Can we learn how to bounce back?

Felix Schirmler, Business Psychologist at Chemistry, discusses resilience; whether you are born with it, you can learn it, or if it’s a mixture of the two.  Have an opinion? Join the conversation below!

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I recently listened to a talk by a management consultancy firm about resilience and was surprised at how much of it is learnable. I was less surprised when I realised that this company sells resilience training… Nonetheless, it led me to do my own research in an attempt to gain a less biased perspective on workplace resilience. How do you know I am not selling something? Because my answer is not necessarily simple or satisfying – but it will certainly be honest. In this blog you will find a highly condensed, light-touch literature review on resilience, with my own opinion thrown in for good measure…

So what really is resilience?

Somehow we know what it is…somehow. A broad definition is the ‘ability to bounce back from stressful events’ or ‘to strive despite adverse environments’. But how can we measure that? For mechanical systems, or systems like the London underground, for example, hard metrics can be used to see how long it takes a system to return to normal after a disruption. Measure the baseline (e.g. number of people passing an underground station per minute) and measure the time the system needs until normality is restored after the disruption. Done. This is also possible for humans, but in practice we would be a little bit confused if our managers tried to check our heart rate or our galvanic skin response after they gave us a telling-off.

The various conceptualisations of psychological resilience differ in their nature and contain a variety of factors, from personality traits to environmental factors and abilities. Even mental disorders and terms like ‘ordinary magic’ are listed as factors in some general resilience models. But for many constructs, it is hard to really tell where to find the causality. Are you more resilient when you have high self-esteem or do you have a higher self-esteem when you are more resilient?

My answer is (and it is not really an answer): Resilience is a complex psychological feature that has some predetermining factors but that also interacts with the individual and environmental context. You cannot look at it in isolation. If you are short on time, feel free to skip the next paragraphs about my findings in resilience research and go straight to the conclusion of this blog post, where I encourage everyone to build supportive and collaborative working environments that support your employee resilience. Otherwise, stay with me…

Individual Differences in resilience

First of all, you can’t change your genes! There are genetic differences in our brain which determine how we physically react to stress, how many stress hormones we produce, and how neurotransmitters like dopamine affect our reward system and other brain regions involved in dealing with stress. This is very reasonable given that depression – also linked to the function of these neurotransmitters – is to a large degree inheritable. However, I am convinced that the mind and the right environment can also change our biological functions – but let’s not dig too deep here!

Other individual differences that correlate with resilience and are rather hard to change probably fall in this order: age, gender, origin/culture and personality. Age is quite simple: the older we get, the more resilient we become due to our experiences of difficult situations (don’t forget we are talking about general tendencies). Funnily enough, though, ageist stereotypes tend to view old people as less resilient. Gender differences, meanwhile, usually play in favour of the male population, though they don’t seem to be the result of genetic differences; rather a result of different coping strategies and other attributes that probably evolve from socialisation. Similarly, people can differ depending on their culture, especially regarding stress-producing behaviours such as self-analytical thinking (e.g. higher in China than the US).

This brings us to personality. Again, we don’t want to start the debate around whether personality is a result of disposition or circumstance, but regarding resilience: there is a clear pattern in how resilience correlates with the big five personality factors. Unsurprisingly, high extraversion and high emotional stability correlate with high resilience. Also, high scores on openness, agreeableness and conscientiousness relate to resilience. Another personality trait discussed in context of resilience is “grit” – the perseverance to pursue long-term goals. This construct is without doubt interesting and useful, but recent research indicates that measures of grit do not actually add much over and above the classic big five.

Personality may also attract people to certain types of working environments that contain higher demands than others. People who thrive in high-performance environments that induce extraordinary amounts of stress, but result in extraordinary external reward, probably wouldn’t want a big, soothing HR bubble around them and a 37.5 hour week in place – and I don’t think we should force this. However, even in investment banking, some regulations must be in place. We should never find ourselves in a position where we question whether the death of an intern is related to them having worked three days without sleep or if there were other factors at play.

Learnability and Resources for Psychological Resilience

Now to the main question: Is resilience learnable? Yes, resilience, or rather coping strategies, are learnable to a certain degree but I would argue that you can’t gain much in a generic webinar or classroom session unless you are lacking basic knowledge on how to deal with stress (e.g. enough sleep, setting realistic goals, some exercise once in a while, etc.). Training on for example positive thinking and flexibility can help to increase resilience, but the highest effects are found when someone who has recently been through a stressful period receives individual coaching (classroom sessions came second and web-based programmes last). This is, unfortunately, not very scalable if you want to provide training to 80,000 employees. Also the effect of these programmes on resilience and performance seem to diminish over time.

The relationship between age and resilience is helpful to a degree because it shows that experiencing and overcoming challenging situations in the past influences how we will deal with challenging situations in the future. In this sense, stressful situations can be a learning curve in themselves, but we still need to have the ability and the resources to handle them…

Which brings me to resources. They’re an important factor but seem to be neglected in attempts to increase workplace resilience. Resources that can increase resilience can be personal (e.g. a hobby or religion), social environments (e.g. sport club), or even education and wealth. The latter factors are harder to change; maintaining a social life outside of work is possible, meanwhile, but obviously takes time and effort. If you work your 80 hours, it can be hard to establish and maintain good relationships, especially in cities like London where your friends are probably scattered all over the city. Work-life balance or, as Amy King better describes it, the right work-life fit, is crucial to providing the foundation of resources that help us to be more resilient.

That’s not to say, of course, that an employee should be able to handle everything that’s thrown at her as long as she has time to go for a pint with friends now and then. Stress should be kept to a minimum, though this is not always possible. In the case of nurses, it was shown that experience with stress in a collaborative and supportive environment can actually improve resilience – so, the resources that help us handle stress don’t necessarily have to come from outside the workplace.

But even if we have the best conditions and the best abilities, how much stress is healthy? If you are extraordinarily resilient, is this a result of having had too many traumatic events in your life already? Has life made you tough? Is it possible to be too resilient? If you are extraordinarily resilient, could that make you resilient against things that should make you worry, like negative feedback in the workplace or in your relationship?

Conclusion

Whether you skipped the findings or not, here is a little summary: My take away from reading all the papers about resilience is that it is possible to help people handle stress with education about resilience but it won’t be easy to do with generic webinars or classroom sessions. Individual differences are preconditions that can affect resilience, and while personal resources are an important factor in resilience, they are also complex as they vary in nature and costly to improve.

With all the psychological knowledge out there, there is a real opportunity to make the workplace itself a resource for resilience rather than focusing on trying to make your employees as robust as possible. If you manage to create or maintain a culture in your company where support and good communication are not just a means to improving performance but a real value, I have no doubt that this will help not just the individual, but also the organisation as a whole to become more resilient, and more successful.

Nov, 23, 2017

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