We are often asked into organizations to present workshops on “building resilience” — giving managers the tools to help their employees manage anxiety and improve their ability to respond to change and recover from challenges. Perhaps, as a learning and development (L&D) professional, you have been tasked with developing a similar program for your organization or clients. 

What Contributes to Resilience? 

When we begin a session on resilience, we often note that many leaders in attendance quickly attribute the problem of rising anxiety levels to issues such as the pace of business change, the amount of competition and a lack of grit — in other words, things out of their control. Few tend to consider that the ways in which they are managing their team may contribute to anxiety levels and reducing resilience. 

Research shows that some employees come to the workplace more resilient than others. They are able to bounce back more effectively from stressful situations, whether by nature or upbringing. Although almost all of us will suffer negative events over a lifetime — the loss of a job, a divorce, a hospitalization, the loss of a loved one — we all respond to traumas differently. The most resilient seem to keep going, no matter what life throws at them, and there’s fascinating science attempting to identify why some humans are more resilient than others. 

Someone’s life experience can’t always explain his or her resilience or lack thereof. Some people who are very resilient had challenging childhoods or major trauma in their past they had to overcome, and some did not. But as University of Pennsylvania psychologist Martin Seligman’s research has shown, despite whatever difficulties they may have faced in their lives, everyone can learn to bounce back from challenges and manage their way through tough times with the proper support and training. 

Two Major Factors: A Sense of Control and Social Support 

We can point to two crucial things that separate people who are able to recover more quickly from their less resilient peers: a sense of control and meaningful social support. 

“A sense of control” refers to the ability that some people have to feel that they have influence over their own life, no matter what comes their way (not to be confused with a “grin and bear it” attitude). This sense of control is an ability that people can develop with training and help. In fact, the concept is so important to the U.S. Army that it offers soldiers and their families a 10-day course on resilience with intensive sessions designed to help people who might go into stressful situations — like combat — or people who have to send a family member off to potentially life-threatening service. Participants find ways to counter their negative self-talk with rational thinking, learn to think more gratefully about the good things that happen each day, and focus and concentrate on preset tasks. Soldiers also learn how to avoid unhealthy coping mechanisms, such as minimalizing traumatic events that have happened to them. In our training sessions, we also encourage teams and leaders to build resilience through tactics like cognitive restructuring and normalizing communication about mental health. 

Another research finding: People who develop strong, supportive social ties have a higher likelihood of being resilient and recovering more quickly and effectively from trauma. When family, friends or workmates are unreceptive or even critical of a person’s attempt to share their feelings about their mental health, on the other hand, it actually increases the risk of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). 

“Researchers believe the negative impact likely arises from attempts to discourage open communication, which increases cognitive avoidance and suppression of trauma-related memories, social withdrawal, and self-blame,” writes Dr. Denise Cummings, a research psychologist at the University of Illinois. It may seem obvious but bears repeating: We need to encourage open communication and discourage judgment when discussing mental health and each person’s experience. 

The bottom line: There can be enormous benefits when L&D professionals develop educational sessions to help leaders and the people who work for them overcome hurdles and setbacks with smart resilience practices such as encouraging empathetic listening, teaching social support skills and watching the people in your care for signs of burnout. 

These sessions have to be about doing things in a new way. The goals are to remove the stigma of anxiety and depression, make it safe for employees to come forward for help when there are feeling overwhelmed, become more aware of pending burnout in teammates, and ensure that there are times when people can not only detach from work physically but also mentally.