The COVID-19 pandemic has tested the resilience of employees and workplaces alike. But how can you train your employees to be more resilient? We asked some experts.
The emotional toll of the pandemic has hit many hard. However, for businesses already working in emotionally demanding fields, the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic and moving to remote work have been particularly taxing.
Robyn and Tony Stephen know this firsthand. As the founders of Melbourne Child Development, a multi-discipline speech pathology, occupational therapy and psychology practice for children and their families with disabilities, the pandemic added new pressures to what often were already emotionally charged workdays.
Earlier this year, they engaged workplace resilience expert Michelle Bihary to devise a training program to help them create a positive workplace ecosystem not only to manage the stress of the pandemic, but the ongoing demands of their practice.
“Our work is very emotionally draining.We need to bring a lot of empathy, and a lot of ourselves to the relationship with the families and the child,” Robyn Stephen says. “We were having problems with staff retention and turnover because of this, so we knew we needed to look after our staff better.”
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Bihary spoke to the Stephens to find out what they wanted to get out of the training, and put together a training alignment document to work through with the management team. Once expectations were set, she then delivered a full day of face-to-face training with the staff – as fate would have it, shortly before lockdown.
“From the training we had both a framework and a shared language that all staff could use,” says Stephen. “That meant we had more dialogue between individuals and a much more supportive team. For example, we now use Microsoft Teams chat throughout the day.
“It’s just extraordinary to see the language the team now uses and see them share experiences after they’ve had a disastrous session, and then see someone else come in to suggest resilient strategies that we can all use in those situations.”
Stephen says that another by-product of the training was bringing together the workforce of 17, consisting of 11 clinicians and six support staff, as a whole, rather than being siloed in their particular functions.
“We talked a lot with Michelle about turning down our self-critical negative dial and increasing the positive dial, and people giving much more specific positive feedback to each other,” she says. “In our Teams chat each morning, we let each other know if we’re in the thriving, surviving or overwhelmed range. Everybody knows how everybody’s feeling, so we can reach out and support each other.”
The initial training was followed up after three months with a further refresher day.
Stephen says this has translated into a more positive and authentic culture in a short space of time, and she’s already seeing the results.
“We had a staff member recently say she was taking a personal leave day because she felt emotionally depleted and needed to fill up her emotional cup to be able to contribute in a positive way. The fact she said that to us as her bosses is a fantastic outcome.”
Creating a toolkit
Bihary is a firm believer that building high-performing teams requires a psychologically safe and resilient environment. When she is asked to help develop these environments in workplaces, she says it needs to be accessible to each and every person employed by the organisation.
“You’ve got to give people a smorgasbord of tools, so they can figure out what’s good for them,” says Bihary. “You’ve also got to give them the emotional scaffolding so they can understand what works for them, and how to make changes.”
Her approach is centered around helping workers understand the psychological environment they’re in, and how their everyday interactions either support wellbeing or undermine it.
“A lot of organisations and people are very self-critical. There’s a big focus on giving very detailed, negative feedback and ignoring strengths and positives.
“We had a staff member recently say she was taking a personal leave day … to fill up her emotional cup to be able to contribute in a positive way. The fact she said that to us as her bosses is a fantastic outcome.” – Robyn Stephen
“One big way to shift that climate is to help employees value their strengths and skills and recognise weaknesses as opportunities for learning and growth. That creates a more optimistic work environment.”
Research by Amy Edmondson, a professor at Harvard Business School, for Google reWork, found projects that have the highest-performing teams have optimistic environments that create “psychological safety” for their employees.
In her TEDx talk on the subject, Edmondson offers three simple things people can do to foster psychological safety at work:
- Frame the work as a learning problem, not an execution problem.
- Acknowledge your own fallibility.
- Model curiosity and ask lots of questions.
Bihary says Edmondson’s research meshes with the principles of self-leadership, the concept of intentionally influencing your thoughts, feelings and actions.
