Turning Stress into Strength

Training employees to be more resilient can have measurable personal and professional results.

By William Atkinson Jan 1, 2011
Reuse Permissions

January Cover

In an American Psychological Association survey conducted last summer, nearly 75 percent of respondents said they were stressed to unhealthy levels. More than 3,000 adults and young people were polled by Harris Interactive for the association’s 2010 Stress in America survey. Respondents’ top concerns were money, work and the economy.

In another survey of workplaces, conducted in November 2009, researchers reported that stressed-out workers call in sick more often and use more health insurance benefits.

Employers generally don’t like to publicly admit that their workplaces cause stress for employees. Yet 78 percent of 282 employers in the latter survey, which was conducted by Watson Wyatt Worldwide and the National Business Group on Health, admitted that excessive work hours were a leading cause of worker stress.

Many stress management programs are available for employers to offer to employees. Most of these programs attempt to help employees reduce stress and develop ways to “decompress” after experiencing stress.

However, according to the Society for Human Resource Management’s 2010 Employee Benefits survey report, only 10 percent of employers currently offer stress management. That number is down from 19 percent in 2006.

Though not yet a noticeable trend, resilience training may be a contender to replace stress management. This model focuses on teaching employees how to become “steeled” to stressful situations before they manifest as stress, and to learn from stressful experiences.

In other words, resilience training is not a strategy to help employees reduce stress. Rather, it is designed to help employees become stronger as a result of experiencing stress. As each event that leads to stress occurs, resilience training helps employees learn from the event, adjust and become stronger—enabling them to face even more stress in the future with less negative impact, experts say. Ideally, during stressful times resilient employees maintain their productivity levels and their health.

Different Perspectives

Resilience training may be growing in popularity: Resilience trainer George S. Everly, an associate professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University, says the discipline is winning over decision-makers in industries where employees experience daily stress, such as health care, finance, law enforcement, firefighting, emergency medical services and the military.

Much of the popularity seems to be driven by the work of Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz, authors of The Power of Full Engagement (Free Press, 2003), who introduced the concept of personal resilience in the 1990s.

Not everyone is convinced that employers always roll out resilience training properly, however. Gerald Lewis, president of Gerald Lewis Associates in Framingham, Mass., is among those who voice concern. According to the resilience paradigm, “If you take the example of employees being required to work overtime, then all you have to do is have the individual gradually work more and more overtime and eventually he will get used to it—be more resilient,” he notes. If “the employee is worried about his job, then as there are more layoffs, he will get used to it—build up some resilience. The premise does not make sense.”

Lewis’ resilience seminars focus instead on training managers to encourage employees to take more breaks during the workday—to eat lunch away from their desks, exercise and participate in health-related seminars, for instance.

How to Train

Experts cite several steps to get the most from resilience training for employees:

Set goals. Why do you want to offer resilience training? To help employees work more hours without burning out? To help employees grow stronger following periods of corporate stress? To help employees who regularly experience stress—such as firefighters—survive and thrive? To help employees improve their health to reduce health care costs?

The 6,000 U.S. employees of Freescale Semiconductor Inc. in Austin, Texas, began participating in resilience training about 15 years ago. HR professionals first considered whether such training would support key company initiatives. “For example, in the semiconductor business, it is important that teams are working across departmental boundaries,” says Sandi Aitken, global benefits manager. “When there are problems, it is easy to ‘blame or shame’ people from other departments.” As a result of resilience training provided by Mary Steinhardt, a professor at the University of Texas in Austin, managers say Freescale employees have become more accountable and responsible for solving problems.

Part of Steinhardt’s training focuses on “problem-focused coping” to attempt to resolve stressful situations. She outlines five strategies in a teaching manual: active coping, planning, positive reframing, acceptance and using social support.

Northrop Grumman Electronic Systems in Baltimore offers Everly’s training to its management team, to specific workgroups and as “brown-bag” seminars that are open to all employees. “It is important for employees and managers to be best prepared for the events that may be outside their control,” explains James O’Hair, coordinator of Northrop Grumman’s Employee and Family Assistance Program. “Knowing what traits and behaviors best prepare us will enable us to deal with situations that challenge our physical and emotional stress levels. Establishing and enhancing resiliency helps us through some of the most demanding situations.”

In one of Everly’s activities, participants consider previous stressful situations in their lives that they have overcome and identify factors that made the situations manageable.

