self-awareness is the ability to understand the existence and causes of one’s own thoughts, emotions, and reactions. In order to address negative, stressful, and anxious emotions, one must first recognize that he or she has them and identify the cause of these feelings. 

  • Strengths of character is the ability to understand what one’s top character strengths are and how to use them to overcome challenges and grow as an individual. While it may be tempting to work to improve weaknesses, resilient people tend to focus on what they’re best at and use those strengths to their advantage, especially when faced with adversity.

     

  • Self-regulation is the ability to change one’s thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. Static thoughts and beliefs are detrimental to resilience because they tend to get individuals “stuck” in a negative or incorrect mindset. Without the ability to adjust and adapt to new information, it is extremely difficult to manage difficult situations.

     

  • Connection is the ability to build and maintain strong relationships. A strong network of support is a key feature of many resilient individuals – they recognize that they do not have to work through adversity alone and know when to turn to others for assistance.

Developing these competencies in a way that can help with stress management and reduction is a much more extensive and time-consuming process than other self-care style responses to stress, but the results of such work are also far more profound. It is not necessary to master all six competencies to increase resilience, but it is important to recognize that simply identifying and defining these factors for employees is not enough to single-handedly improve their resilience. These components need to be explored in-depth so individuals understand how to develop these factors consistently and independently. If an employer does not have staff members who are capable of delivering this information in an understandable, informative format (workshops, training sessions, webinars, and so forth), it may be helpful to develop programming for employees using outside instructors and coaches.

Hiring for Resilience

Although improving the resilience within an organization is possible through training, another way to increase resilience is by hiring individuals that exhibit some or all of these traits prior to starting a new job. As employers begin to fill new or recently vacated roles within their organizations, they have a unique opportunity to add resilience to the characteristics they look for in successful candidates. Similar to other popular employment screening tools that examine important hiring factors such as IQ, EQ, personality traits, and character strengths, various resilience-focused questionnaires may be helpful additions to an organization’s hiring process. But even without a formal evaluation tool, it is possible to use questions within the interview process to assess candidates’ resilience.

Of course, asking candidates direct questions about their perceived resilience is unlikely to result in insightful answers. Instead, interviewers may ask questions that highlight aspects of the six resilience competencies listed above, such as:

  • Can you tell me about a time that changing your perspective helped you find a better solution to a problem or a question?
  • Has a colleague, advisor, or client ever changed your mind about a belief you had? How did that affect your work?
  • Can you give me an example of a time you needed to rely upon your colleagues to complete a difficult task?
  • How do you handle being asked to take on assignments you know are outside of your current skill set?

None of these questions will provide an absolute assessment of candidates’ resilience, but they should help inform employers how such candidates will respond to challenging and stressful workplace situations.

Resilience may not be the top quality an employer looks for in candidates. However, including this trait in hiring criteria or building it within existing employees through additional training and education will better situate organizations to navigate uncertain working environments for years to come.

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1 Farrell, Chris. “Farrell: Burnout, on the Rise before Pandemic, Now a Major Trend at Workplaces.” Star Tribune. November 6, 2021. https://www.startribune.com/farrell-burnout-on-the-rise-before-pandemic-now-a-major-trend-at-workplaces/600113611/
2 “Coping with Stress at Work.” American Psychological Association. October 14, 2018. https://www.apa.org/topics/healthy-workplaces/work-stress.  
3 “Resilience Skill Set.” Positive Psychology Center. The University of Pennsylvania. Accessed October 11, 2022. https://ppc.sas.upenn.edu/resilience-programs/resilience-skill-set. For more on the how and why of regularly flexing and exercising your resilience skills, particularly during challenging times, read our interview with Dr. Reivich, “Why Resilience Is so Critical Today: A Conversation with Karen Reivich, Ph.D.

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