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Why prioritising employees can unlock organisational resilience

When organisations today look to cultivate resilience, it’s often in the context of driving digital transformations, preventing and mitigating cyberthreats, and building trust equity among stakeholders. These are all key components in creating sound, future-proof businesses and addressing risk.

However, another critical part of organisational resilience often gets left out of the equation: employees. It’s important to enable employees to adapt to disruption, so they can stay engaged and productive throughout and beyond any turmoil. Without resilient employees, there can’t be resilient organisations.

What is employee resilience?

This concept refers to an employee’s ability to face and overcome challenges—small, everyday stressors, as well as major hurdles experienced while at work. Employee resilience can be influenced by a combination of factors, including an individual’s personality, personal life, psychological and physical health, community, financial situation, and ability to use workplace resources to achieve goals and growth. In addition, the extent to which work environments are conducive to empathy, trust, diversity, physical accessibility, and well-being can affect resilience levels—as can how work gets done within a given business. This includes how work is assigned and prioritised, expectations for performance and productivity, the type of work performed and so on. Moreover, as everyone has specific stress thresholds, coping mechanisms, and support preferences, employee resilience varies from person to person.

Leadership resilience

Notably, employee resilience pertains to workers at all levels—leadership included. When leaders experience resilience, are attuned to its significance, and model resilient behaviours (e.g., having conversations about resilience and making time for their own personal well-being), they can better support themselves and their people. By learning about and adopting approaches that reinforce resilience—such as the need for social interactions, lifestyle management, and boundary-setting—leaders can also help make these behaviours a norm.

Pandemic repercussions

While always important, the need for employee resilience has come to the fore since the onset of the current global crisis. The working population has experienced a marked decline in mental health, according to the Mental Health Index by LifeWorksTM. Reflecting the many resulting uncertainties—including those relevant to health, financial status, relationships, and child care—some studies have shown employee anxiety levels tripling relative to pre-pandemic numbers, with lasting impacts on mental well-being expected.

Leaders, too, are being emotionally taxed. A 2021 study by Deloitte Canada and LifeWorks found that more than eight in ten senior leaders (82 percent) experience exhaustion, most often attributable to mounting workloads and longer hours. At the same time, these executives are struggling against the perceived stigmas associated with both asking for help for their stress/coping issues and admitting they need aid in the first place. (In fact, 41 percent of senior leaders say they’d find it difficult to acknowledge or accept a personal mental-health issue.) The report’s findings sound a sobering alarm: “The current levels of well-being and resilience…pose a significant business risk.”

Ramifications of inaction

The costs of doing nothing are steep. In Canada alone, it’s estimated that 500,000 employees are unable to work each week due to poor mental health, at an annual economic cost of more than $50 billion. In Britain, stress, anxiety, and depression are thought to be key contributors to almost half of working days lost due to health issues. In addition, burnout negatively affects worker retention across industries and around the world.

Yet the benefits of fostering employee wellness and resilience are substantial. In fact, 94 percent of the nearly 9,000 respondents to Deloitte’s 2020 Global human capital trends survey affirm that well-being drives organisational performance. Workplace resilience and mental-health programmes also yield demonstrable returns on investment (ROIs).

This all underscores the urgency of taking action. But are organisations prepared to do so? While 80 percent reported that worker well-being is important or very important to their success over the next 12–18 months, just over one in ten companies (12 percent) indicated they were “very ready” to address the issue. Clearly, it’s time for a change.

The road toward greater employee resilience

Promoting and prioritising employee resilience often involves sweeping, far-reaching efforts at the organisational level, as well as quicker, everyday adjustments that can also have an impact.

At the overarching level, as organisations work to create long-term employee resilience and wellness strategies, they may look to address foundational areas including:

This involves leaders working to improve their own resilience, equipping themselves to sense and address issues in their teams, and serving as examples to help employees increase their own personal acuity in this domain. It’s important to address leadership resilience first, to create a cascade effect—as leaders are critical in bringing resilience principles and programmes to their teams and providing necessary support.

Organisations can seek to promote conversations about mental health and resilience at all levels, as well as encourage employees to seek assistance when needed—providing clear steps for doing so. Additionally, allowing management and executives to lead by example, including openly sharing their experiences, can inspire other employees to seek the support they may need.

This can involve taking steps to provide a continuum of support, as well as resources that emphasise preparedness, so that employees can better manage stress on an ongoing basis and, therefore, strengthen their resilience. It also involves modeling and reinforcing both “top-down” behaviours (e.g., openness and candor from leaders about mental health) and “bottom-up” ones (such as team-level check-ins on well-being). Taking concerted actions to build a resilient culture benefits both employees and organisations alike. As noted in the 2021 Deloitte Global resilience report, Building the resilient organisation, “CXOs who said their organisations had done very well in cultivating resilient cultures were about three times more likely than those lacking resilient cultures to say they weathered the events of 2020 well.”

As part of their measurement strategies, companies can consider providing a baseline assessment to better understand resilience issues in their own organisations, and as a way to measure progress in the future. They can also combine observational and anecdotal information with employee surveys, as well as assess available data and ask pertinent questions as they arise, such as: What is the staff burnout rate? How many people are taking medical leave due to stress? Establishing meaningful metrics and regular, reliable data-collection strategies can help gauge programme effectiveness. Employee-satisfaction and engagement surveys are another possible means to determine burnout rates, which are seldom otherwise directly obtainable.

While HR (including talent and employee-experience divisions) may ultimately define and develop employee resilience initiatives, broader involvement and prioritisation from executive leadership and communications teams are typically needed for success. Any necessary shifts to work habits at the team level occur only when they are driven by leaders at all levels.

This focuses on improving an individual’s resilience and equipping employees to be more effective in their roles. Examples range from supporting workers with mindfulness programmes to help cope with workplace stresses, to cultivating a culture of open communication—so workers can voice concerns to achieve better balance, set boundaries and share their personal support preferences that let them best deliver on organisational outcomes.

Proactive vs. reactive approaches

Today, many organisations take a reactive-only approach to employee resilience—with programmes (e.g., employee leaves of absence, counseling services, mental-health insurance benefits) that support workers only after they’ve encountered challenges or reached their breaking points. Such measures are important pieces of the resilience puzzle, but preventive strategies embedded in organisational culture are likely better equipped to address root resilience issues and thus deliver greater results.

The desired goal is often to integrate well-being into the design of work itself, which requires re-evaluating company-wide systems and procedures. Some questions that can aid in this organisational assessment include: When does the given business allow meetings to be scheduled (i.e., might these interfere with employees’ personal lives)? What processes are in place for prioritising work? How is performance measured? How do we support personal and professional growth? What opportunities exist for connection? How do we enable leaders at all levels to support staff well-being and resilience? What improvements can be made?

Employee resilience is a strategic imperative

Organisations face risks of varying degrees every day, pertaining to their security, systems, finances, technology, talent, reputation, extended business networks, and more. Dealing with those risks, typically, are people, whose well-being and resilience impact their ability to respond.

It follows, then, that any discussions of organisational resilience can’t possibly be complete without being mindful of the human element. By considering employee resilience an integral part of organisational resilience and accepting that well-being is essential to an organisation’s success, businesses can withstand threats and enable their workers to both feel and perform their best.