Opinion

Rethinking Resilience in the Workplace

A shift in how we view resilience—as a team-based attribute and goal rather than an individual quality—could greatly improve both work performance and staff wellbeing.

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Date Posted

4 Mar 2021

Issue

ETHOS Digital Special Edition, 3 Mar 2021

Introduction

The term “resilience” has come into regular use in the Singapore Public Service.1  While the concept at its core has to do with successfully adapting to and coping with adversity, it is employed in a variety of contexts to describe individuals, communities, and larger ecosystems. This article will focus on the idea of resilience in the workplace, rather than the broader resilience of the Public Service or of Singapore.

We often think of resilience in the workplace as the ability to perform in adverse or stressful situations. It is used to describe an innate quality of individuals: one that is formally or informally regarded as a metric for evaluation. Many officers will have heard—whether from leaders, supervisors, or HR departments—that it is a quality one must possess to do well. Resilient officers are supposed to be able to perform under pressure, take on heavy workloads, and soldier on no matter how difficult the circumstances. They are praised for their work ethic, “mental toughness”, and spirit of service.

On the flipside, some officers seem to struggle in stressful situations. When it comes to the crunch, they miss urgent deadlines, may not respond to emails or text messages quickly, and tend to dampen overall morale. Such officers are deemed to lack resilience; they might give the impression that they cannot be relied on. Because of this perceived weakness, they might be given less important work or even be marked down in their work evaluation.

It is worth pointing out that this view of resilience, with its focus on individual performance, does not include recovery from adversity, which is an equally important component of resilience.2  Moreover, expecting every officer to be able to consistently produce good work in chronic high-stress environments invariably creates huge demands on them, and can exact a serious toll on their mental health—particularly if resilience is taken to be purely a matter of personal aptitude and responsibility.

Contrary to what is intended, focusing too much on personal resilience could actually lead to poorer outcomes, both as a matter of wellbeing and work performance. Perhaps it is time to change the way we think about resilience—not just as an individual trait, but also as an aim and an attribute of teams. Instead of asking how much stress an officer can take, a better question might be: what enables teams to surmount challenges and produce good work together?


Focusing too much on personal resilience could actually lead to poorer outcomes, both as a matter of wellbeing and work performance.

Personal Resilience: Not Just Grinning and Bearing It

Personal resilience is a product of natural and environmental factors. Researchers have likened it to a scale balanced on a fulcrum: on one end, there are positive life experiences (e.g., supportive relationships; events that increase perceived control, self-regulation, and/or adaptive skills; sources of faith and hope).3  On the other end are experiences of significant adversity (e.g., poor education, violence, neglect, etc.).4  The initial position of the fulcrum (i.e., one’s sensitivity to stress) depends on our genetics, but subsequently the fulcrum shifts depending on our experiences. As we accumulate positive experiences, it becomes more difficult for the scale to be tipped towards adversity. On the other hand, constant loading of stressors and negative experiences makes it harder for the scale to tip towards emotional balance or positive outcomes (i.e., resistance to and recovery from adversity).

Personal resilience is therefore multifactorial and complex, and deeply affected by one’s individual background. It is not a capability that can change drastically overnight, nor something that individuals can turn on and off at will. While it is possible to build self-regulatory capabilities that support resilience in adulthood, constant exposure to stressors does not achieve this—just like scales overloaded on one end, this will have the opposite effect. Instead, activities like regular physical exercise, stress-reduction practices, and programmes that cultivate self-regulation skills are more likely to strengthen resilience over time, because they afford individuals the time and space to recover from stress and adapt better to future challenges. As such, these activities are not just “good to have”: they are essential in developing resilience and should be given due priority, at both personal and professional levels.

The Perils of Focusing on Personal Resilience

Based on this more nuanced understanding of personal resilience, the conventional approach taken in many workplaces of emphasising resilience as a desired quality or using it as an evaluation metric may be counterproductive.

First, the conventional approach runs the risk of unfair comparisons and evaluations being made. We have seen that the “playing field” of personal resilience is not level: expressions of this trait depend significantly on factors outside our control. As such, we should not penalise officers who appear less resilient based on conventional criteria, because this may be caused by factors like genetics, early childhood experiences, or stressors outside the workplace (e.g., at home). While some amount of stress is inevitable in work situations, the important thing is for supervisors to realise that not all officers have the same natural capacity to deal with it, and someone with less capacity to deal with stress is not necessarily less competent.


Someone with less capacity to deal with stress is not necessarily less competent.

