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Resilience training: Why mental toughness at work matters

Resilience training isn't just for soldiers. It can be instrumental in helping employees recover from difficulties and embrace change in the workplace.
Credit: Brian Lemen; Image Sources: shumpc, andrew donetti / Adobe Stock

How is a boardroom like a battleground? According to Brent Gleeson, former Navy SEAL, author, and founder of TakingPoint Leadership, both spaces require communication, collaboration, and a high degree of mental toughness. Gleeson wrote that his experience in combat gave him, “a highly valuable and applicable set of tools that translated well to entrepreneurship and leadership in business.”

Of course, most people aren’t fighting life-or-death battles at their desks every day – but they do face unique and complex challenges. On top of their normal job responsibilities, today’s workforce is grappling with an ongoing global pandemic, political polarization, the effects of climate change, and the day-to-day stressors of balancing work and home life. It’s no wonder that nearly 20% of the adult population suffers from an anxiety disorder.

In such uncertain and chaotic times, why are some employees able to thrive while others barely scrape by? The difference often lies in their capacity to quickly recover from difficulties, a skill that can be taught in the workplace through resilience training. 

The importance of resilience

Resilience is the ability to persevere and recover from adversity. When a resilient person experiences hardship, they see it as an opportunistic challenge rather than focusing on self-pity.

In her research on resilience and emotional agility, award-winning Harvard Medical School psychologist Susan David discusses the relationship between soft skill sets and a business’s ability to adapt to the latest trends in our rapidly evolving world. Agile companies strive to be open-minded and adaptable, but they often hit a roadblock with their employees. When faced with complexity or difficulties, David says, many of us tend to respond with closed-mindedness and fear. This mindset makes innovation difficult — and ultimately prevents companies from reaching their goals.

Bottom line? For David, unless we actively learn how to embrace change, most of us will resist it. That’s where resilience training comes in. 

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What is resilience training?

Resilience doesn’t come naturally to most, but it can be taught. In an article for the Harvard Business Review, the father of positive psychology Martin E.P. Seligman describes his resilience training program based on 30 years of research. The program, piloted on more than a million U.S. Army soldiers in 2011, sought to “reduce the number of those who struggle [after a traumatic event] and increase the number of those who grow.”

Seligman’s military program became the foundation for many other resilience training programs in the workplace and beyond. It’s based on five key components:

  • Positive emotion: To build resilience, having a bank of positive feelings to fall back on is a necessity. While compiling positive emotions sounds a bit intangible, Seligman offers concrete guidance on how to do so. Using gratitude to increase happiness levels in memories of the past, mindfulness to truly appreciate and savor the present, and optimism to create more positive feelings about the future, are all key ways, he says, to increase our positivity.
  • Engagement: Engagement is sometimes referred to as a “flow” state: the focused mindset of a person wholly immersed in a task or project. In this state, we use all our skills and brainpower to work through a difficult problem or task – and, paradoxically, often finish feeling energized. People are more likely to persevere through even the most complex challenges if they get into a flow state, because they feel satisfied and happy with their work. 
  • Relationships: Relationships make it easier to connect with positive emotions (through laughter, affection, and belonging) and they also provide support during sadness or struggle. To increase resiliency, then, requires finding opportunities for relationship-building. It’s helpful to have a trusted mentor from whom to seek help when we’re struggling – whether in personal life or work life.
  • Meaning: It’s easier to work through difficulty when we understand why we’re doing it and how it connects to a greater purpose. Once people develop a sense of purpose, they’re more motivated to achieve their goals. Giving people the “big picture” of how their role contributes to greater goals, Seligman shows, is a powerful way to instill meaning in their day-to-day.
  • Accomplishment: When we complete goals, we’re rewarded with a rush of accomplishment and pride. That pride improves overall wellbeing, increases the sense of self, and serves as a reminder to persevere through future challenges. For that reason, Seligman encourages trainees to make specific and actionable goals, as well as reflect on and celebrate past successes.

How does this all translate to the workplace? Seligman argues that resilience training isn’t just for soldiers. It can be instrumental in helping employees recover from failure, stagnation, and other common problems that lead to poor performance.

How to build resilience in the workplace

Resilience training has been found to improve employees’ wellbeing and performance, which has a direct impact on ROI. For example, one study of a two-month-long resilience training program resulted in a $1,846 gain per person for the company due to reduced presenteeism. 

How can learning and development teams ensure that resilience training impacts both employees and the bottom line? Here are a few best practices to keep in mind.

Focus on quality 

Resilience is multifaceted, with many sub-skills that contribute to success. Training programs should draw from the expertise of a diverse group of thought leaders such as mental health practitioners, spiritual leaders, and successful entrepreneurs. In our lesson, “Make Resiliency Your Bedrock for Long-Term Growth,” Brent Gleeson shares his expertise on how to build resilient organizations, based on his experience leading SEAL teams in Iraq and Northern Africa. 

Make programs widely available 

As we learned from psychologist Susan David, most people have a tendency to respond to change with resistance. For this reason, resilience training should be accessible to all levels of employees — from the CEO, to those in entry-level roles. Offering e-learning resilience programs is one way to ensure that every member of the team can reap the benefits.

Offer flexibility

Resilience doesn’t come overnight; it’s built with consistent reinforcement over time. Microlearning solutions offer employees the chance to strengthen their resilience muscles by engaging in training on their own time, even during daily moments of stress. And these brief, virtual interventions work – a study from 2018 demonstrated that they’re an effective method for building resilience in the workplace.

Measure success

As with any training program, data is key to measuring value. One research team that collected data on the effectiveness of resilience training recorded a 20% increase in resilience among participants who reported high levels of distress beforehand. Results were based on self-reported survey data from before and after an eight-week trial period. Companies can create their own surveys to measure the effectiveness of internal programs using platforms like Connecteam and Survey Monkey. 

Future-proof your team with resilience training  

A business is only as strong and healthy as its employees. Everyone on the team contributes to the success or failure of a company’s mission. Investing in employee resilience, then, is a direct investment in the longevity and versatility of the organization as a whole — providing business leaders with confidence that their staff will be able to weather the inevitable storms ahead.

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