A resilient, high-performing workforce in a stressful situation: what are the implications for the employer?

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Scientific interpretation

If it is possible to come out of a stressful situation unscathed, or even to bounce back, come out stronger and perform, how can organizations help employees achieve high-performance goals while protecting them from the harmful effects of the stress that they may be exposed to? According to Koerber, Rouse, Stanyar and Pelletier (2018), much of the answer lies in the concept of resilience, which has been studied particularly through the positive psychology movement. To help employees perform in stressful situations and reduce the negative effects that stress can cause, they insist on the importance of organizational and personal resources to foster workforce resilience.

Experts

Dr. Charles MARTIN-KRUMM, professor, École de psychologues praticiens de Paris, France.

 Clément MÉTAIS, doctoral candidate, Laboratoire APEMAC, Université de Lorraine, France. 

Authors

Patrice DANEAU, research assistant, Université́ de Sherbrooke

 Marie-Élise LABRECQUE, research professional, Université de Sherbrooke

This initiative was made possible through a collaboration with the Université de Sherbrooke.

WHAT DO WE MEAN BY:

Stress

Stress occurs when the employee believes that they lack the resources required to meet the demands that they are faced with. Exposure to a stressor generates a physiological response that can affect the employee’s performance and well-being, particularly when the stressful demand is perceived as excessive and/or the employee is exposed to it over an extended period.

Demands

Demands refer to the physical (e.g. load that needs to be lifted), psychological (e.g. a task that is cognitively demanding), social (e.g. conflicts at work) or organizational (e.g. excessive workload) aspects of work that require physical or psychological efforts. They can represent requirements, constraints or conditions in the performance of a person’s job. Exposure to demands gradually exhausts employees physically, psychologically and emotionally and, when the demands are excessive, they can lead to burnout, a general deterioration in health and poor performance.

Resources

Resources refer to the physical (e.g. good physical condition), psychological (e.g. skill), social (e.g. social support) or organizational (e.g. decision-making latitude) characteristics of work that allow an employee to properly deal with demands and adequately perform their work. The presence of resources helps protect employees from the negative effects of stress caused by demands, in addition to promoting positive psychological states and employee performance.

Personal resilience

Resilience refers to the employee’s ability to persevere during a stressful situation, allowing them to recover sufficiently or adjust appropriately to such a situation. When faced with high demand(s), employees’ performance and well-being can be resiliently maintained if there are sufficient personal and organizational resources.

Caveats from our experts:

Resilience: a trait, a skill, a state or a consequence?

The idea of resilience is often positioned somewhere between a trait, a state, a skill and even a consequence; we know whether an employee is resilient only if they are faced with adversity and overcome it. This understanding of resilience creates significant recruitment and management challenges because it is difficult to predict, measure and manage the phenomenon within organizations. Therefore, it is problematic to try to anticipate, identify or strengthen the capacity for resilience of employees who would be vulnerable in the face of adversity. Instead, it is recommended that resilience be approached in a more nuanced way, either as a dynamic process that is the result of the interplay of interactions between a context, a unique individual and a situation. Here, the process of resilience doesn’t depend only on individual or environmental features, but rather on the interplay of interactions of this entire group of elements. For employers wanting to foster employees’ sustained engagement in resilience processes, it means paying attention not only to the presence/absence of specific employee characteristics (personal resources such as traits, skills or strengths) or organizational characteristics (organizational resources such as social support and decision-making latitude), but, most importantly, to how all these individual and organizational characteristics come together in a specific situation. In fact, the employer must aim to create the necessary conditions—based on a situation or a context—so that the interplay fosters the sustained engagement of employees in resilience processes.

Stressors: only an individual’s subjective interpretation?

A distinction must be made between acute stressors (i.e. those that are one-off and intense—for example, a sudden workload surge, being moved to a different team, starting a new position or role) and those that are more chronic (i.e. considerable adversity over the long term—for example, bad work relationships). It is also important to keep in mind that stressors aren’t based only on the employee’s subjective interpretation, but they can also result from the deterioration and/or objective loss of a resource.

What do the results of the study tell us?

