Building Resilience in the Workplace: It’s Complex, but Managers can Help
By: Réka Anna Lassu, Hannah Schendel, Charisma Greenfield
Being able to bounce back from tough times such as job loss, divorce, or a bad medical diagnosis, is often called “resilience” in pop culture. However, resilience in the workplace context is complex!
Why is resilience so hard to define?
Organizational researchers, who scientifically study resilience in the workplace, say “resilience” is messy and may have many different meanings; yet, some consensus exists that it has two main elements, namely experiencing adversity and positive adaptation1. However, sometimes resilience is thought of as a stable trait (i.e., a characteristic that doesn’t really change), a process (i.e., and ongoing endeavor to develop resilience capabilities), or an outcome (i.e., what someone reaches after facing adversity)2. Some researchers also say that resilience is a combination of a fluctuating state, which can change throughout the day, and a stable trait3. In a nutshell, defining resilience is complex!
The link between trauma and resilience
A common element across the different definitions of resilience mentioned above is overcoming adversity, which can include experiencing trauma. However, trauma is also not straightforward.
- When psychologists use the DSM-5, they define trauma as an exposure to “actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence”4.
- However, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) says trauma is an experience that causes intense stress; more specifically, trauma is “an event, series of events, or set of circumstances that is experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or life-threatening and that has lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and mental, physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being”5.
In terms of trauma’s prevalence, the National Comorbidity Survey states that about 61% of men and 51% of women have experienced at least one trauma in their lifetime6. Those are high percentages indicating that trauma is quite common, especially if defined by SAMHSA’s more encompassing definition.
Where does trauma come from?
Although some experiences or exposures are clearly traumatic, many sources aren’t always obvious and include acute events (e.g., sudden loss of a parent), chronic events (e.g., long-term exposure to air pollution in a city), or complex circumstances (e.g., combination of a physical injury, gender discrimination, and anxiety). The high prevalence of trauma coupled with the various events that can be traumatic, may indicate that many employees have this adversity component needed for resilience, present in their lives.
Experiencing positive adaptation & posttraumatic growth
The other component of resilience is a positive adaptation after adversity. If employees experience trauma, whether at work or outside of work, to become resilient, that trauma needs to be followed by a positive adaptation, which can look like posttraumatic growth. Adversity and trauma can ignite positive change; for example, employees may become aware of personal strengths, look into new opportunities, or grow spiritually7. In this way, they gain something from the negative experiences while building resilience!
How is resilience understood in the workplace?
Taking all of this into consideration, in the organizational sciences, resilience research can be grouped into developmental, proactive, and reactive “adaptability”8. Developmental resilience is learning from tough times; proactive resilience is about preparing for a not-yet-existent future hardship by developing resources; finally, reactive resilience is a reaction to an acute stressor9. Moreover, resilience can apply to an individual person, a team, or an entire organization. For example:
- Despite the pandemic and burned-out colleagues, how does a project team overcome an early setback and succeed in delivering results? (Developmental; team context).
- How does a corporation, during good times, develop capabilities that can then be used later when a recession comes? (Proactive; organizational context).
- How does an employee use emotions, behaviors, and thoughts to self-regulate after a traumatic event at work, to reach high performance? (Reactive; individual context).
What can managers do?
Of course, managers cannot know who is experiencing trauma, but they can help all their employees by building psychological safety, by helping employees feel that they can admit making a mistake or having a hard time10. For example, according to SHRM, managers can: 1) reframe mistakes (e.g., share their own vulnerable mistakes), 2) encourage all voices (e.g., have a devil’s advocate), 3) appreciate contributions (e.g., offer praise to those who talk about difficult topics), and 4) coach employees to help each other (e.g., provide individual feedback)11. In this way, managers can help employees take the likely adversity they are facing and respond with positive adaptation, increasing the likelihood that employees build resilience.
- Raetze et al., 2021
- Raetze et al., 2021
- Locke et al., 2020
- APA, 2013 p. 271
- SAMHSA, 2014, p. 7
- Kessler et al., 1995
- Tedeschi, 2020
- Raetze et al., 2021
- Raetze et al., 2021
- Edmondson, 1999
- Brassey et al., 2023
American Psychological Association (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders. (5th ed.) Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Association
Brassey, J., DeSmet, A. & Kruyt, M. (2023). 4 Ways Leaders Can Build ‘Psychological Safety’ in Their Work Teams. SHRM. REtrieved from: https://www.shrm.org/executive/resources/articles/pages/leaders-build-psychological-safety-teams.aspx
Edmondson, A. (1999). Psychological Safety and Learning Behavior in Work Teams. Administrative Science Quarterly, 44(2), 350–383. https://doi.org/10.2307/2666999
Kessler RC, Sonnega A, Bromet E, Hughes M, & Nelson CB. (1995) Posttraumatic stress disorder in the National Comorbidity Survey. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 1995 Dec;52(12):1048-60. doi: 10.1001/archpsyc.1995.03950240066012. PMID: 7492257.
Lock, S., Rees, C. S., & Heritage, B., (2020). Development and validation of a brief measure of psychological resilience: The state–trait assessment of resilience scale, Australian Psychologist, 55:1, 10-25, DOI: 10.1111/ap.12434
Raetze, S., Duchek, S., Maynard, M. T., & Kirkman, B. L. (2021). Resilience in organizations: An integrative multilevel review and editorial introduction. Group & Organization Management, 46(4), 607-656.
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (2014). SAMHSA’s Concept of Trauma and Guidance for a Trauma-Informed Approach. HHS Publication No. (SMA) 14-4884. Rockville, MD: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
Tedeschi, R. G., (2020) Growth after trauma. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from: https://hbr.org/2020/07/growth-after-trauma
Dr. Réka Anna Lassu is an Assistant Professor of Organizational Behavior at Pepperdine University. She researches employee wellbeing and leadership. Réka earned her Ph.D. at the University of Central Florida. Visit www.rekaannalassu.com for more info.
Charisma Greenfield & Hannah Schendel are Research Assistants in the Business Administration Division of Seaver College – Pepperdine University. They are Business Administration majors passionate about workplace well-being research.