Building a Resilient Workplace: 5 Valuable Tools and Activities

Building resilience in the workplaceWhen Mark and Joanne were made redundant by their company, they were both in shock.

After the initial shock, Joanne reflects, “This is not about who I am— it’s the economy.” She immediately assesses her skills and the job market and updates her resume. After several unsuccessful applications, she lands a job.

Mark, however, remains angry, in shock and denial. “How could this happen to me? They never liked me.” His focus on failure rather than a pending opportunity left him feeling hopeless.

Although these opposing reactions are extremes, we have all been in similar situations, and at times reacted as both Mark and Joanne.

If stress defines who you are, and you feel it’s effect long after the event has passed, it is time to work on your resilience. After all, the ability to bounce back from life’s challenges and unforeseen difficulties provides you with mental protection from emotional and mental disorders (Rutter, 1985; 2012).

And yet, resilience is not fixed, and there is no limit on how much you can have.

The tools and activities set out in this article will help you develop the resilience to confront stressful events, feel less vulnerable, be more flexible, and overcome the challenges that form part of your life.

Before you read on, we thought you might like to download our 3 Resilience Exercises for free. These engaging, science-based exercises will help you to effectively deal with difficult circumstances and give you the tools to improve the resilience of your workplace.

You can download the free PDF here.

3 Examples of a Resilient Workplace

For the employee, workplace resilience provides essential support for mental wellbeing and optimizing performance (Robertson et al., 2015). While, for the overall organization, resilience absorbs the shock of unforeseen events, providing protection, and the ability to bounce back (Boin, 2013).

And yet, resilience—at an employee or organizational level—can be grown or learned, often in response to adverse situations.

 

Morgan Stanley

On the day of the terrorist attack, September 11, 2001, Morgan Stanley, the American multi-national bank, had 2,700 employees in the south tower of the World Trade Centre.

The first plane struck the north tower at 8:46 am. Morgan Stanley started to evacuate its staff, spread over 22 floors, only one minute later. By the time the second plane hit the south tower—at 9:02 am—their offices were almost deserted (Coutu, 2017).

How was a bank so well prepared for something that was, at that time, unthinkable?

However, this was not the first time the World Trade Centre had come under attack. After the bombing in 1993, senior management at Morgan Stanley set about implementing a detailed set of escape procedures and tested them endlessly.

The resilience they built into their organization saved thousands of employees’ lives.

 

Barclay’s Be Well program

Barclays plc is an international investment bank, headquartered in London, with over 85,000 employees worldwide.

In response to far-reaching transformations in the world of finance, the bank aims to ensure staff are not only ready but are capable of thriving in the face of change.

Over the last ten years, the bank has held a clear and bold objective: to make a positive impact on the performance, and more importantly, the lives of all who work there.

The Be Well program goes beyond teaching staff to cope with life’s challenges. It promotes mental and physical wellbeing, resilience, financial stability, social and family relationships, and even happiness.

Speakers from around the world are engaged to share health and resilience expertise, fitness technology is offered at reduced prices, and preventative health screening and online education are provided for free.

The bank is building resilience into its workforce, within and beyond the physical and virtual boundaries of its businesses.

 

Allbirds

In March 2020, in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, much of the world went into lockdown. The impact was profound.

While many businesses suffered, a few were able to pivot their operations and thrive.

But how?

Sustainable footwear company, Allbirds, was already in a good position when the pandemic hit. The San Francisco start-up had merged its online e-commerce inventories with those in-store. When the physical shops shut, staff were reassigned to meet the increasing demands of online ordering.

The impact on the business and its customers were minimal. Even the challenge of being unable to visit the shop physically was overcome by enabling customers to talk to staff through online video channels.

The company, with a healthy, growth mindset, proved sufficiently adaptable and resilient to tackle both immediate and long-term challenges.

 

Importance of Resilience at Work

stress in the workplaceStress is the norm in many work environments.

However, if left unchecked, it negatively impacts job performance, becomes detrimental to personal relationships, and makes us vulnerable to depression, anxiety, and burnout (Rees et al., 2015).

However, for some individuals—psychologists describe them as resilient—highly stressful environments appear to have no effect, and they can even be seen to thrive.

Aside from the advantage to the employee, workplace resilience also provides gains to the company’s operational performance. After all, building resilience in staff protects their health, reduces sickness, and supports consistent, higher quality performance.

It’s a win-win situation for any organization. But how do they do it?

Interventions promoting resilience, when introduced into high-stress workplaces, have been found to improve staff self-efficacy, optimism, job satisfaction, goal attainment, and productivity (Mcewen & Boyd, 2018).

We all can build resilient mindsets. It requires the right environment, suitable training, and the opportunity to overcome challenges.

For more on this, look into our article on eustress: What is eustress and how is it different than stress?

