There is a solution for work stress - building resilience


The pace of work does not seem to be easing, and while technological advances like AI and machine learning may help us, they could actually nudge employees into more complex tasks, which can add to our stress. More than ever, we need to learn to manage stress in the workplace.

Work - the word itself conveys the message of a “to-do” or task. It is no wonder then, that one in four people view their jobs as the number one stressor in their lives, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Some of us can adapt really well to extreme stress and personal setbacks. It doesn’t mean some employees have the ability to spectacularly ‘bounce forward’ – it is innate to us all. We just need to learn to harness it.

Austrian neurologist, psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Dr Viktor Frankl said, “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”

This is where resilience in the workplace comes in. Resilience is not the exclusive domain of a few brave individuals. Psychiatrist in private practice and head of the Healthcare Leadership MBA at the University of Stellenbosch Business School, Renata Schoeman, says: “Resilience is an intuitive response to stress and an adaptation innate to all humans. It’s a form of ‘ordinary magic’, in ordinary people, who somehow always manage to pull through.”

“It’s the common magic we see in so many people. No matter what life throws at them, they come out stronger and prove that resilience is about more than negotiating challenges and regaining ground – it’s what we call ‘bouncing back’. It’s also about ‘bouncing forward’. True resilience comes with a transformation and growth component,” says Prof Schoeman.

What is the key to harnessing the “magic”?

Writing in the Harvard Business Review, Rich Fernandez, the CEO of Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute says resilience isn’t about not failing, but rather, to fail, learn and thrive from that failure. “More than five decades of research points to the fact that resilience is built by attitudes, behaviours and social supports that can be adopted and cultivated by anyone,” he said.

He highlights that building resilience skills in the modern work context, which includes employees being hyperconnected and lightning-fast turnarounds expected, is a multifaceted process.

Fernandez shares tips such as:

  1. Exercising mindfulness. Mental training practices through apps and online tools, such as e-learning, can help build resilience needed to get through the work day. An example is to be able to remove the stress of the week’s workload, focusing 100% on what you need to do right now.
  2. Compartmentalise your cognitive load. While we can’t reduce the number of emails we receive, we can create a written list of what to do productively for the day and focus on them.
  3. Take detachment breaks. He suggests noticing your peak energy flows through the day and then maximising them. Often this means stepping away to refocus.
  4. Develop mental agility. Respond to rather than react to any difficult situation or person. “This quality of mental agility hinges on the ability to mentally “de-centre” stressors to effectively manage them. “Decentring” stress is not denying or suppressing the fact that we feel stressed - rather, it is the process of being able to pause to observe the experience from a neutral standpoint, and then to try to solve the problem,” says Fernandez.
  5. Cultivate compassion. One of the most overlooked aspects of the resilience skill set is the ability to cultivate compassion – both self-compassion and compassion for others. Individual, team and organisational success rely on a compassionate work culture. 

For employers, Fernandez says it is imperative to allow teams to learn resilience: “The ability to build resilience is a skill that will serve you well in an increasingly stressful work world. And companies stand to benefit from a more resilient workforce. Building an organisational culture that encourages and supports resilience training, just makes good business sense.”

Prof Schoeman adds that employees need to remember that: “Many resilient people have been through adverse life events that have built a sense of self-identity and self-esteem. They pause, do a reality check and remember, ‘I am okay, despite my circumstances’, ‘I have survived challenges before and I can take this on, adapt and cope. I will be fine. I will grow’.”

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