The article by Koweber, Rouse, Stanyar and Pelletier (2018), highlights resources that foster resilience in the workforce, especially in high-demand contexts. These authors recommend the development of resources within the organization (social support, autonomy and degree of control, chances to recover) employees’ personal resources (personal skills, personal stress assessment process) and resources specific to a stressful situation (critical incident stress-management protocol, downsizing protocol). Recommended actions are then offered to the employer.

Resources that promote resilience

Levels

Resource type

Employer strategies

WORKPLACE

Organizational resources

Social support

Refers to supportive interpersonal relationships and can be divided into 4 categories:

  • Emotional: feeling listened to, free to talk about problems and/or discuss different situations (people-oriented support);
  • Instrumental: receiving offers of assistance, getting help, ideas or advice when dealing with a situation or problem (task-oriented support);
  • Informational : having access to information concerning a situation.
  • Appraisal: perception of the level of support that one thinks one can receive from someone else.
  • Recognize and demonstrate appreciation for the contribution provided by the workforce and for the results;
  • Build positive interpersonal relationships by fostering workplace inclusivity;
  • Respect the psychological contract related to career support and development;
  • Offer support systematically to employees demonstrating personality changes or other symptoms (e.g. refer employees to, and encourage the use of, the employee assistance program);
  • Take an uncompromising stance concerning respect for the rights of individuals in the workplace.

Degree of control (autonomy)

 

Refers to the degree of control that the workforce has. It can be conveyed through several concepts:

  • Decision-making latitude: perception of having a certain amount of control over the work to be done;
  • Locus of causality: belief as to what determines work success;
  • Job crafting possibilities: possibilities employees have to make improvements in their work and tailor it to their needs and preferences.
  • Positive psychological capital: all the psychological resources within an organization, such as the sense of efficacy, optimism and hope.
  • Assess requests related to the workforce’s degree of control and reorganize work when the workforce doesn’t have sufficient control to properly do the work;
  • Encourage employees to communicate with their manager about the way work is, or should be, performed, consider their opinions and be attentive to the changes suggested;
  • Inform employees when planning to change the way work is done (e.g. overtime);
  • When possible, offer employees flexibility and options so that they can have better work-life balance (e.g. possibility of compressed hours or telecommuting).

Chances to recover

Refers to possibilities of having breaks during work time and sufficient resting time to reverse the effects of a heavy workload or a sustained effort. Certain principles should be considered:

  • Demand and a certain level of stress can result in high performance (e.g. when an employee is absorbed in their work; when they are dedicated), but only when employees have sufficiently recovered before starting their work shift.
    • Conversely, insufficient recovery during work periods leads to general fatigue
  • Employees recover better during relaxing activities (e.g. reading), developmental activities (e.g. developing new skills) and socialization and volunteer work activities, provided that these activities facilitate the individual’s psychological detachment from their work.
  • Encourage the workforce to use leave or paid time off (vacation days, holidays, weekends);
  • Encourage the workforce to take their breaks;
  • Encourage adherence to rest periods at work;
  • Provide employees with spaces dedicated to breaks, rest and recovery;
  • Avoid imposing on employees during their non-work hours;
  • Promote sleep hygiene.

Employees

Personal resources

Relaxation techniques

 

Refers to methods and tools that employees can use to regulate their emotions and control their physiological reactions when faced with a stressful situation. A few principles to consider:

  • Relaxation techniques should be combined with other interventions (organizational, for example) for better efficacy.
  • Physical exercise is one of the most effective relaxation techniques.

Offer people-centred programs and training

  • Breathing exercise
  • Progressive muscle relaxation
  • Biofeedback method
  • Exercise and physical fitness
  • Meditation

Exercise and physical condition

 

Refers to the employee’s physical condition and level of physical activity. A few principles to consider:

  • Physical resources are less quickly depleted in individuals who are in good physical condition.
  • Exercising and being in good physical condition allow a person to recover more quickly from a stressful situation.
  • Physical activity promotes a positive mood and reduces cortisol levels (stress hormone).
  • Facilitate the availability of, and/or access to, physical fitness activities (at the workplace or outside work);
  • Encourage employee participation in activities through different initiatives (e.g. flextime at work or periods set aside for physical activity);
  • Encourage employees to use stairs safely by improving signs and making stairway use more appealing;
  • Provide amenities that encourage employees to walk or cycle to work (e.g. bike rack, locker rooms, showers).