 

Resilience Training at the Workplace

Workplace resilience interventions have a positive impact on the lives of the workforce, improving their psychosocial functioning—the relationship between their mind, body, and the environment—and facilitating a growth mindset (Robertson et al., 2015; Rendon, 2015).

According to the Biopsychosocial Model of workforce resilience, there are three complementary elements involved in resilience: biological, environmental, and social (Rees et al., 2015).

Firstly, choose your parents wisely.

An individual’s biology predisposes their level of resilience and, subsequently, their vulnerability to mental health issues.

And yet, while we are unable to change our underlying genetics, we can transform the environmental and social elements in our lives to positively influence psychological variables that underpin resilience: neuroticism, mindfulness, self-efficacy, and coping.

Resilience in the workplace, and beyond, is multi-faceted and influenced by the presence, or absence, of many factors. Cultivating each can promote an individual’s ability to cope with pressure and the challenges of life.

 

Measuring Resilience of Employees

how to measure resilienceResilience is on a continuum.

The low end reflects a lack of ability to bounce back, while the high end indicates the ability to recover, and even thrive, following an adverse event (Joyce et al., 2018).

Measuring resilience allows us to understand how some people remain functionally stable, while others react poorly to acute and chronic stress.

And yet, measurement has its challenges.

Firstly, there is no consensus on a single theoretical framework for resilience, and secondly, how do you measure the ability to bounce back in the absence of a significant threat?

However, a 2011 review of 270 studies found that three tests, in particular, scored highly in psychometric qualities, internal consistency, and construct validity: CD-RISC, Resilience Scale for Adults (RSA), and the Brief Resilience Scale (Windle, Bennett, & Noyes, 2011).

Of the three, the widely used CD-RISC—a measure of personal competence, acceptance of change, secure relationships, and control influences— was recognized as a sound measure of resilience and practical for the workplace due to its speed of completion (Lauridsen et al., 2017).

 

3 Tools for Creating a Resilient Workplace

Resilience is not fixed; it is malleable (Robertson et al., 2015).

Places of work can build and strengthen employee coping by providing the right training and an appropriate environment.

 

Create an ‘Awareness of Pleasant and Unpleasant Events’ Calendar

Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) is a technique combining both CBT and mindfulness to

  1. better understand ‘thinking’ and its impact on feeling and,
  2. enhance awareness of moment-to-moment mental processes (Varvogli et al., 2011)

Observing our thoughts in the present—and not judging them—improves perceptual clarity, energy, and coping.

By asking yourself questions about both pleasant and unpleasant experiences and recording the answers, it is possible to experience thoughts more clearly, as they happen.

Answer the following questions Record your responses daily
What was the experience? |
Was it pleasant or unpleasant? |
Were you aware of the feelings during the experience? |
Describe how your body felt? |
What were your feelings, moods, and thoughts? |
What are your thoughts as you write? |

 

There are many other Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) tools, a form of MBSR, from which to choose.

 

Four-step Strengths-Based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) model

CBT directs the individual to solve existing problems by modifying dysfunctional or inaccurate thinking.

Padesky and Mooney’s four-step, strengths-based model, promotes the idea that there is no single path to increasing positive qualities and resilience (Padesky & Mooney, 2012).

Therapists work with clients to identify existing strengths and resilience in activities they enjoy, then determine how to apply them in other areas of their life.

Step 1 – Search for Strengths

  • Ask the individual to describe something they enjoy and perform regularly (perhaps daily.)
  • Once engaged and passionate, explore the obstacles that they overcome.
  • Identify a list of strengths they use to persist.

Step 2 – Construct a Personal Model of Resilience (PMR)

  • Using the strengths identified, the individual and therapist build a personal model of resilience.
  • They then turn specific strengths into general strategies.

Step 3 – Apply the PMR

  • Ask the client how they could use their PMR in other areas of their life.
  • Consider the problems they encounter and scan the PMR for strengths that will help them persist.
  • Focus remains on staying resilient rather than overcoming difficulties.

Step 4 – Practise Resilience

  • Identify real-world opportunities to apply the client’s PMR.
  • Imagine what resilience would look like and how it would feel.

The strengths-based model is a positive and pragmatic approach for clients to build a model of resilience based on existing strengths and successes to implement in areas where they may struggle.

For a more detailed description of the steps involved, review Padesky and Mooney’s Four‐Step Model to Build resilience.

 

The Best Possible Resilient Self

The Best Possible Resilient Self is a positive psychology intervention that asks you to visualize and record your best possible self in the future, having achieved what you set out to do (Carrillo et al., 2019).

This exercise—born out of seeing the benefits of writing about trauma—has been shown to increase positive mood and a sense of wellbeing.

