The term ‘resilience’ is regularly used inside the workplace. But what does it really mean, why does it matter, and can it be learnt? Margo Lydon and John Capon from SuperFriend— AustralianSuper’s mental health partner—share their thoughts.

When employers talk about building greater resilience in their people, it’s sometimes interpreted as shorthand for ‘we want to put you through some training, so we can give you more work’. SuperFriend CEO, Margo Lydon, says it’s an approach that invariably generates cynicism among employees—and usually fails as a result.

Using resilience training as a remedial measure is also a potential misstep, according to John Capon, SuperFriend Program Manager for Mental Health & Wellbeing Training. “Employers too often see it as a curative”, he believes, “they think the problem lies with their employees, and can be quickly fixed with some general training—both are misconceptions”.

A paradox, yes. Impossible, no. Resilience can indeed be learnt; it’s not a trait. Much like a muscle, its strength can be built up over time.

Think of it as ‘bouncing forward’

Describing it as ‘the ability of someone to bounce back from adversity’, Lydon points out that resilience is a personal response to all the environmental stressors to which an individual is exposed, not just those of the workplace.

“People will face any number of challenges in the course of their lives”, she says, “issues at home or with their family, financial pressures, a new baby, loss of a loved one or a pet, other major life events; the list is long.”

When those challenges come along every so often, people typically bounce back, and may even ‘bounce forward’ with a new normal marked by personal growth. But even the most resilient person can struggle—perhaps even burn out—when facing multiple major challenges concurrently or in rapid succession.

Toward greater resilience

Capon says a person’s resilience reflects their unique life experiences: what they’ve learned from them, and their ability to apply those learnings to navigate challenging moments. “That’s why different people respond to adversity in different ways”, he adds.

In a workplace setting, increased resilience can translate directly into personal productivity gains and improved workplace outcomes. But if an employee struggles in the workplace during a busy period, resilience isn’t necessarily the problem. It could be some other mental health issue. Or the employee simply might not be the right person the job, the job itself may be poorly thought through, or the workload may be unrealistic.

“Resilience training in the workplace is often used as a band-aid”, Lydon says, “instead of trying to ‘toughen everyone up’, the focus needs to be on the underlying issue, whether it be the individual needing additional attention, the way their job is designed or has evolved, or the nature of the challenge or challenges being faced.”

What type of training?

Even in situations where strengthening employee resilience is considered appropriate, there’s still the matter of what form an intervention should take. “There’s little evidence to support the effectiveness of one-off resilience training”, Capon says, “it takes commitment and time to build resilience, and the program needs to be evidence based”.

However, if the program is properly conceived, and draws on techniques such as cognitive behavioural therapy and acceptance commitment therapy, it can be beneficial to the employee’s mental health.

“You can equip someone to cope better with challenging times”, Capon confirms, “doing so can help an individual reach their full potential, both at work and beyond”.

Further reading

SuperFriend is a national mental health foundation focused on creating positive, healthy and safe working environments where every employee can be well and thrive. It is the only mental health organisation that partners with superannuation funds and group insurers to gain knowledge of the industry’s unique needs and respond with tailored solutions.

Their publication, ‘Building Thriving Workplaces: Guidelines and Actions, features practical and proven strategies that can help your employees thrive. For a copy, visit superfriend.com.au/resources.