Line managers are exposed to increasing levels of stress but lack the “soft” skills to deal with pressure and build personal resilience. Kate Nowlan, chief executive of employee assistance experts CiC, outlines the key tactics that an employer can adopt.
Much is said about creating a resilient workforce, and it is now commonplace for organisations to have a strategy in place to tackle the psychological and physical effects of cumulative stress.
Too often, though, these strategies take an organisation-wide perspective without considering the impact of: working long hours; changing roles and increased workloads; lack of preparation and training; weak or absent leadership; and pressure from financial and performance targets on key employee groups. In this particular example, pressure can fall on line managers.
What is emotional resilience?
Resilience is the capacity to turn adversity into possibility. In many ways, emotional resilience is an attitude to the people, places and things that employees are faced with. It is the ability to deal with life as it is, not as you might want it to be.
In fact, a common feature of individuals who lack resilience is not only the stress and anxiety that they suffer when faced with obstacles and upheavals, but also the length of time and effort that it takes them to get over that stress and anxiety.
Risk factors affecting resilience
Exactly what makes us less resilient as individuals and managers may be caused by environmental factors in our upbringing, current unresolved conflicts or that we were simply born with certain sensitivities to different kinds of pressure and stress. Yet, regardless of the cause, there are a number of factors that can quickly erode our emotional resilience:
How to know if you are a resilient manager
You will know that you are a resilient manager when you display some of the following key characteristics and can effectively implement a range of different coping mechanisms:
- You have established supportive networks: resilience is about your support networks and how you use them. Can you ask for support when it is needed?
- You are transparent: you can admit things are difficult and let others know this is how you are feeling.
- You do not put all your eggs in one basket: you get satisfaction in more than one area, such as having activities outside work so that work is not everything that defines you and your worth.
- You have realistic expectations of yourself: you are not a perfectionist and can give yourself a break.
- You take care of yourself: you know what you should be doing to take care of yourself and have changed the way you think so that self-care – resting, eating well and getting exercise – is not an optional extra.
- You deal with problems effectively: feeling stressed may all be about perception – the meaning of events and your reactions and you know what can and should be changed and what cannot be.
- You communicate assertively: you have achieved a balance between not bottling up feelings and not over-reacting but communicating clearly in a way that is respectful of yourself and others, including saying “no” when you need to.
- You have perspective: you do not sweat the small stuff because, compared to lifechanging or life-threatening events that you or others may have been through, small incidents can feel irrelevant.
- You create positive experiences: you may not have control over some of life’s irritations, but you can do something about making positive experiences.
- Highly stressful or traumatic circumstances: people who have been involved in traumatic events can find they are less resistant to future shocks.
- Experiencing several stressful events at the same time: more than one significant life event or change will tend to make people more vulnerable. For example, financial difficulties, threat of redundancy and breakdown of a relationship happening together will have a hugely detrimental impact on an individual’s psychological wellbeing.
- Experiencing stress over a long period of time: when left unaddressed, cumulative stress can be as damaging as a one-off trauma. When someone is exposed to emotional pressure over and over again, their capacity to process it will eventually begin to decline if the stress is not dealt with.
- Lack of control: this can have a particularly damaging impact on the workplace. We are all given tasks that we might not necessarily like or ask for, but those who have no choice over factors such as their pace of work or work patterns or who are not encouraged to use their skills or initiative at work, will be worn down quite quickly.
- Lack of social support: social support is a key factor in boosting resilience, and individuals without partners are at a greater risk than those with established social support.
When faced with one or more of these factors, managers can become deeply affected by stress. And, should this happen, the threat of declining performance, poor leadership decisions and behaviour, emerging patterns of absence or presenteeism or impacts on safety in the workplace are all reasons why resilience needs to be promoted and awareness raised by an organisation.
Failure to do so can lead to stress with early symptoms that might include: headaches; back pain; insomnia; depression; anxiety; mood swings; apathy; irritability; forgetfulness; poor concentration; boredom; paranoia; poor teamwork; loneliness; withdrawal; intolerance; relationship problems; heavy drinking; eating disorders; overwork; or the development of a sense of emptiness.
Importantly, when cumulative stress is left unaddressed, it can eventually lead to burnout. And, if stress does reach this point – and it can often affect the most dedicated and motivated people – it can be characterised by deep exhaustion and a profound sense of disillusionment.
Building blocks of resilience
There are six key building blocks of resilient
behaviour that can be learned and developed
to manage pressure, promote wellbeing
and bolster resilience:
1. Inner buoyancy: the confidence to feel that you will survive and come through hard times, a sense of optimism and engagement with life and work, underpinned by strong personal values.
2. Supportive thinking: the ability to think in a reflective and rational way, to notice the effects of thoughts upon wellbeing and to listen to others and accommodate difference in personality and performance styles.
3. Application: the capacity to identify problems, set goals and apply solutions to maintain a sense of efficacy in the face of possible difficulties or outcomes.
4. Connections: awareness of the need for emotional support and the ability to access it, the willingness to seek out feedback and support from a range of different sources, including colleagues and mentors, and the capacity to cultivate a robust sense of belonging and community.
5. Self-regulation: the ability to return to a calm state after feeling upset or emotional and think through possible consequences of actions – the ability to switch off and refresh.
6. Positive life habits: the discipline of eating regularly, eating well and relaxing without resorting to cigarettes, alcohol or food.
Thinking about wellbeing
An important element of building a foundation of resilient behaviour is to encourage managers to think creatively about their own wellbeing and emotional resilience, helping them to identify their own stress triggers and creating strategies to cope, should this be required. There are a number of ways that their levels of resilience can be boosted in this way, including:
- Identify vulnerabilities: before starting to devise strategies to boost your resilience, you have got to know what you are up against. Identifying one’s vulnerabilities can be an uncomfortable experience, but it is a crucial first step. There can be no resilience without emotional awareness. One way of doing this is to keep a brief journal for a week, noting down the moment you feel stressed and overwhelmed, along with specific triggers.
- Challenge negativity: pessimism can become a terrible habit. But, like any habit, it can be changed with a bit of effort. Again, it can be useful to note down pessimistic thoughts when you have them. Then ask yourself how reasonable the thought is and if there is a way of reframing it in a more positive light. Work on your acceptance – as we saw above, acceptance is not the same as resignation. Resilient people know that a situation, good or bad, has to be accepted before it can be changed. Sitting in silence for a few minutes each day, breathing steadily and simply observing one’s thoughts and emotions is a great way of cultivating acceptance and is a powerful boost to resilience.
- Get some exercise: stress of any kind is always accompanied by a build-up of stress hormones in the body that have a dramatic impact on the emotions. Getting even a little bit of regular exercise works off stress hormones, promotes a sense of wellbeing and prepares us for the next challenge. If you find it hard to get a regular exercise regime going, start small with a stroll at lunchtime. Even a little bit of exercise will make all the difference.
- Get connected: studies on resilience are unanimous that social support is absolutely key to the maintenance of solid emotional resilience. If you have good friends or colleagues to talk to, make sure you reach out regularly. And if you feel cut off and isolated from those around you, it could be time to get a bit of outside help.
- Get into the habit: whether it is exercise, spending time with friends and loved ones, or just making time for quiet reflection, it gets a lot easier to do something once it becomes a habit. Setting aside short periods of time for resilience-boosting activities – and doing it regularly – saves a lot of mental and physical energy and will make a dramatic difference to your life in the long term.