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Understanding Individual vs. Workplace Resilience

Assessing workplace resiliency using a systemic approach.

Key points

  • Well intentioned employee resiliency programs miss the mark because they fail to take a systemic approach.
  • The lines between individual resilience and a resilient workplace have become blurred.
  • Burnout, absenteeism, and high turnover rate are all symptoms of a bigger problem.
  • Using a systemic approach can provide the company with a roadmap for success.

“I am resilient, I went to medical school, don’t fix me, fix them.” This was recently stated to me at a resilience training for physicians. Similar words have been thought or stated by other employees tired of another wellness program they have been "asked" to attend. Under the great resignation, there has been an increased awareness and investment by companies on employee wellness programs. While well intentioned, they often miss the mark.

There has been much written and researched about individual resiliency, especially since COVID first appeared on the scene. The lines between individual resilience and a resilient workplace have become blurred. For that reason, it is necessary to differentiate between individual resilience and a resilient workplace.

Resiliency is the ability to bounce back and withstand life stressors. This ability has mostly been measured in terms of individual resilience. However, when it comes to teams and organizations such as sports, the term “resilience” also appears. For example, the story of the 1969 Mets and the 1980 USA Hockey “Miracle on Ice Team” are examples of how the respective teams defied the odds to “win it all.” But when it comes to work, much of the research and literature focuses on individual employee resilience as opposed to overall workplace resilience.

A resilient workplace is one where an individual's own resilience is facilitated or strengthened, such that the organization, as a whole, responds to challenges in a resilient manner. A resilient workplace potentiates the inherent resiliency of the employee so that there is less burnout, reduced absenteeism and more production.

Without assessing the resiliency of the organization as a whole, an employer is wasting dollars and time by not assessing the root cause of turnover, absenteeism, burnout and quiet quitting. Providing resiliency training to organizations without measuring their baseline resiliency and their work environment makes little sense. High turnover rate, burnout, absenteeism and poor performance are only symptoms of systemic issues that should be assessed and addressed for organizations to get to the root of the problem. From there, a customized resilience program that focuses on the needs within the organization can be developed.

With a multilevel approach, resilience can be measured in terms of the three domains: Individual resiliency, occupational mindset and workplace wellness.

Individual Resiliency

Individual resilience is the ability to overcome challenges. We are innately resilient. As we progress through life we are faced with stressors that may threaten our ability to bounce back. Alternatively, each challenge has the potential for growth and hence bolster our resiliency. However this growth is mediated by our current environment, genetics and previous life experiences.

The research on Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) supports this claim. The original ACE study and decades of research have linked ACEs to an increased risk of developing chronic diseases and behavioral challenges, including obesity, autoimmune disease, depression and alcoholism. The greater the number of ACEs, the greater the risk for negative outcomes

Many of these Adverse Childhood Experiences can morph into trauma related experiences. This is especially true when an adult is faced with a trauma that alters the way they perceive events, which in turn, can make them less resilient. However, research has shown that traumatic life experiences can make us more resilient, if approached therapeutically.

We all have stories that embody individual resilience. Individual resilience is important to be measured as it represents the individual potential and ability to overcome adversity. However, behavior is context dependent and although the individual might consider themselves individually resilient, there are situational factors such as their respective occupation and workplace that impact job performance.

As the outside world can influence development, evolution also plays a role in testing our resilience. At one time, it was a benefit to our survival to carry with us the worry gene. Anticipating the worst was necessary when we were considered easy prey by faster and larger predators. Those who were apt to worry sought shelter and survived.

While our mortality may no longer be threatened daily, fear of losing things such as shelter, family, income, job, friends and reputation can still arise from the same flight or fight emotions. iWe also know this type of chronic stress undermines our physical and mental health.

Occupational Mindsets

Our individual resilience is constantly being tested by the outside. The ability to overcome internal and external stressors is evident as we mature and seek an occupation. The pursuit of an occupation comes with its own challenges. For example, a law school education involves reading case law involving unforeseen or negative consequences. Not surprisingly, this can awaken the “worry gene.” Once the law student becomes a lawyer, his success is often predicated on how he or she prepares or protects clients from anticipated negative consequences. Not surprisingly, this mindset might make them a “better lawyer,” if this trickles down to how they view the world, it will impair their resiliency.

Mindsets that undermine resiliency are identified as occupational mindset hazards and are not unique to the practice of law. Every occupation comes with a unique set of occupational mindsets that need to be assessed and identified. For example, a correctional officer has to be hypervigilant and anticipate the worst. Many correctional officers spend more time incarcerated than in the community. How can it be expected that the occupational mindsets learned on the job can be shut off once they come home?

Research has demonstrated that having healthy relationships and being optimistic can improve resiliency. If being hypervigilant and anticipating negative consequences is necessary to the successful performance of the occupation, how likely will the individual be able to be positive and develop healthy relationships? There is a reciprocal relationship between individual resiliency and the world in which the individual performs his occupation. For that reason, they must be assessed as separate and distinct. Workplace Wellness

Workplace Wellness

In addition to occupational mindset hazards, where the occupation is performed can also affect workplace resilience. A resilient workplace promotes high quality performance (hence increased profitability and productivity) and an employee thriving, in terms of motivation to work and wellness. In fact, rather than being antithetical aims, high-quality employee motivation and wellness can contribute to long-term organizational health, customer satisfaction and loyalty, increased productivity, and financial success, as the research supports and bears evident.

Psychological Safety is a phenomenon in which the employee feels that he will not be punished or embarrassed for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes. Psychological safety has demonstrated to improve team performance, reduce turnover and improve the overall health of the employee.

Self-Determination Theory (SDT) is a psychological framework that focuses on human motivation and how it can influence behavior, performance, and well-being. It proposes that individuals have innate psychological needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness, and when these needs are satisfied, people are more likely to experience greater motivation, engagement, and overall well-being.

Employee resiliency programs are important. However, a "once size fits all approach" fails to consider the all of the inherent and workplace stressor within the organization. By redefining resiliency, companies and communities can find true success.

More from Robert Goldman J.D., Psy.D.
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