Asking questions such as “what are the predictive factors” to workplace stress and “what do we need to be doing in those areas” are good starting points for recognising how to create the right model for resilience training in the workplace.
When it comes to implementing plans, both for individuals and the wider workplace, even the smallest of steps can be important.
“Start with simple things, like going outside and taking ten-minute breaks during the day,” says Bihary. “If you create a framework for someone to assist with one element, such as clearing your mind and improving your mental wellbeing, and they can do that each time they take a break, it can be highly impactful.”
Programming for success
The science of resilience is moving in leaps and bounds. Jamie Watson, CEO of Mindarma, helped create an evidence-based e-learning program that protects mental health, builds resilience and equips employees with essential skills.
He says resilience is not about “being tough” or “sucking it up”, but about adaptability and being properly equipped to contend with difficult experiences.
“Resilience is not something that can be built over the course of a casual ‘lunch and learn’ or single training session. Like learning any skill, developing resilience takes practice and, unsurprisingly, one-off training is ineffective.”
Mindarma’s approach found the strongest evidence exists for training which combines mindfulness and cognitive strategies.
“We now know resilience is not a fixed trait, and this is very good news for employers. By equipping workers with the right skills and strategies, it’s possible to boost resilience
and make workers less susceptible to a wide range of common mental health challenges,” says Watson. “Targeting resilience allows employers to be proactive in their approach to mental health and empower employees with skills that can prevent avoidable suffering.”
However, Watson stressed that resilience training is “not a magic cure-all”. It needs to be considered as part of an overall mental health strategy, he says. “Incentives can play a powerful role, promoting engagement, ensuring the effort-reward balance and signalling that completion of the [resilience] program is a true priority.”
Assessing the evidence
One way to get buy-in across all levels of an organisation is by outlining evidence of the effectiveness of targeted programs. And the evidence is strong. Mindarma co-founder, clinical psychologist and academic Dr Sadhbh Joyce was part of a team that conducted a systematic review and meta-analysis of resilience training programs.
The research undertaken by Joyce and her colleagues was the first trial where a resilience training program was completed online by a high-risk occupational group: first responders.
Joyce says, “Our research at baseline found that mindfulness in particular was associated with greater mental health outcomes among first responders. This supports a large body of existing research which highlights the mental health benefits of mindfulness training,” says Joyce.
The study was a randomised controlled trial of 143 full-time firefighters in New South Wales. It found that firefighters who completed the training reported a greater level of adaptive resilience, as well as a range of resilience-related resources, including mindfulness, adaptive coping and optimism compared to the control group, who completed a basic wellbeing program. The firefighters who completed the resilience program were also more likely to reach out for support and seek practical advice from others when they needed it.
“Our research also found that first-responders who reported low resilience at baseline and were later exposed to a potential traumatic event were at greater risk of experiencing symptoms of depression and PTSD,” Joyce added. “This highlights that low adaptive resilience is a malleable risk factor that can be targeted in early interventions among high-risk occupations.”
After reviewing Joyce’s research, the international news agency Reuters called Mindarma to put together a similar, incentivised program for its journalists who cover wars and disasters, but also have to deal with the everyday pressures of a news environment with hard deadlines.
“The program was backed heavily by Reuters management,” says Watson.
“After completing the program themselves, regional managers appeared in videos to describe the benefits they experienced and encourage others to complete the program.”
Reuters backed this up with strong incentives, to show that supporting mental health was a true priority. Workers who completed the two-and-a-half-hour program during a month-long challenge period were rewarded with a day off. This was a major draw for employees in the United States, where workers typically only receive two weeks of annual leave.
“These incentives produced exceptionally high completion rates,” says Watson.
“Results from pre- and post-training resilience testing showed the program also brought about a significant increase in resilience.
At Reuters, the program has also helped to normalise practices such as mindfulness, self-care and help seeking.
This article originally appeared in the October 2020 edition of HRM magazine.