Why You Need a Resilient Workforce in Today’s Economy

Do you realize how important it is for you to have a resilient workforce?

Do you realize your company’s success depends on this?

And, do you recognize the answer to building resilience is not simply hosting a brown bag lunch session on stress management?

Some questions you should be asking

If you are not sure of the connection between employee resilience and your company’s ability to thrive in this economy, see how many of these questions you answer “Yes” to:

  1. Do you believe it’s challenging for many people to focus on their jobs and keep their spirits up because of what’s going on in their lives and in the world?
  2. Are you concerned about how much health care benefits cost your company?
  3. Are you interested in keeping absenteeism and turnover costs down?
  4. Does customer service quality play a major role in whether or not your company thrives?
  5. Do you want your employees to respond to change with enthusiasm and determination, rather than fear and resistance?
  6. Does intellectual capitali.e. the knowledge, wisdom, and innovative capacity of your workforce – play a significant role in your ability to compete in the marketplace?
  7. Do you place a high priority on having a positive, “can do” workforce, rather than a negative, complain-about-everything collection of whiners?

If you answered “Yes” to these questions, you need a resilient workforce.

What exactly is resilience?

First off, let’s define resilience, then what it means to have a resilient workforce. Resilience refers to a person’s capacity to handle difficulties, demands, and high pressure without becoming stressed.

To paint a more precise picture of resilience, let’s divide the term into four facets:

  1. The ability to “not sweat the small stuff” – Resilient people are the opposite of “Drama Queens.” They don’t get worked up over little things like whether there are no Doritos ™ in the company vending machine or whether their stapler jams. They maintain their good cheer despite the frustrations and hassles that are part of everyday work life.
  2. The ability to perform well under pressure, when it’s “Big Stuff” – Resilient people handle pressure well. They don’t become testy or sharp-tongued in difficult situations. They do not become unglued when confronted by difficult situations or high pressure. Resilient people are the ones you can count on to come through when the stakes are high
  3. The ability to respond flexibly and adapt to changing circumstances – This is perhaps the most important reason to have a resilient workforce. Resilient people respond resourcefully to change. Rather than fight change and hang onto old, outdated ways, they respond to change with confidence and flexibility. In day-to-day life, if their current approach to a situation no longer works, they can quickly switch to Plan B without getting flustered.
  4. The ability to bounce back from defeat and disaster – This aspect of resilience is typically what people think of when they hear the word resilience. The more resilient a person is, the more quickly they recover from a setback, make the best of the new situation, and become a “new and improved” version of themselves. In the workplace, resilient individuals do not dwell on failures, requests denied, or dark chapters in their employer’s past. They move on.

What difference does a resilient workforce make?

A resilient workforce is a productive workforce. A resilient workforce is healthy, energetic, durable, and enthusiastic. Furthermore, borrowing from Harvard Business School’s Rosabeth Moss Kantor, resilient workers are “fast, friendly, flexible, and focused.”

Several years ago, Dr. Kantor used this phrase to describe the qualities companies needed to survive in the new economy.

Since companies are made up of employees, for a company to be “fast, friendly, flexible, and focused,” it obviously needs employees who possess these qualities. Workers who feel stressed out and overwhelmed don’t. Resilient employees do.

The fundamental sources of competitive advantage in today’s economy are frequently identified as being:

  • The ability to create brand-building customer experiences;
  • Organizational responsiveness: The ability to respond quickly to change;
  • Innovation and intellectual capital;
  • Talent acquisition and retention;
  • Productivity per employee.

Creating brand-building customer experiences

Let’s briefly examine how stress makes it difficult – if not impossible – to possess these critical drivers of organizational success.

The connection between employee stress and customer service is pretty obvious: stressed out employees don’t give great service.

They don’t even give good service. Research on the brain supports what we know from personal experience — when stressed, people have difficulty experiencing empathy and compassion for others.