Consider cost. Get estimates from a variety of sources. None of the trainers interviewed for this article would provide examples of their fees.

Know the difference between resilience training and stress management training. True resilience training teaches employees to survive in stressful situations, then recover, then place themselves in slightly more stressful situations to grow and thrive. Some trainers may provide basic stress management training—how to prevent stress and recover from stress—but call it resilience training.

Unfortunately, there is no master list of resilience trainers. However, you can search online for “resilience training” or “resilience consultants” to find providers who claim to offer the training.

Identify an appropriate training model. Programs differ among providers. Steinhardt, for example, teaches employees how to use stress in a positive way by realizing “I am stressed now. Good! What an opportunity to grow!” She uses a weightlifting metaphor: “If I overtrain, my muscles will get injured. If I undertrain, they will atrophy.” She teaches employees to become aware of what “lifting weights” looks like mentally.

Everly’s program features the “Three R” model:

  • Resistance (developing immunity and protective factors).
  • Resilience (rebounding from adversity).
  • Recovery (treatment and rehabilitation).

Jim Hornickel, director of training and development for Bold New Directions in Hartford, Conn., has developed programs based on what he calls the SUPPORT model:

  • Stress hardiness.
  • Understand self, others and your organization.
  • Purpose (life purpose, career purpose, job purpose and values clarification).
  • Perseverance (tools to use to stay focused and on track).
  • Optimism (exercises to move toward optimism, as well as understand the difference between reacting and responding).
  • Resourcefulness in physical, mental, emotional and spiritual areas; the physical element includes diet, exercise and sleep.
  • Team relationships and using colleagues as support.

Partners in Resilience of Northfield, Minn., offers a “way of helping people renew and recover their natural resilience, and then engage in practices that help them become less susceptible to the negative impact of stress,” explains founder Dr. Henry Emmons. Such practices include lifestyle changes and exercises.

Decide how to roll out training. Training can be offered through off-site and on-site seminars and online; the format will depend on the trainer. Some train employees while others train managers. Everly explains: “When supervisors become more resilient, they can create a more conducive working environment and transfer some of their skills to the employees.”

Promote the training as a benefit. If employees perceive it primarily as a way to get them to work harder or longer, it will not be well-received. Obviously, employers will benefit from resilience strategies. Yet employees benefit personally, too.

Measure results. Trainers should be able to point to concrete results that they have achieved at other employers, as well as provide information on what you can expect in your workplace. Examples:

  • Steinhardt has conducted studies of resilient individuals. One study, in a 2008 Journal of American College Health, concludes that individuals trained in resiliency have more coping strategies, increase existing coping skills, engage in more problem-solving and report fewer physical symptoms of illness.
  • The training provided by Bold New Directions concludes with formal action plans, so managers can measure and track employees’ results. For example, supervisors can add training topics to performance appraisals. And they can measure retention rates, productivity matrices and increased use of employee assistance programs. The latter shows a “realization by employees of the need to make improvements in their lives,” Hornickel says.
  • According to Emmons, Partners in Resilience offers tools that measure the stress hardiness, resilience and quality of life of program participants.
  • Johns Hopkins University’s training provides pretesting and post-testing to measure participants’ knowledge of how to be a resilient leader. “Our goal is to change attitudes, because attitudes are the basis for behavior change,” Everly explains. “Research shows that resilience training can reduce depression, and we expect less depression and anxiety on the job, as well as an increase in productivity.”

Resilience: The Concept

According to information on the Mayo Clinic’s website, resilience is an individual’s ability to adapt well and recover quickly after enduring stressful, life-changing situations, including adversity, trauma or tragedy.

People who have a resilient disposition are better able to maintain poise and a healthy level of physical and psychological wellness in the face of challenges.

Individuals who are less resilient are more likely to dwell on problems, feel overwhelmed, use unhealthy coping tactics to handle stress, and develop anxiety and depression.

A resilient approach leads to addressing problems rather than avoiding them, a positive and optimistic outlook, and a flexible and adaptive disposition.

The author is a business writer based in Carterville, Ill. He specializes in safety, health and workers’ compensation issues.

Reuse Permissions


CA Resources at Your Fingertips

View all Resources Now

Job Finder

Find an HR Job Near You


Find the Right Vendor for Your HR Needs

SHRM’s HR Vendor Directory contains over 3,200 companies

Search & Connect