Building workplace resilience (1 of 2)

Written by William Campbell

For the time in my professional career, I took an extended vacation. Not quite a sabbatical, but definitely more than your average week or two off. Everyone asked, “Where are you going?” People expected me to be sitting on the beach drinking a beer and reading. Don’t get me wrong; that would have been delightful. However, I needed this time to engage in something different from rest. I needed to build resilience. This quote from Christian preacher, Barbara Brown Taylor, was in my automatic email response:

“At least one day in every seven, pull off the road and park the car in the garage. Close the door to the toolshed and turn off the computer. Stay home, not because you are sick but because you are well. Talk someone you love into being well with you. Take a nap, a walk, and hour for lunch. Test the premise that you are worth more than you can produce – that even if you spent one whole day of being good for nothing you would still be precious in God’s sight. And when you get anxious because you are convinced that this is not so – remember that your own conviction is not required. This is a commandment. Your worth has already been established, even when you are not working. The purpose of the commandment is to woo you to the same truth.”

The last year had been one of the more challenging periods of my professional life in a while. Though I did my best to manage expectations, create boundaries, build support systems, and prioritize my most essential work commitments, I was still spent. I was a man running on fumes who didn’t have the time to find a gas station. Being in this state was not only damaging to my physical health (I gained over 40 lbs), but also my mental health. It’s important to name this because I love my work. Even in the best organizations, you can come under challenging circumstances. In fact, this is the state of affairs in much of modern workplaces. With the advancement of technology and increased globalization, the pace of change is increasing so rapidly that individuals find themselves incapable of coping. I notice that many of us, especially in non-profits, understand the importance of boundaries and work-life balance, yet still, workplace adversity might crumble our best laid plans.

So what is resilience?

The APA defines resilience as: “the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress — such as family and relationship problems, serious health problems or workplace and financial stressors. It means “bouncing back” from difficult experiences.”

Often resilience is discussed in the context of social trauma or terrorizing. We don’t apply it as much to the workplace. But even in the most positive workplaces, people face significant adversity. Whether it comes in the form of failure, organizational change, or crippling stress, workers need to be capable of handling adversity. Research shows that resilience is not a personality trait but something that is developmental. We can build it. In fact, we might have resilience for one set of stressors and none for a different set.

To be clear – the need to cope with adversity is not the sign of an unhealthy workplace. It might be, but I must reiterate – this is essential for ALL workplaces. I spent the three weeks of my time off both researching and practicing exercises to rebuild my resilience. Much of this blog is about how rural spaces have reactivated my own sense of self, and though this post is not explicitly about rural experiences, it connects through the thread of rest and how our environment affects us. In this post and the next, I want to highlight methods for building resilience that are grounded in evidence-based models.

1. Find where you do have control

One of the most common reactions to workplace adversity is to ask, “Why is this happening to me?” Marigolis and Stoltz describe this as victimization. We see ourselves as helpless and passive recipients to organizational change happening around us. This quickly leads to “they” storytelling. “They” did this. “They” don’t understand what I do. “They” don’t respect me. “They” don’t see how hard I am working. In reality, situations might often have little to do with us, and our personalizing it is contributing to increased stress. Victimization fuels a sense of helplessness. Through their research, they did find that the people who experienced consistent pain and stress who didn’t slip into helplessness had learned how to understand their own control and power in a situation (no matter how insignificant that might actually be). Marigolis and Stoltz encourage people to identify ways they have control in the situation to enact positive force. They identify three types of questions: Specifying, Visualizing, and Collaborating.

“Specifying: What aspects of the situation can I directly influence to change the course of this adverse event?

Visualizing: What would the manager I most admire do in this situation?

Collaborating:Who on my team can help me, and what’s the best way to engage that person or those people?”

Of course, we might not have the ability to exert control over the situation, but by asking these questions, individuals have trained their minds to build longer term resilience. By asking these questions, people open mental options that weren’t previously available to them when they accepted their situation as fate. Furthermore, these questions understand that others might have the ability to help us.

The authors go on to talk more about understanding impact, breadth and duration to better manage challenging situations. Read more here.

2. Building mental toughness

If you’re anything like me, when something bad happens around you, your first reaction is to say, “What did I do wrong?” Though I know it is ridiculous, I will always assume my own fault first. Martin Seligman, often considered the father of positive psychology, writes about a workplace resilience training based off research around supporting soldiers in responding to trauma. Mental toughness is the cornerstone of his training, consisting of various exercises such as minimizing catastrophic thinking and identifying thinking traps like over-generalization. The most interesting aspect of this training, though, is about how one’s emotional response to adversity comes not from the adversity itself, but from ones beliefs about the adversity. He talks about using Albert Ellis’s ABCD model:

“C (emotional consequences) stem not directly from A (adversity) but from B (one’s beliefs about adversity). The sergeants work through a series of A’s (falling out of a three-mile run, for example) and learn to separate B’s—heat-of-the-moment thoughts about the situ- ation (“I’m a failure”)—from C’s, the emotions generated by those thoughts (such as feeling down for the rest of the day and thus performing poorly in the next training exercise). They then learn D—how to quickly and effectively dispel unrealistic beliefs about adversity.”

You can see by these two actions, that the way we think has a critical effect on our own ability to cope. Though the challenges we face are clearly impacting us, our minds are powerful agents in either helpful or harmful ways of reacting.

You can read more from Seligman here.

Later this week I will post a follow-up with more on this theme of workplace resilience.

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