Step 1 – Describe a challenging situation

  • Describe a future personal challenge, and what makes this difficult for you.

Step 2 – Visualize your best possible resilient self

  • Close your eyes and visualize bouncing back.
  • See yourself overcoming each aspect of the challenge.
  • How do you look and feel?

Step 3 – Describe your best possible resilient self

  • Write down and describe this version of yourself.
  • How does it feel to be the best version of you?
  • How were you behaving, and what were you thinking?

Step 4 – Interview your most resilient self

  • What would you ask this person?
  • What would it feel like to respond?

Step 5 – Reflection

  • How do you now feel about the challenge ahead?
  • What did you learn?
  • Do you feel more confident in your abilities?

There are many other strategies for coping and managing stress that we discuss in our article Stress Management Activities and Worksheets that will also positively influence resilience.

 

2 Useful Activities for Promoting Resilience

activities for promoting resilienceExecutives seek “high performance in the face of ever-increasing pressure and rapid change,” from both themselves and their staff (Loehr & Schwartz, 2018).

 

Developing Resilience through Pushing Physical Limits

Sports science has confirmed that aerobic exercise stresses the body and mind, and overcoming physical challenges builds coping skills and a resilience mindset.

In a 2016 paper, David Fletcher and Mustafa Sarkar propose a mental fortitude training program to develop resilience and sustained success. Based on work with Olympic athletes, it became clear that extreme physical challenges lead to positive behavioral change and psychological toughening (Fletcher & Sarkar, 2016).

And yet, you don’t need to be an elite athlete to see the benefits. Amateurs, following a six-month training regime for a first triathlon, significantly improved their mental toughness (Marshall et al., 2017)

The aphorism, “what doesn’t break me, makes me stronger,” may be an accurate one.

Regular exercise—pushing beyond one’s comfort limits—can transform a mindset, lead to growth, and enhanced resilience across multiple domains.

 

Motivation Promotes Resilience

Motivation—according to psychologists—is what maintains, sustains, directs, and channels your behavior over time (Ryan & Deci, 2018). In sport, motivation is seen as crucial to successful performance and helps an athlete maintain focus, energizing their performance, and directing their actions. Within the workplace, it creates a drive to deliver more, become better, and to overcome the challenges set.

The Self-Determination Theory of Motivation (SDT), proposed by Ryan and Deci, focuses on people’s inherent growth tendencies and innate psychological needs. It suggests that humans have an evolved propensity to realize their human capacities and attain healthy mental, social, and behavioral functioning.

Situations that enable satisfaction of basic psychological needs—relatedness, competence, and autonomy—reduce the likelihood of mental health issues while increasing a general sense of wellbeing.

And yet, motivation is also crucial to resilience.

Indeed, according to research, you are better able to respond to stress when you are motivated to perform an activity for its own sake—known as intrinsic motivation—rather than for external rewards (Weinstein et al., 2011).

If you want to become resilient, find something that motivates you.

Organizations must create environments that nourish an employee’s need to feel connected to what they are doing and with who they work. They must be given the tools and skills to become good at their job, and yet maintain their autonomy in decision-making.

 

A Take-Home Message

Merely surviving is not enough to succeed at the highest levels; humans must thrive on the pressure,” says David Fletcher and Mustafa Sarkar, in the Journal of Sport Psychology in Action (Fletcher & Sarkar, 2016).

Resilience frees the individual, and the organization, from paralysis in the face of adversity. It provides the means to flex in the face of challenge, objectively assess the problem, adapt, and adopt new ways of thinking and working.

The benefits of a resilient workplace to the organization are far-reaching. An employee able to cope with change, and obstacles, in both home and work life, can perform better and more consistently.

In work, seek out activities that feed your basic psychological needs. Find new tasks and opportunities to increase your sense of autonomy, strengthen your relationships with people you work with, and increase competence through experience and learning.

Outside of work, build resilience in an environment that you are passionate about, and motivated to overcome challenges in, then identify strengths and skills and re-use elsewhere.

The tools and activities we shared will help you build resilience – both as an employee and a member of the wider society—and enhance your ability to bounce back.

Thank you for reading.

We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our 3 Resilience Exercises for free.

If you wish to learn more, our Realizing Resilience Masterclass© is a complete, science-based, 6-module resilience training template for practitioners and employers that contains all the materials you’ll need to help your clients and colleagues overcome adversity in a more resilient way.

 

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About the Author

Jeremy Sutton, Ph.D., is a writer and researcher studying the human capacity to push physical and mental limits. His work always remains true to the science beneath, his real-world background in technology, his role as a husband and parent, and his passion as an ultra-marathoner.

Comments

  1. Steven Hughes

    That was a great article Jeremy – “3 Examples of a Resilient Workforce.” I learned some new information and it validated some things I learned previously.

    Reply

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