SUMMARY: Resilience, or the ability to withstand and recover from adversity, used to be seen as primarily a personal attribute. We now have evidence to show that building resilience in work teams can also help protect psychological safety in the workplace.

Personal resilience

Personal resilience is the result of many factors including genetics, family history, personal experience, learned behaviour, and state of health. Each person's level of resilience plays a role in his or her ability to withstand both everyday workplace stressors and serious incidents without becoming psychologically harmed.

Psychological harm in the workplace

Serious traumatic incidents in the workplace pose a significant risk for psychological harm. Such events frequently involve a threat to life or safety, most often related to first responders and high-risk work. But any situation in any job that leaves a person feeling overwhelmed can affect their ability to work and cope. This can include perceptions of conflict, bullying, harassment, betrayal or humiliation in the workplace.

The objective facts do not determine whether an event will affect someone negatively. Rather, the negative impact is determined by a person's subjective emotional experience of the event combined with their level of resilience. The more unprepared or helpless someone feels in a situation, the more likely they may be at risk for harm. However, when you prepare employees for challenging situations and help them develop relevant problem-solving skills, the risk of harm can be reduced.

The need for team resilience

Many common workplace situations pose potential risks to psychological safety such as:

  • Workplace bullying, harassment, or violence
  • Ethical or moral dilemmas
  • Negative, aggressive, or angry clients or patients
  • Threatening or intimidating management approaches
  • Humiliation or ridicule
  • Discrimination, false accusations, or injustice
  • Redeployment, relocation or termination

While striving to prevent these risks in the workplace through policy and procedures is critical, they may still happen. This can have significant, long-term impacts on affected employees. Building team resilience can help reduce the risk or intensity of psychological harm to employees, as well as the risk of damage to the organization’s reputation and bottom line.

Evidence for building team resilience

We know resilience protects against burnout:
Moral distress was a significant predictor of all 3 aspects of burnout, and the association between burnout and resilience was strong. Greater resilience protected workers from emotional exhaustion and contributed to personal accomplishment (Rushton, Hylton, C., Batcheller, J., Schroeder, K. and Donohue, P., 2015).

Building resilience is a preventive rather than reactionary strategy:
A focus on the development of preventive strategies against psychological ill health and providing treatment as well as rehabilitation can help nurses manage psychological distress in the work place (Olatunde, E.B., and Odusanya, O., 2015).

Preparing employees for potentially stressful work situation builds their resilience to withstand them:
Organizations need to acknowledge how perceptions of workplace hazards may reduce employees’ psychological health (McCaughey, D., Turner, N., Kim J., DelliFraine, J., and McGhan, G.E., 2015).

Ready to take action?

Building Stronger Teams is a free downloadable book. It provides practical strategies and team activities for leaders who are ready to improve their team’s resilience and protect psychological safety.