You may know someone like this at work: optimistic and resilient, they appear to bounce through challenges drawing on an internal strength that helps them work through problems they encounter at work. Always hopeful and positive about the future, they treat stressful events as a “one-off” situation, appearing to have a built-in buffer that protects them against both ordinary and extraordinary events. Perhaps this is even you.
In the search for ways to increase employee productivity, lower costs and increase an organisation’s bottom line, people with these qualities are ranked by managers as the “perfect” employee. This sort of emotional resilience is often considered innate. But can it be taught?
Building a better employee
Researchers who study these qualities refer to it as “psychological capital”, or “PsyCap”. PsyCap comprises four dimensions: 1) self-efficacy – how confident and self-assured a person is when faced with a difficult tasks; 2) optimism – how positive a person is about doing well now and in the future; 3) hope – how determined a person is to strategise and work hard towards a stated goal; and 4) resilience – the extent to which a person can bounce back from a difficult event (such as losing their job or losing a contract).
Everyone has some level of PsyCap; however, employees with higher levels have higher wellbeing and engagement in the workplace. Research is demonstrating that focusing on an employee’s emotional resilience can in turn increase their productivity. And teaching managers about PsyCap results in benefits for the managers themselves, as well as for those they manage.
Managers can then model better coping strategies, promote strategising to achieve stated goals, encourage positive emotions in the workplace and provide a new paradigm for problem solving.
Emotional resilience training benefits organisations by reducing occupational health and safety expenses associated with stress-related illnesses and increased wellbeing – all factors that increase employee productivity and organisational effectiveness.
Learning emotional resilience
My colleagues and I have examined the PsyCap of a range of Australian, US, Italian and Maltese employees (nurses, personal carers, managers, police officers, soldiers, local government employees) and have found that it has a bigger impact on their wellbeing and engagement compared with organisational support from management.
We are presently delivering emotional resilience training to different types of emotional labour (such as nurses, personal carers, social workers). The training specially aims to increase employees’ understanding and control of their emotions by providing them with evidence-based information about what triggers their negative emotional responses.
This means helping nurses, personal carers and social workers learn how to respond positively to an angry patient/client by acknowledging the anger, and then investigating the deeper emotions in play (such as fear).
For example, we’ve used scenarios to show that when a patient directs anger about something in their life at them, a better reaction is to ignore the primal “fight or flight” reaction, which gives a quick feeling of righteous justice and satisfaction, but leads to a longer term feeling of stress and unease.
Instead, it is better to acknowledge the anger and then ask some probing questions to identify the real emotions (usually fear) in play. The process immediately stops the conflict cycle (which can be both time consuming and energy depleting) and replaces the negative emotions with active listening to identify the real issue.
It is easier for a person to respond empathetically to another showing their real feelings such as fear, rather than anger. As a consequence, the patients feel better because they have been “heard” and the employees have the satisfaction of knowing they helped someone positively, and can move on to their next task feeling emotionally and energetically enhanced.
The same technique can also be used to change unwanted behaviour and find new ways of communicating based on positive emotions.
In our workshops participants are encouraged to identify one of their behaviours that is causing them grief. They explore why they react in a particular way and if they want to change a behaviour they can use a strategy of (a) setting a new goal, (b) generating ways to achieve that goal, and c) using group discussions to identify way of overcoming obstacles to changing behaviour.
Participants can use the technique to reduce anger outbursts or increase assertive behaviour when the usual pattern is to “flee” – at least emotionally – in the face of conflict.
It builds both positive problem-solving and hope as a method of overcoming a problem, as well as providing new solutions to previously perceived difficult problems.
A better office?
This process of setting goals is based on theories about where optimism comes from. There is a link between building self-efficacy (confidence) and optimism. By acknowledging and preparing for potential obstacles, a person who tends to be a pessimistic about their abilities to change has a process to reduce pessimism and develop proactive skills for achieving their goal.
It is important to note however, that while these new skills help with a normal conflict situations, it doesn’t equip an employee to deal with physically dangerous scenarios, such as dealing with a patient experiencing a psychotic episode or a drug affected, physically violent patient.
Research by noted US management expert Professor Fred Luthans shows that organisations that invest in upskilling their employees in PsyCap experience a significant increase in productivity, and in turn, this delivers substantially greater organisational performance.
Also, later studies by researchers James Avey, Luthans and Susan Jenson have shown that employees with high PsyCap take less sick leave, and have lower turnover intentions and because employees experience less stress, it is expected that stress-related workers compensation claims will also fall.
Also employees will be more engaged and this means they will direct more energy and vigour towards completing work tasks which means that the public will benefit as well. The final win is for the employees themselves.
Because they now have a protective barrier buffering them against the negative implications of too much stress, they are now more able to do their job in a way that enhances their wellbeing as well as those they engage with during the workday.
Yvonne Brunetto is a professor of management and HRM at Southern Cross University.