Second, the conventional approach leads dangerously to unhealthy work cultures that valorise overwork. The meaning we usually attach to resilience in the workplace—i.e., being able to perform amidst enormous pressure—normalises unhealthy stress, and implicitly encourages officers to push their mental and physical limits in an unsustainable way. Moreover, it stigmatises the practice of seeking help, especially for mental health issues, as this is seen as “weak” (read: “not resilient”), which can harm one’s reputation at work.

We already see the effects of this in Singapore. According to a recent international survey, 78% of Singaporeans feel that they need to be “always on”, and 63% feel stressed at work.5  Anecdotal evidence suggests that the public sector is not immune to this effect. A number of former and current public servants have remarked that employees who left on time at the end of the official work day may be “marked”,6  and that some supervisors have called their staff incessantly during their days off.7  This suggests officers are expected to work outside office hours, with reputational consequences if they do not—which leaves little room for time away from work to recover.

Third, the present approach may have the paradoxical effect of eroding individual officers’ resilience. As explained above, consistent exposure to stressors stacks the “negative outcomes” end of the resilience scale. As such, asking officers who are already in high-pressure environments to be “more resilient” (read: grit their teeth and push through heavy workloads and short timelines), without creating a supportive work environment with high levels of trust and perceived autonomy, is likely to result in an erosion of their personal resilience over time.


Asking officers who are already in high-pressure environments to be “more resilient” without creating a supportive work environment with high levels of trust and perceived autonomy, is likely to result in an erosion of their personal resilience.

Team Resilience: More than the Sum of Its Parts

Instead of focusing on the individual, a better alternative could be to make the team the core of the resilience concept. Team resilience has been defined as a team’s capacity to manage the everyday pressures of work and remain healthy, adapt to change, and be prepared for future work challenges.8  This is not a matter of aggregating each member’s personal resilience. Rather, it is asking how the team, as a unit, can be enabled to withstand high-pressure, stressful environments and produce good work together over the long term. This approach is concerned with team-based actions (e.g., monitoring workloads, optimising resources, building capabilities) to reduce the effects of work-related stress, enhance wellbeing, and boost adaptability and job performance.9  This perspective makes expressing and building resilience a collective endeavour, rather than an individual responsibility.


A better alternative could be to make the team the core of the resilience concept.

Numerous articles have been written on what resilient teams look like in practice, and several key characteristics are common to many of them.10  Crucially, the behaviours of resilient teams do not just contribute to better wellbeing, but also result in improved performance.

Creating such an environment need not be left to chance, or even to the wider organisation: it can and should be undertaken by team leaders, who should see nurturing an inclusive, supportive and hence more resilient culture as core to their responsibilities.

First, resilient teams have strong intrinsic motivation. This might partly be attributed to individuals; for example, identifying deep meaning and purpose in one’s work is a key factor that enables perseverance in adverse situations.11  However, intrinsic motivation is also boosted when members feel a sense of belonging to the team, have confidence in their ability to pick up challenging skills, and have a significant degree of perceived autonomy over their work.12  They feel included in decision-making processes, and this gives them a stake in the direction and deliverables of the team. Notably, these are all factors that would weigh on the positive end of the resilience scale as well.


The behaviours of resilient teams do not just contribute to better wellbeing, but also result in improved performance.

Second, resilient teams promote psychological safety and trust. This can come about by team members paying attention and listening to each other, not blaming or pointing fingers, being open to feedback, and giving credit and affirmation where it is due. These practices create a culture in which members are not afraid to share concerns, ask questions, or make mistakes, as they know their colleagues will generally be supportive and have positive attitudes. This not only reduces the amount of unnecessary stress at work (e.g., anxieties about colleagues’ opinions, managing poor relationships, etc.), but also enables members to learn faster, be open and honest with each other, and be more creative in their work. In turn, this produces better work outcomes. Indeed, drawing from a survey of more than 1,000 employees from over 200 teams in 40 companies, Meneghel et al. found that: (i) collective positive emotions (i.e., enthusiasm, optimism, satisfaction, comfort and relaxation) were positively related to team resilience; (ii) team resilience was positively related to supervisor-reported performance; and (iii) team resilience fully accounted for the relationship between positive emotions and performance.13

Third, resilient teams prioritise wellbeing. Stress and burnout are not swept under the carpet. Instead, they are openly discussed, whether in informal settings or formal ones (e.g., structured team debriefs, after-action reviews, etc.). This enables members to support each other, which feeds into the psychological safety and trust discussed above. Moreover, talking about stress increases opportunities for individual officers to self-regulate,14  which in turn contributes to the development of their personal resilience. Finally, creating space for these conversations will go towards destigmatising help-seeking behaviour, which is of prime importance in building workplaces that are friendlier, healthier and less daunting.