When stressed, people are less likely to respond with patience and goodwill. Thus, if your business’s success depends on providing great customer service – you MUST address employee stress.

Organizational responsiveness

The ability to respond quickly to change – In today’s mercurial marketplace, you’re either quick or you’re dead.

Perhaps the most important organizational quality in today’s world of accelerating change is the ability to respond quickly to change. This necessity poses a serious problem for companies with stressed out employees because of what stress does to the brain.

Decades of research on stress have shown that stress activates primitive, hard-wired “programs” in the brain that lead to neophobia (fear of anything new) and behavioral inflexibility (repeating the same action, despite the fact it is not working). Thus, stressed out workers are more likely to fear the new and to cling to old, no longer viable ways.

Conversely, employees who feel energized, confident, and inspired are far more likely to find change exciting and to respond with agility and creativity.

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Innovation and intellectual capital

In today’s knowledge economy, “intelligence rules.” Even in companies that are not typically viewed as knowledge-driven, the ability to innovate, to improve processes, to do things faster and more efficiently, all play an important role in success.

Unfortunately for companies with stressed out workers, stress makes people dumber. Decades of research on stress and intellectual functioning support what you have probably observed: when people are stressed, they’re not as creative, they’re not as logical, they’re as capable of noticing alternatives and opportunities.

Stress also compromises this critical source of competitive advantage simply because of how it affects attention and “mind share.” When people feel stressed, the source of their stress dominates their thoughts. Time spent worrying and obsessing is time not spent focusing on one’s job.

For example, the customer service worker whose boss spoke to her in a demeaning way several hours ago is probably not focusing her attention on new ways to improve their service delivery. The IT professional swamped by the workload of two people is probably not formulating new ways to improve system integration.

Talent acquisition and retention

While talent has always been a key component of success, it will become even more important as the labor pool shrinks with the wave of Baby Boomer retirements.

Your ability to attract and retain talent obviously depends on your reputation as an employer. If your workplace is known as a high-stress, human-unfriendly workplace, you won’t be a talent magnet. You will be a talent repellent.

Even if you have a stellar recruiting team who brings you great employees, if you deliver a negative work experience, they will soon fly back out the door. Thus, employee stress plays a significant role in this critical source of competitive advantage.

Productivity per employee

Good old-fashioned productivity is still one of the key sources of competitive advantage.

If you compete globally against companies who pay a fraction of American wages, you are no doubt acutely aware of your need to get maximum productivity from each employee. In the short term, stressed out workers can deliver high productivity.

However, stressed out workers eventually burn out, costing you in terms of increased turnover, mistakes, workers compensation claims, and health insurance premiums, thereby reducing your productivity and profitability per employee.

If you want a productive, “fast, friendly, flexible, and focused” workforce, if you want employees who can help you achieve your goals, you need to know how to create a work experience and a work environment that fosters resilience.

What to do about this?

Here are three steps you can take:

  1. Identify sources of unnecessary stress, and remove as many of these sources as possible (email me for a list of these) — In today’s “do more with less” world, it’s unrealistic to expect people not to feel some stress. However, since all humans have a finite capacity to handle stress, why add to the stress load sources of stress that don’t need to be there, such as red tape, insufficient training and resources, toxic behavior being tolerated, poor communication, etc?
  2. Learn more about what factors, when present in a work experience, lead to resilience… and then how to design them into your work experience.
  3. Learn more about what leadership practices foster resilience and what ones lead to stressed out employees who demonstrate learned helplessness…and then implement training, coaching, and accountability systems so your managers do the former and not the latter.

David Lee is the founder and principal of HumanNature@work and the creator of Stories That Change. He's an internationally recognized authority on organizational and managerial practices that optimize employee performance, morale, and engagement. He is also the author of "Managing Employee Stress and Safety," as well over 100 articles and book chapters. You can download more of his articles at HumanNature@work, contact him at david@humannatureatwork.com, or follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/humannaturework.

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