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Why HR needs to focus on resilience

The epidemic levels of workplace stress makes cultivating resilience, at both an individual and organisation level, a priority for HR.

Donald McGurk, the managing director and CEO of Codan Limited, has lived through a business leader’s worst nightmare. In 2014 his company’s top selling product was counterfeited by Chinese manufacturers. They replicated not just the product but also its branding, causing Codan’s after-tax net profits to drop from $45 million to $9 million within the space of a year.

“It was catastrophic. It looked like we were going to bleed to death,” he recalls.

While a legal team scrambled to bring copyright infringement charges against 17 separate entities, the Adelaide-based company was forced to make 150 members of its team of 600 redundant. Looking back, McGurk says turning up to work as the best version of himself during that difficult period was an achievement.

“Resilience and fear go together. My greatest fear was living in a cardboard box under a bridge, so I had to redefine what success looked like to me personally. I said to myself, ‘If, whatever you do, you don’t die, you are successful.’ It was then easier to be brave.”

It took four years, but McGurk and his team succeeded in their resolve to “out-innovate, out-market and eventually out-compete the counterfeiters.”

According to UNSW associate professor Sam Harvey, a psychiatrist and epidemiologist, resilience can reside in an individual or in an organisation. In the case of Codan, it wasn’t just McGurk who needed to be strong. It was the leadership’s ability to create an environment that promoted resilience among the workforce.

McGurk did this by reinforcing the company’s core values, by making himself available – on a daily basis – to communicate transparently with the team about the changes the company was being forced to make, and to listen to his employees’ concerns.

Ground down

For most of us, rather than a sustained and specific period of high stress like McGurk experienced, low and medium-level stress gnaws away at our wellbeing more or less constantly.

Its causes are many: heavy workloads, long hours, negative feedback or none at all, and demanding targets. The now pervasive, always-on work culture adds to cumulative stress by blurring boundaries between our work and private lives.

According to Harvey – who works with the Black Dog Institute, an organisation that runs workplace mental health programs – resilience is measured by one’s capacity to bounce back, to cultivate a positive outlook and to rise above difficulties. A lack of resilience leads to burnout and other mental health issues.

“Resilience, and the ability to be able to do more than simply cope, but rather welcome and thrive through constant change, is probably the most important trait in life today, not just in the workforce,” says Rabia Siddique, the bestselling author of Equal Justice. 

Building muscle

In 2005, while a major in the British Army, Siddique successfully negotiated the release of two British Special Forces soldiers from Shi’ite extremists in Iraq, after being taken hostage herself for several hours. She believes that resilience isn’t simply a trait that the lucky few possess – it’s like a muscle that develops strength over time, and requires “rough seas” to keep it in shape.

“We can be naturally predisposed to being resilient, we can marshal our internal and external resources to build resilience, but the only way we get to practice it is in times of hardship,” she says.

The idea of resilience being a process that can be learned rings true with existing evidence, says Harvey. Providing one-off sessions to staff has shown few lasting benefits; what’s needed is a more long-term approach.

Harvey says that evidence-based techniques such as cognitive behavioural therapy and mindfulness techniques can have a positive impact, and technology is allowing training to be delivered both flexibly and cost-effectively for employers.

For example, The Black Dog Institute’s workplace education team collaborated with the University of NSW to develop Raw Mind Coach, a series of programs using cognitive strategies to boost resilience. Other online programs include Australian-owned Smiling Mind and the UK’s Headspace.

Companies that have used the Raw Mind Coach program include Optus, the Australian Graduate School of Management at UNSW, NSW Ambulance and Thompson Reuters.

At Thompson Reuters, journalists in Australia, New Zealand and South America undertook a six-week trial of the program. Testing showed improved levels of resilience, leading the media company to roll out the program to its team of journalists worldwide.

Measurement, prediction and training

The main way of measuring improved resilience is based on the Connors Davison scale. The scale measures an individual’s ability to ‘bounce back’ and to develop adaptability. “Cognitive strategies are drawn from evidence-based psychological therapies – in particular, acceptance and commitment therapy and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy,” says Jamie Watson, CEO and co-creator of Raw Mind Coach.

Building resilience among existing staff is far more effective than attempting to screen potential job candidates to determine whether their personality traits make them more likely to succumb to stress.

“To date, the evidence just isn’t there that these simple personality tests can reliably predict those sorts of outcomes,” says Watson.

Leveraging a crisis

For the well-known motivational speaker and self-help author Sam Cawthorn, learning to leverage the value of a crisis is key to building resilience. In the absence of an actual crisis, he suggests using language to elevate the sense of urgency.

“Sometimes we need a crisis to see what’s possible. When there’s a problem, we tend to procrastinate in dealing with it, but when it’s elevated to a crisis, it’s the point where we say,

‘I must get myself out of this situation.’”

In 2006, Cawthorn was pronounced clinically dead for several minutes after being involved in a head-on collision with a semi-trailer in Tasmania. His right arm was amputated and he was told he would never walk again.

“The only time I experienced deep negativity was when I first woke up from the coma. I was crying non-stop – not for myself, but because my kids would have to grow up with a disabled father in a wheelchair.”

Cawthorn proved the doctors wrong by regaining his ability to walk and, while undergoing a grueling nine-month rehabilitation regime, he ruminated on a new approach to life. He too speaks about his determination to become the best version of himself in order to triumph over despair.

The 37-year-old believes that millennials present a specific challenge to organisations seeking to build resilience.

“I believe that young people are too resilient; meaning that they don’t really care if they lose their job because they can get another one, and they don’t care if there is a crisis at work because they can disassociate.”

Whether that signals resilience or disengagement is open to interpretation, but as millennials now represent the largest segment of the workforce, building resilience among this group can’t be consigned to the too-hard basket.

According to the founder of the Workplace Mental Health Institute, Pedro Diaz, millennials value guidance and training on an issue that has no easy answers.

“Invest in resilience. It will send a message that you care. But not just lip service, because you will be caught out. Follow through and you’ll find you will attract and retain A-player millennials. They are the ones who will make your business.”

Struggling with increasing work pressures, stress and change? Gain the tools and techniques you and your team need to build resilience at work, with AHRI’s customised and in-house training course ‘Building resilience’.

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