Resilience on the Job: Five Ways to Improve It

By: Daniel Russell

This is a two-part series that looks at resilience on the job—why it is important and five ways to improve it.

What is resilience?

The American Psychological Association (APA) defines resilience as “the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress” (The Road to Resilience, APA, Washington DC, 2010). We know it when we experience it and see it in others.

Neuroscience tells us that genetic factors play an important role in an individual’s response to stress as well as in exhibiting resilience. Based on genetic research, we know that some people are more vulnerable to depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

In addition, neuroscientists have also been able to influence the shaping of our neural circuits that regulate our ability to respond to stress. Specifically, prolonged episodes of uncontrollable or overwhelming stress during childhood can lead to “learned helplessness.” However, exposure to mild to moderate stressors that have a positive outcome can help children become more resilient in the future.

Even though genetics and early childhood development play a role, research also clearly demonstrates that resilience-promoting interventions can be beneficial for adults throughout their life span. In fact, these interventions can be even more helpful for those who have less-than-average resilience to begin with but it’s important to take a holistic approach to resilience. Here are five ways to improve your resilience.

1. Cognitive training ​​​​

Research has shown that cognitive training methodologies improve resilience. The first is called “cognitive reappraisal” and the most effective type of cognitive reappraisal is a practice called “distancing.”

Distancing involves training participants to view their circumstances as if observing themselves to learn from the situation and then reframing the event in positive rather than negative terms.

Coping self-efficacy training has also shown promise in building resilience. Coping self-efficacy involves practicing and receiving feedback on dealing with stressful scenarios through real or simulated exposure (e.g., role playing).

Training in problem solving has also helped some people to improve how they frame problems and improve cognitive flexibility to learn to address issues in new ways that reduce stress.

2. Emotional regulation 

Mindfulness training, including reflection and journaling, has been shown to have a significant positive impact on resilience by helping participants to focus on positive memories and emotions rather than constantly dwelling on negative events.

Exercises such as keeping a gratitude journal help individuals to start and maintain the “upward spiral” of emotions that go along with improving resilience.

3. Social support 

Research shows that strong and deep connections with friends and family improve resilience. Having people with whom you can share and talk through troubles with supports positive emotions and clear thinking that underlie resilience.

Programs such as the Penn Resilience Program train people to build relationships by challenging beliefs that hinder good communication and build skills that improve communication.

For example, participants are taught to focus on giving praise, to increase their ability to have active and constructive conversations, and to improve communication flexibility in response to the situational demands.

4. Physical health 

Much like the relationship between resilience and emotion, the relationship between physical health and resilience goes both ways. To improve resilience it’s important to begin a virtuous cycle by working to improve your overall physical health any way you can.

Getting enough sleep, exercising, and eating right are factors that can improve resilience. Additionally, research has shown that getting less than six hours of sleep a night is tantamount to not sleeping at all and creates a downward spiral in cognition, emotions, and overall performance.

Likewise, exercise and diet impact the physiology of the brain in ways that can either support or undermine an individual’s ability to deal with stress.

5. Neurobiological training 

Meditation is one of the best ways to enhance our brain’s abilities to deal with stress. Neuroscientists describe mindfulness as nonjudgmental, present-moment awareness and recommend meditation as one key to practice mindfulness.

They encourage mindfulness training to help keep our brains healthy, to support effective decision making, and to protect ourselves against stress—all key components to improving resilience.

Conclusion

In her book, Bossypants, comedian Tina Fey explains resiliency as being “blorft”. She defines “blorft” as “an adjective I just made up that means 'completely overwhelmed but proceeding as if everything is fine and reacting to the stress with the torpor of a possum.' I have been blorft every day for the past seven years.”

While this approach may work for famous comedians, blorfting your way through each day is not an effective strategy for dealing with the constantly changing nature of today’s business environment. But there is hope. There are ways to learn to manage through constant stress and changes which will allow leaders to grow stronger and better at dealing with ever-increasing levels of challenge into the future. It’s important to take a holistic approach that addresses cognitive, emotional, social, physical, and biological needs such as Johnson & Johnson’s Premier Executive Leadership™ program.

As Winston Churchill said, “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.” In different words, be resilient!

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