The study of resilience explores why some people are better equipped to bounce back from illness and hardship than others. Historically, resilience research began with children who had a less than nourishing developmental environment but still became well-adjusted adults. Since that time, researchers have studied resilience in all types of settings, from the sports field to exploring why people may experience little disruption after exposure to potentially traumatic events.

A 2006 report by the Australian Safety and Compensation Council indicated that “worldwide there has been an increase in work-related mental disorders, affecting all industries and professions.” Medibank-commissioned research in 2008 reported that in Australia, stress related presenteeism and absenteeism were costing the Australian economy approximately $14 billion per year and directly costing employers about $10 billion per year.

To add insult to injury, these estimates do not include the additional costs associated with re-staffing and re-skilling when stress results in employee turnover. Similar trends are evident across the globe. The American Institute of Stress reports that “job stress carries a price tag for U.S. industry estimated at over $300 billion annually.”

When can workplace stressors lead to greater resilience, and when can they damage resilience?

Research conducted at Macquarie University investigates when stressors can lead to greater resilience and why. This is important because for many work settings, exposure to stress is inherent in the nature of the work. In many workplaces, the experience of time pressure, high workloads, setbacks and negative feedback are critical stressors.

Macquarie research shows that stressors that are best characterized as “challenges” tend to actually increase an employee’s perceived resilience. Challenge stressors are those job demands that are typically viewed as opportunities for growth and development – for example, using your technical skills or having an intellectually challenging task to complete. Interestingly, challenge stressors do result in stress, but engagement with these types of stressors is also an investment in personal resilience.

Hindrance stressors, on the other hand, are those work demands that tend to be perceived as obstructing valued work goals. They tend to damage resilience over time.

These findings have several implications for both individuals and the organizations for which they work. The maintenance of employee resilience is dependent on both individual and situational (e.g., organizational) factors, so both are equally important. Research suggests that the nature of workplace stressors is actually of critical importance to the level of resilience that an employee feels he or she has.

What can individuals do to enhance their resilience?

There is some individual variation in whether work stressors are perceived as a challenge or a hindrance. While some stressors are more likely to be viewed as a hindrance (e.g., bureaucracy), there will be some individuals who will view it as a challenge and vice versa. It is more personally helpful to view stressors as challenges than hindrances; therefore, one technique psychologists recommend is attempting to find merit in the stressors.

To do this, employees can ask themselves questions like these:

  • How will this help me be a better colleague?
  • What can I learn from this experience?
  • How can this help me do my job better?
  • What am I going to show myself I am capable of by dealing with this challenge?

Even if the opportunity for personal growth is small, it is worth looking for.

What can managers do to support the resilience of their team?

Managers can help their staff with this process. If the team is facing a significant stressor, the manager may help them consider how these difficulties will develop the team and/or create greater team cohesion. Managers and organizations should understand that it’s important to be aware of the volume of hindrance stressors, given its implications for well-being.

Let’s say that an organization decides to introduce a new layer of red tape in order to allow staff to travel for work purposes. Additional layers of bureaucracy do not come without a cost. In this case, the organization needs to carefully consider the benefits of additional bureaucracy versus the potential cost to employee resilience and well-being. Managers should also be on the lookout for hindrances and how they can eliminate them all together or minimize their impact.