Resilient teams prioritise wellbeing. Stress and burnout are not swept under the carpet. Instead, they are openly discussed.

Conclusion: The Best of Both Worlds

All this is not to say that personal resilience is unimportant. The ability to persevere in difficult situations and bounce back stronger is extremely valuable, and should be developed. However, placing the responsibility for demonstrating resilience solely on individuals is misguided at the conceptual level, insufficient and ineffective with respect to work performance at the practical level, and potentially harmful as a matter of employee health and wellbeing.

Going forward, we should shift our focus towards cultivating team resilience as well. This orientation is easily applicable in the Public Service, in which most, if not all work is team-based. This approach is concerned with building positive team dynamics: creating a shared vision, high levels of buy-in, strong interpersonal relationships and mutual trust, and a psychologically safe work environment. Every member has a part to play in contributing to the resilience of their team. Importantly, this conception of resilience also foregrounds team leaders’ ability to care for, develop, and inspire their staff—which dovetails with PSD’s Our Core Competency Framework, which will apply from January 2021. Hopefully, institutionalising the process of looking out for these qualities in our leaders will catalyse wider shifts in our thinking towards a more holistic conception of work performance—and more importantly, create change in our actions to build better teams.


A focus towards cultivating team resilience is easily applicable in the Public Service, in which most, if not all work is team-based.

Against the backdrop of ever-increasing work stresses and higher rates of employee burnout, this vision of resilience—a collective endeavour rather than an individual responsibility—is likely to be more effective and sustainable in the long run.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Esther Cheah works at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and is currently on her first overseas posting.

This article was written in the author’s personal capacity; the opinions in the article are the author’s own and the article does not reflect the views of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs or the Singapore Government.

 


NOTES

  1. See, for example, Teo Chee Hean, “Resilience in a Changing External Environment”, Gov.sg, June 11, 2020, accessed June 28, 2020, https://www.gov.sg/article/senior-minister-teo-chee-hean-resilience-in-a-changing-external-environment; Public Service Division, “Speech by Mr Chan Chun Sing, Minister-in-Charge of the Public Service, at the 2019 Administrative Service Dinner and Promotion Ceremony”, April 16, 2019, accessed June 28, 2020, https://www.psd.gov.sg/press-room/speeches/speech-by-mr-chan-chun-sing--minister-in-charge-of-the-public-service--at-the-2019-administrative-service-dinner-and-promotion-ceremony. .
  2. Rachel Dresdale, “Can Re-framing Resilience Improve Work-Life Balance?”, Forbes, January 18, 2017, accessed, June 20, 2020, https://www.forbes.com/sites/rachelritlop/2017/01/18/is-re-framing-resilience-the-key-to-work-life-balance/#7262519023da.
  3. Center on the Developing Child, Harvard University, “Resilience”, accessed June 19, 2020, https://developingchild.harvard.edu/science/key-concepts/resilience/.
  4. Bari Walsh, “The Path to Resilience”, Harvard Graduate School of Education, May 18, 2015, accessed June 17, 2020, https://www.gse.harvard.edu/news/uk/15/05/path-resilience.
  5. Cigna COVID-19 Global Impact Study.
  6. Louisa Tang, “The Big Read: Breaking Singapore’s Workaholic Culture”, Channel NewsAsia, December 24, 2018.
  7. Chen Jingting, “Are You Game for Engagement?”, Challenge, November 16, 2012.
  8. Kathryn McEwen and Carolyn M. Boyd, “A Measure of Team Resilience: Developing the Resilience at Work Team Scale”, Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine 60, no. 3 (March 2018).
  9. Ibid.
  10. Sueann Soon and Saradevi Gopal Prabhakaran, “Team Resilience: An Exploratory Study on the Qualities that Enable Resilience in Teams”, November 2016, accessed June 23, 2020.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Paula Davis-Laack and Scott A. Westfahl, “5 Things that Resilient Teams Do Differently”, Fast Company, June 15, 2019, accessed June 22, 2020, https://www.fastcompany.com/90364553/5-things-that-resilient-teams-do-differently.
  13. Isabella Meneghel, Marisa Salanova and Isabel M. Martinez, “Feeling Good Makes Us Stronger: How Team Resilience Mediates the Effect of Positive Emotions on Team Performance”, Journal of Happiness Studies, 17 (2016): 239–255.
  14. See Note 12. See also Chen Jingqiu, Peter A. Bamberger, Song Yifan and Dana R. Vashdi, “The Effects of Team Reflexivity on Psychological Well-Being in Manufacturing Teams”, Journal of Applied Psychology, 103, no. 4 (2018): 443–462.

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