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Everyone experiences ups and downs in life. At some point, we all face adversity, change and uncertainty. So, why is it that some people can handle everything life throws at them and seem to become stronger and more resilient with every setback, while others fall apart and struggle as soon as the first roadblock appears? The answer of course, is resilience. Described as the ability to bounce back or regain balance after exposure to adversity or change, resilience is not so much an end goal, but rather a process of growing and strengthening a specific skillset over time.

The impact of stress on personal health and wellbeing is well-documented

When faced with acute or ongoing stress, we struggle to focus and may become distracted, irritable and anxious. We struggle to sleep, may increase medication, alcohol or drug consumption and may overeat or experience a lack of appetite. If stress is unmanaged over prolonged periods of time, this begins to impact our physical and psychological health.

But what about the impact of unmanaged stress on our safety at work? How dangerous is stress?

The impact of stress on workplace safety

We know a large proportion of safety incidents are due to human error or violation of rules and regulations. In high-risk environments, it can be challenging for workers to see and manage risks, ensure they don’t become complacent and keep their attention focused on the task at hand for long periods of time. When workers are stressed, their ability to keep themselves safe diminishes.

A stressful situation becomes a distraction—take for example, the breakdown of a relationship. A worker reports for their shift but their focus and attention are still back home reliving an argument. We know that we have a very limited conscious processing capacity—if the worker is already distracted, they don’t have much capacity to focus their conscious attention on their work or the risks in their work environment. This lack of conscious focus means they are more likely to overlook a risk, operate on autopilot or miss a step when completing a task.

You may also find that some workers’ coping mechanisms to manage or get through periods of high stress can impact their safety at work. If they don’t have tools or techniques to manage stress effectively, they may rely on ‘band aid’ fixes to handle the stress. For example, they may increase their alcohol consumption or use of medication, or they may just battle through on little to no sleep. The impact of fatigue and increased alcohol and drug use can impact workers’ focus, reaction time and their ability to work effectively with others.

Managing the risk

How can an organisation manage this risk? We certainly can’t control the amount of stress occurring in someone’s personal life. But there is a lot we can do to support their resilience in the workplace, including:

  • reducing work-related stress
  • building worker resilience
  • developing leaders to create positive team cultures.

Let’s unpack these in more detail.

1. Reducing work-related stress

Did you know that 91% of all serious work-related mental health condition claims are attributed to work-related mental stress, and that 31% of these claims are attributed to work pressure?1

Organisations can’t control the amount of stress that workers are exposed to outside of work, but they can reduce stress created by the work environment. Consider the extent to which the following work stressors may be impacting your people:

  • Are your people overworked? Do they work long hours without significant breaks? Are they able to access paid holiday and sick leave?
  • Are you resourced effectively? Or are your people stretched too thinly?
  • Do your workers operate or live in remote locations? Do they have difficulty accessing resources and communications?
  • Do your people deal with a lack of clarity? Are priorities or goals shifting regularly?
  • Are your people dealing with fear relating to job security or organisational restructures?
  • Do your workers receive positive recognition or acknowledgement for a job well done?
  • Do poor workplace relationships exist in your organisational culture? Are people exposed to bullying, harassment or discrimination?

Reflect on your answers to the questions above and consider the extent to which your organisation is putting people in a situation that is causing work-related stress. If you believe work-related stressors are a problem for your business, create a plan to talk to those in your business, get feedback on the challenges faced by workers and implement a strategy to address the key concerns.

2. Building worker resilience

Regardless of whether stress is work- or home-related, unmanaged stress will impact a worker’s ability to perform their tasks safely and efficiently. While some people will naturally be more capable of handling adversity or change, some team members may not even be aware that resilience is a skill that can be developed with some simple tools and strategies.

Supporting your workers to develop helpful attitudes towards stressful situations and the ability to effectively manage change and adversity can have a positive impact on productivity, quality and safety performance. Resilient workers display:

  • improved mental and physical health outcomes
  • improved focus and attention during times of stress
  • accountability for health and wellbeing behaviours
  • the ability to apply stress management strategies during challenging times
  • self-awareness and the ability to communicate effectively and maintain constructive relationships
  • the ability to respond to shifting priorities in an agile and adaptive way.

So, how can you support your people to improve their personal resilience? Studies have shown that resilience interventions can lead to increased resilience and quality of life, a decrease in stress and anxiety, improved goal attainment, productivity and performance, and a healthier and more engaged workforce.

Resilience training programs offer participants a range of tools and techniques to build resilience and manage stressful situations in a calm and measured way. Look out for programs that are evidence-based and provide participants with skills and strategies that are easy to implement in daily life.

Some of the strategies provided in The Five Practices of Resilience include:

  • Practising health and wellbeing behaviours (e.g. sleep, nutrition, breathing strategies)
  • Engaging in reframing of situations and events to operate from a more helpful frame
  • Applying personal strengths to the achievement of goals
  • Practising empathetic listening and perspective-taking
  • Engaging in kindness and contributing positively to others.

3. Developing leaders to create positive team cultures

Strong leadership that promotes resilience within others leads to resilient organisations that can withstand change and adapt to uncertainty. If we expect leaders to create resilient teams, they need to be provided the skills and strategies to first manage their own resilience, and secondly, to practise conscious and supportive leadership.

Leaders who are not managing their personal resilience well—and are just surviving—tend to influence similar behaviours within their teams. When things are going smoothly, you may not notice any challenges with these leaders, but when uncertainty or adversity hits, the cracks start to show. When faced with stressors like organisational restructures or poor worker engagement or performance, leaders who don’t demonstrate resilience may struggle to manage their own response to stress and influence a culture of negativity within their team where accountability is avoided, excuses are made and blame is placed.

In contrast, leaders who are thriving maintain a positive attitude during adversity, are more inclined to focus on opportunities and continue to act decisively and favour action and progress. This in turn influences a team culture that is positive, solution-focused and accountable.

Leaders benefit from improving personal resilience through training interventions or coaching opportunities, but they also need to learn how to lead in a way that supports resilience in others. Strategies that leaders can employ to lead thriving teams include:

  • role-modelling positive resilience behaviours
  • building trust within teams and creating a psychologically safe space where individuals communicate honestly and are open to differences of opinion
  • having supportive conversations with team members
  • communicating in an open and honest manner with teams, particularly when faced with roadblocks or adversity.

To lead thriving teams where people collaborate, help, share information and speak up, leaders need training and resources to support them. Just because a leader demonstrates strong personal resilience doesn’t mean that they automatically understand how to develop resilience in others. Helping leaders understand how to share information effectively, role model accountability, show support to team members, build trust and have open and honest communication should be a focus of any resilience intervention.

Stress is a part of life for all of us, but it doesn’t come naturally to everyone to respond to adversity or change in an appropriate and healthy way and bounce back stronger than before. By incorporating resilience into your health and safety strategy and investing in the resilience of your people, you are supporting them to handle whatever comes their way. You are helping them to arrive at work with a positive mindset, ready to focus on the job to be done and achieve both performance and safety goals. After all, resilience isn’t just an add-on to a safe workplace culture, but the precursor to it.

Want to learn more about resilience?

References

1. Safe Work Australia. (2015). Mental health in the workplace. Retrieved September 22, 2020.

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