WorkGuru: an online solution to employee resilience

Brain puzzle

WorkGuru is an online service aimed at building workplace resilience. Founder Stephany Carolan describes how it works and how her personal experience of remaining resilient while managing a chronic health condition led to the development of the product.

Resilience describes our ability to adapt and function in the face of stress or trauma – it is our ability to “bounce back”. Researchers have identified a number of psychosocial factors associated with resilience to stress. These include: positive emotions, including optimism and humour; cognitive flexibility, including positive explanatory style, positive reappraisal and acceptance; meaning, including religion, spirituality and altruism; social support, including role models; and active coping style, including exercise and training (Southwick et al, 2005).

Many of these resilience factors can be enhanced. We can learn to be more resilient.

The benefits to an organisation of a more resilient workforce with increased psychological wellbeing are reduced levels of stress, absenteeism and staff turnover (Business in the Community, 2009) and increased productivity, flexibility, creative thinking, "prosocial" behaviour (behaviour that benefits others) and good physical health (Huppert, 2008).

An evidence-based approach

WorkGuru, a digital start-up that began trading in 2013, is an online service that aims to help build employee resilience at work. It uses interactive self-help material, messaging support from job coaches and offers more intensive support through one-to-one coaching delivered over the telephone.

Our service is built on research by Dutch academics. In 2012, Suzanne Lagerveld – building on research by Blonk et al (2006) – published her findings comparing traditional cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) with work-focused CBT, both delivered by therapists. She found that work-focused CBT achieved on average a full return to work 65 days earlier, with an estimated saving to the employer of $5,275, compared with the traditional CBT group.

Both the 2006 and the 2012 research used a specific work-focused brief CBT protocol that was assigned to those groups that achieved the faster return to work. We contacted the academics and worked with them to translate the protocol into English, and then with their permission we further developed it for a digital market.

The team at WorkGuru includes clinical and work psychologists, a CBT specialist, a mindfulness practitioner and a team of job coaches. We worked together to combine work-focused CBT with other interventions that research has shown to work, including positive psychology, mindfulness and job coaching. Our approach integrates all the factors that enhance resilience: positive emotions, cognitive flexibility, meaning, social support and active coping styles.

The impact of stress on organisations is well known, with the Health and Safety Executive citing stress as the leading cause of long-term sickness absence in 2011/12, resulting in the loss of 10.4 million working days over that period. Many employers already have in-house counselling services or access to employee assistance programmes (EAPs), and WorkGuru’s evidence-based preventative approach is a cost-effective addition to those services.

Personal experiences

An 0800 number comes straight through to my phone, because I want to know what questions people that are using the service are asking. We actively seek feedback from both employers and employees about their experiences using the site.

While developing the idea for WorkGuru, I was diagnosed with a chronic health condition that put me at high risk of stroke and heart attack. It also led to me experiencing bouts of fatigue. I am a work psychologist and executive coach, and have been in the work and wellbeing field for more than 15 years – but until my own health made it essential that I reduce my levels of stress and build my mental resilience, I did not fully understand the concepts in the way that I do now.

Identifying important values

One of the first modules is about helping people to identify their life and work values. What are the things that they would not compromise on? When your heart and your head are moving in the same direction, life becomes much simpler – it becomes more joyful.

We talk about thought processes and thinking styles, becoming aware of automatic thought patterns and negative thinking styles. We help people to identify the things that cause them stress, and help them plan ways to reduce these. We use the image of scales to talk about the balance between the demands that are made on us and our capacity to cope with those demands. We explore with them how we can increase our capacity to cope – in other words, our resilience – and reduce the stress of constant demands.

We introduce the concept of "mindfulness", which we define as the art of being present in the moment – not regretting the past and not worrying about the future, but being right here and right now. Our mindfulness module has three guided meditations for members to download.

We also look at our energy levels. Before experiencing fatigue, I thought this was something that could be solved by an early night. Only through losing the vital energy that propels you out of bed in the morning do I understand how precious it is and how not to squander it on inconsequential things.

Perhaps most importantly, we talk about learning to let go. We must learn to not spend our energy on things that we have no control or influence over, and not ruminate on things we cannot change. We teach people how to let go and focus on the things that they can change.

The essential message of WorkGuru is that we cannot always change the situation we are in, but we can change how we think about and respond to it. WorkGuru shows you and your staff how this can be achieved.

Stephany Carolan is the founder and chief executive officer of WorkGuru

References

Blonk RWB, Brenninkmeijer V, Lagerveld SE, Houtman ILD (2006). "Return to work: A comparison of two cognitive behavioural interventions in cases of work-related psychological complaints among the self-employed". Work & Stress; vol.20, issue 2, pp.129-144.

Business in the Community (2009). "Emotional resilience toolkit".

CIPD/Simply Health (2012). "Absence management survey".

Health and Safety Executive. Stress-related and psychological disorders in Great Britain.

Foresight Mental Capital and Wellbeing Project (2008). Mental Capital and Wellbeing: Making the most of ourselves in the 21st century. London; The Government Office for Science.

Huppert FA (2009). "Psychological wellbeing: Evidence regarding its causes and consequences". Applied Psychology: Health and Well-being; vol.1, issue 2, pp.137-164.

Lagerveld SE, Blonk RWB et al (2012). "Work-focused treatment of common mental disorders and return to work: A comparative outcome study". Journal of Occupational Health Psychology; vol.17, issue 2, pp.220-234.

Southwick SM, Vythilingam M, Charney DS (2005). "The psychobiology of depression and resilience to stress: Implications for prevention and treatment". Annual Review of Clinical Psychology; vol.1, pp.255-291.

About Stephany Carolan

Stephany Carolan is the founder and chief executive officer of WorkGuru.
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