5 Ways to Boost Your Resilience at Work

Currently, a quarter of all employees view their jobs as the number one stressor in their lives. 

Many of us now work in constantly connected, always-on, highly demanding work cultures where stress and the risk of burnout are widespread. Since the pace and intensity of contemporary work culture are not likely to change, it’s more important than ever to build resilience skills to effectively navigate your worklife.

More than five decades of research point to the fact that resilience is built by attitudes, behaviors and social supports that can be adopted and cultivated by anyone. 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. The good news is that because there is a concrete set of behaviors and skills associated with resilience, you can learn to be more resilient.

Bring your best self to work.

Building resilience skills in the contemporary work context doesn’t happen in a vacuum, however. It’s important to understand and manage some of the factors that cause us to feel so overwhelmed and stressed at work. It’s clear that 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. The current and rising levels of stress in the workplace should be cause for concern, as there is a direct and adverse relationship between negative stress, wellness and productivity.

One important distinction to note is that not all stress is created equal and there are even some types of stress that may also have a positive effect on our well-being and productivity. “Good stress,” or what is sometimes known as “eudaemonic stress,” (derived from the Greek word “eudaemonia,” or flourishing) indicates that some types of stress can make us healthier, motivate us to be our best, and help us perform at our peak. A useful way to think about it is that stress is distributed on a bell-shaped curve. Once past the peak or high performance apex where stress motivates us, we experience the unhealthy effects of stress which, if sustained over time, lead not only to burnout but also to chronic disease.

So how can we develop resilience and stay motivated in the face of chronic negative stress and constantly increasing demands, complexity and change? 

Here are some tips.

Exercise mindfulness. People in the business world are increasingly turning their attention to mental training practices associated with mindfulness. In dynamic work environments, organizational psychologists Erik Dane and Bradley Brummel found that mindfulness facilitates job performance, even after accounting for all three dimensions of work engagement – vigor, dedication and absorption. Online mindfulness programs decreasing employee stress, while improving resiliency and work engagement, thereby enhancing overall employee well-being and organizational performance.

How can you or your team start bringing mindfulness into the rhythms and routines of your daily work? 

Implementing multimodal learning and skill development solutions — including a combination of mobile learning, onsite training, webinars, and peer-to-peer learning networks promotes the greatest chance for mindfulness to become a core competency within an organization.  Participants report statistically significant improvements in resilience, and say that mindfulness tools and content delivered in these ways are highly useful for managing stress, improving collaboration and enhancing well-being.

Compartmentalize your cognitive load. 

We receive 11 million bits of information every second, but the executive, thinking centers of our brain can effectively process only 40 bits of information, according to Shawn Achor, co-founder of the Institute for Applied Positive Research and author of The Happiness Advantage. One practical way to think about this is that though we can’t decrease the amount of information we receive (in our inboxes, for example), we can compartmentalize our cognitive tasks to optimize the way we process that information.

Create dedicated times in the day to do specific work-related activities and not others much the way you might create a dedicated time for physical exercise in the course of your day. This approach may be overly regimented for some, but it creates the optimal set of conditions for us to effectively process information and make quality decisions while decreasing cognitive load and strain.

Take detachment breaks. 

Throughout the workday, it’s important to pay attention to the peaks and valleys of energy and productivity that we all experience, what health psychologists call our ultradian (hourly) as opposed to our circadian (daily) rhythms. Mental focus, clarity and energy cycles are typically 90-120 minutes long, so it is useful to step away from our work for even a few minutes to reset energy and attention. Evidence for this approach can be seen in the work of Anders Ericsson, who found that virtuoso violin players had clearly demarked practice times lasting no more than 90 minutes, followed by breaks in between.

Research suggests that balancing work activity with even a brief time for detaching from those activities can promote greater energy, mental clarity, creativity and focus, ultimately growing our capacity for resilience throughout the course of the workday. The long-term payoff is that we preserve energy and prevent burnout over the course of days, weeks and months.

Develop mental agility. 

It is possible — without too much effort — to literally switch the neural networks with which we process the experience of stress in order to respond to rather than react to any difficult situation or person. This quality of mental agility hinges on the ability to mentally “decenter” stressors in order to effectively manage them.

“Decentering” 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.

When we are able to cognitively take a step back from our experience and label our thoughts and emotions, we are effectively pivoting attention from the narrative network in our brains to the more observational parts of our brains.

Being mentally agile, and decentering stress when it occurs, enables the core resilience skill of “response flexibility,” which reknowned psychologist Linda Graham describes as “the ability to pause, step back, reflect, shift perspectives, create options and choose wisely.

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. According to research cited by the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, compassion increases positive emotions, creates positive work relationships, and increases cooperation and collaboration. Compassion and business effectiveness are not mutually exclusive. Rather, individual, team and organizational success rely on a compassionate work culture.

Finally, it is now possible to conclude that a broad set of skills and behaviors that enable resilience in the workplace are a good return on investment. 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 organizational culture that encourages and supports resilience training just makes good business sense.