Growing well-being and resilience at work is, thankfully, a growing global trend. However, it’s a trend that, perhaps, we should more mindful about. There seems to be a popular notion that we can simply increase the profile of our employee assistance teams, run a few half-day well-being workshops and offer fresh fruit in our canteens, and we will solve the growing well-being problems that we are seeing around the world. These are all great places to start, but well-being and resilience programs should go deeper and last longer than a quick fix.

I’ve been a full-time leadership development coach in Christchurch, New Zealand since 2006. During this time, we have experienced some of the most devastating earthquakes in the history of the country, resulting in the need to rebuild our city and our community. Our little corner of the world has quickly become a case study for understanding and exploring what it takes to thrive in a volatile environment of extreme uncertainty.

Imagine working in a city where sizeable aftershocks occur every day (over 11,200 have been recorded since the first quake in September 2010), where your child’s school is closed (likely indefinitely), requiring that you drive an extra hour to take them to a temporary school on roads that are damaged beyond comprehension. Imagine you spend all day working within teams of people who are usually your competitors, because there is not a single company large enough or experienced enough to deliver the work required, and you’re working in temporary buildings that were cobbled together over the weekend.

To deliver the work required of you, you are faced with the uncertainty of repairing roads and infrastructure systems that are largely undocumented, the complexity of reporting to multiple stakeholders (the government, the local council and the people in the community are all watching your work very closely), and the ambiguity of not having a benchmark or standard to work from.

Imagine, too, that many of your colleagues (and their families) are traumatized due to their personal experiences of the earthquakes. At the end of the work day, you might be lucky enough to drive home on those damaged roads to a house that is livable but likely has no sanitary drinking water and occasionally leaks when it rains.

This was our world for the better part of several years.

One organization chose to use this experience to learn how to explore and build well-being and resilience in their people, and it deliberately designed what it learned into its employment practices. Based on this experience, here are three observations about how organizations can truly build well-being and resilience at work, rather than simply applying trendy ideas.

1. Examine

Look at the data already available within your business to understand where your well-being “hot spots” are. Perhaps you have a team with low scores in your engagement surveys, or maybe you have a leader who is reporting excessive absences. How about that role that nobody ever stays in for longer than a few months? These data trends will help prevent you from rolling out a “one-size-fits-all” program that costs the earth and delivers little.

You’re likely to find that a small population of your employees are truly in need of professional support and may benefit from a more personalized program from a psychosocial support team to meet your duty of care as an employer. However, you’re also likely to find that most of your employees simply require education about the choices they make so they can manage their own well-being and resilience at work. I call this their duty of self-care. Talk to your employees (e.g., using online discussion forums, idea boards or one-on-ones) about what they need in order to be well at work. You may be surprised by their suggestions.

2. Educate

Ensure that the well-being providers you choose to work with base their approach on a robust or scientific framework for well-being, and inform your employees of this structure. Find ways to introduce your people to the well-being team before you launch the program; don’t just announce a well-being and resilience program and then hope people will embrace it.

For example, an adaptive resilience framework formed the basis for this organization’s program, and the four-factor framework of emotional honesty, self-care, connecting and learning informed its choices about what to include. This approach helps employers to avoid focusing too much on one area (for example, physical well-being like nutrition and yoga) and not enough on other types of well-being (for example, social or mental well-being). One of the organization’s biggest lessons was the importance of educating its employees so that they understood their own role in becoming more resilient at work, as well as what they stood to gain.

3. Embed

There is little point in having a well-being and resilience program unless it’s for life. Resilience is not something that we can fix and then expect to remain in place forever. We must continually notice what is strong and what needs a bit of extra focus, make daily choices that contribute to building our resilience, or accept that we may not be our most resilient self if it’s neglected.

Consider how you might build well-being and resilience language into your business processes, daily conversations and team meetings. Use your existing communications tools (e.g. newsletters and internal websites) to share stories of how your people are growing stronger, the resources they have used, and the impact they’re having on their lives and work.

In Christchurch, we were forced to learn about well-being and resilience under unusual and unexpected circumstances, but we learned quickly that resilience is something you must have already in order to remain strong. Unless you plan to eradicate all volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity from your workplace, you might wish to consider how to strengthen the well-being and resilience of your people so they can more confidently navigate the obstacles that exist in your business every day.

Don’t wait until something big happens and then expect your people to be able to handle it. Help them understand how to grow their skills to handle anything that comes their way before they need to use those skills for resilience at work.

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