Employee Resilience Programs: Stressing the Data

by Dave Sharar

Bad things happen in life and work. While a loss at home is considered the more extreme trauma, the workplace is also highly stressful as employees cope with fears of job loss, excessive work demands, changes in technology, bad bosses, co-worker conflict, and a “do more with less” environment. Over the course of a normal lifespan, most people are exposed to at least one work-life event that is severe enough to meet the criteria for a psychiatric diagnosis related to traumatic stress (Bonanno, 2011). But the research is very clear that people respond differently to everyday stress, disturbing loss or change, and event traumatic situations like being the victim of a violent crime, receiving a terminal medical diagnosis, or losing one’s home to a natural disaster.

The ability to cope, adapt and “bounce back” in the midst of adversity or a traumatic event is referred to as “resilience”. Adults who function fine in “normal” circumstances but are then exposed to an isolated and highly disruptive event and yet manage to maintain a relatively stable, healthy level of functioning are thought to be resilient (Bonanno, 2011). It is best understood as a kind of stable trajectory of healthy adaptation to stressful events across one’s lifespan. Resilient individuals are thought to possess an optimistic, positive outlook; are genuinely hopeful that life will work out for them; hold a strong sense of personal competence; know how to both provide and enlist the support of others; and approach changes in life as an opportunistic challenge (Spangler, 2012).

Forward thinking companies embrace the concept of resilience over stress management — the latter is more reactive and the former is more proactive.Over the past decade, the term resilience has gained considerable currency in the world of workplace wellness and well-being. It is a highly valuable construct when investigating or even implementing employee well-being and productivity initiatives, much like wellness efforts that address nutrition and physical activity. Obviously, employers seeka workforce that is able to cope with stressful or adverse events by remaining flexible, positive and productive especially during high stress periods. But like a muscle, can one’s level of resilience be strengthened with training and exercise? Is resilience an intrinsic attribute that cannot be changed or is it modifiable through skill-building? The U.S. Army designed the Master Resilience Training Course so Officers could improve their cognitive and social skills in a way that would enhance desired outcomes in the face of serious threats (Reivich, 2011). Bennett (2014) with OWLS developed and scientifically tested Team Resilience, an evidenced-based program that uses a classroom design to train work groups on how to adapt to stressful situations more effectively. These particular programs have some evidence of effectiveness.

But there is now a plethora of resilience-building interventions, purporting to make people more resilient, offered by providers of employee assistance and wellness services and embedded within these services.

Some employers hire specialized consultants to implement resiliency interventions outside of EAP or wellness initiatives.Many of these interventions are snazzy webinar trainings that emphasize didactics or interactive, online “self-help” curricula. Apps and online tools addressing stress reductions and resilience are now ubiquitous in employee assistance and wellness offerings, fueled by the movement to change behaviors with smartphones and tablets. But are these programs effective; what specific components of these programs actually account for positive results? How many of these resilience-building tools are merely a novelty, with occasional ad hoc use but drive no measurable change?

We have learned that resilience is not the result of extraordinary mental health — only accessible to superstars — but is in fact more typical in ordinary lives than we might suspect. Pursuing a resilience-building intervention is an important strategy in a health and productivity initiative, but as a purchaser you should insist on credible evidence of the value and outcomes derived from the use of both online and classroom based interventions. Presently, this evidence is lacking in all but a few interventions. When selecting a resiliency building tool, make sure your provider can demonstrate the magnitude of improved resiliency over time with their particular intervention. In other words, “show me the data”.

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