Basic competencies and general life skills

Refers to skills and behaviours that allow good management of constraints, problems and tensions normally encountered in everyday life. A few principles to consider:

  • Developing good personal coping strategies allows the employee to deal more effectively with stressors at work and in life in general (e.g. emotion-oriented coping to regulate emotions; problem-oriented coping to change the situation).
  • The effectiveness of coping depends on the controllability of the situation (objective/subjective) that an individual has to deal with.
  • Employees’ financial situations have increasingly become stressors that affect their well-being and performance.

To develop personal and general interpersonal stress management skills

  • Adopt a stress management program;
  • Offer training in time management, task delegation and conflict negotiation and resolution;
  • Facilitate the availability of, or access to, educational resources (e.g. access to a bookseller);
  • Offer training in emotional intelligence.

 

To develop personal skills specific to financial stress management

  • Offer a default employee savings plan;
  • Offer specific goal-oriented training and consulting services at different critical points in the employee’s career (e.g. hiring, promotion, birth of a child, disability, job loss or change, retirement);
  • Facilitate access to an employee assistance program for those experiencing financial difficulties;
  • General training in financial health and its basic principles (e.g. lunch and learn event, games, personal advice).

Personal strengths

Refers to a natural, genuine ability to feel, think or behave that is energizing for an employee, leads to optimal functioning and drive performance. A few principles to consider:

  • Using personal strengths promotes a feeling of efficacy and positive emotions, good management of demands and the achievement of excellence in the area where they are used;
  • Strengths can evolve and develop;
  • For positive effects in the longer term, it’s important that strengths be not only identified, but also incorporated, applied and followed up on.
  • Interventions aimed at developing strengths can improve the employee’s well-being, performance and engagement at work, as well as unity and cohesion within the team.

Identify and incorporate personal strengths

  • Make recognized tools available to identify strengths (e.g. strengthsfinder, via me!, strengths profile);
  • Discuss the employee’s strengths one-on-one or as a team and make strengths visible;
  • Offer individual brainstorming or coaching meetings;
  • Take advantage of the performance appraisal to highlight strengths.

 

Apply strengths on a daily basis

  • Reorganize work to make better use of employees’ strengths based on objectives or complementarity within a team;
  • Provide follow-up and feedback;
  • Be responsive to the experience of each employee and the team to avoid overusing strengths and creating feelings of unfairness and to help satisfy personal development needs.

 

 

Cognitive stress appraisal process

Refers to the perception of a threatening, dangerous situation, whether challenging or insignificant. A few principles to consider:

  • Cognitive appraisal training for employees is believed to be more effective than training in relaxation techniques and general life skills.
  • By developing personal strategies that allow them to identify negative thoughts and challenge them, employees can better understand stressors in their environment.
  • By developing psychological flexibility, the employee is able to, among other things, be more mindful of the present moment and their surroundings, better observe how they are functioning and thinking, and choose the most appropriate actions based on the situation and their values.

Opt for a cognitive-behavioural training approach

  • Traditional cognitive-behavioural approach (identifying and changing negative thoughts)
  • Approach involving engagement and acceptance (improve psychological flexibility for increased mindfulness, self-observation and compatibility with their values).

 

SPECIFIC SITUATION

Context-specific resources

Protocol specific to critical-incident stress management

 

Critical incident refers to a present or future situation likely to give rise to intense emotions and strong, unusual reactions. A few principles to consider:

A critical-incident stress-management protocol is a process consisting of many phases that are implemented before and after the critical incident.

  • Develop and define a critical-incident management protocol by drawing on standards, programs or recognized practices;
  • When possible, use an employee (or a partner) who has been trained in critical event management to facilitate the implementation of such a program;
  •   Beforehand, appoint a qualified person or group of people from within the organization or external to it to act as first responder(s) if a critical situation occurs.

Downsizing-specific protocol

 

A downsizing-specific protocol aims to promote a feeling of security in the workforce and encourage communication before and during the process for improved information sharing.

  • Makes it possible to reduce negative effects (e.g. lack of control of the workforce, employment (in)security, degree of engagement, absenteeism, intention to quit) related to a large workforce reduction.

Strategic considerations

  • Plan to have the downsizing process take place over the shortest period of time possible;
  • Establish clear rules and standards to apply uniformly and systematically during the downsizing period;
  • Avoid offering preferential treatment to employees during the downsizing period;
  • Plan a problem anticipation and resolution process so that problems can be resolved as quickly as possible during the downsizing period.

 

Considerations with respect to employees

  • Ensure that the new employment contract and its repercussions are properly understood by surviving employees;
  • Provide employees with tools in career self-management;
  • Train managers for better management of employees’ personal needs;
    • Be sure to overcommunicate downsizing information: inform all employees as early as possible about the upcoming downsizing;
    • notify the employees affected by the downsizing as quickly as possible.
  •   Plan and provide assistance and support to employees affected by the downsizing;
  • Be sure to inform surviving employees about the services offered to the terminated employees;
  • Revise workloads (and avoid excessive workloads) for surviving employees.

Strategies taken from Appelbaum and Donia (2001)

Clarifications from our experts:

Focus efforts on encouraging employees’ engagement in resilience processes rather than on developing the employee’s resilience. This nuance, which positions resilience as a process rather than an employee characteristic, doesn’t necessarily affect the nature of the resources presented above; however, for the employer, it does involve finding the key equation or the necessary conditions that promote employees’ engagement in resilience processes.

Take into consideration that a resource is not necessarily universal for every situation. By way of example, it may not be beneficial to insist that two employees who basically don’t get along become close collaborators, on the pretext that social support is a recognized resource. Similarly, sports or fitness activities at work could be perceived as a demand for an employee who’s not keen on sports and prefers relaxation activities such as reading.

Pay particular attention to resource implementation and promotion strategies (and your strategy follow-up) to make sure that the key conditions are in place. It isn’t enough to simply make resources available to employees; every setting or situation is unique in its context and culture, and in the characteristics of the individuals involved. Also, the challenge is to ensure that interactions between aversive elements, available resources and individuals and teams work so that a favourable interplay is triggered. 

Maintaining a healthy organizational culture and compassionate practices. Valuing performance results and seeking profit at all costs often in themselves cause permanent stress for employees. When results separate good employees from bad ones, employees’ perception of their level of control over events is reduced, especially when results are not achieved. In a context in which continuous learning is not valued and where the environment is perceived as threatening (instead of caring), employees facing adversity are motivated to adopt defence mechanisms instead of undertaking a process of resilience.

Encouraging shared responsibility on the part of the employer, managers and employees to establish the key conditions for the resilience process. While the employer can implement or develop key resources, managers can also play a role by adopting a cohesive management style; kindness, support and guidance in development and learning are essential practices in resilience processes. As for employees, they have to agree to look for solutions, take initiatives, continually self-develop and identify their strengths, weaknesses and defence mechanisms.

N.B.: Facilitating employees’ engagement in resilience processes does not guarantee team or organizational resilience. Team or organizational resilience is more than the sum of personal resilience. Team and organizational resilience are related themes that pose different challenges and require different actions. Nevertheless, an overall strategy whose goal is to promote employee, team and organizational engagement can be considered for greater efficiency.

TO CITE THIS GLOBAL-WATCH SCIENTIFIC INTERPRETATION

Martin-Krumm, C., Métais, C., Daneau, P., Labrecque, M.-E. (2019). A resilient, high-performing workforce in a stressful situation: what are the implications for the employer?. Global-Watch Scientific Interpretation available at www.global-watch.com

TO CITE THE ORIGINAL ARTICLE BY THE AUTHORS OF THE STUDY

Koerber, R., Rouse, M., Stanyar, K., Pelletier, M.-H. (2017). Building Resilience in the Workplace. Organizational Dynamics, 47, 124-134.

REFERENCES USED

Appelbaum and Donia (2001) The realistic downsizing preview: a multiple case study, part II: analysis of RDP model: results of data collected and proposed new model.

Miglianico, M., Dubreuil, P., Miquelon, P., Bakker, A. B., & Martin-Krumm, C. (2019). Strength Use in the Workplace: A Literature Review. Journal of Happiness Studies, 1-28.

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