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Resilience training in companies. A double-edged sword.

Why resilience training in a corporate context can even harm employees if it is not designed to be positive and sustainable. A blog article including the 10-point checklist for well-designed resilience training.

Questions that this article answers: What distinguishes resilient people? Is resilience learnable? How are resiliency, mental health and professional performance related? Which factors in companies influence performance and health? What are the risks of resilience training? And how can they be avoided?

A German version of the article can be found here.

What is meant by resilience?

“Showing resilience”, “not letting yourself be beaten down” and “being resistant to stress” are all colloquially used expressions for resilience. Resilience is therefore the human ability to deal constructively with crisis situations and high stress levels. Resilience is also often discussed in the corporate context. Resilience training in companies is intended to support employees in staying healthy, even during periods of stress. How helpful are these measures? And can such training actually harm mental health?

Where does the concept of resilience come from?

Originally, the term resilience comes from the field of mechanics and refers to an object retaining its shape even under stress. In psychology, the term has been applied to the robustness of mental health, which can also be described as resilience.

Studies on the topic of resilience have long been concerned with the question of why some people are able to emerge stronger after experiencing severe crises, such as violence or torture, whilst others never recover and struggle with severe psychological consequences throughout their lives. Characteristics and conditions that protect the mental health of people under adverse circumstances (salutogenesis) are summarized under the term resilience.

Resilience training at the workplace is designed to equip  employees with the skills that have helped people in environments where violence or torture has occurred. Shouldn’t companies instead try to create different environments and change their work structures?

What are the distinguishing features of resilient people?

It is important to stress that the majority of people have the ability to be resilient. Many do not develop stress disorder or other mental illness after traumatic experiences.

Resilience research has identified several conditions that favor resilience (e.g. Connor & Davidson, 2003).

  • Individual resources
    • Belief that things happen for a reason
    • View change as an opportunity
    • Optimism (the belief in a good outcome)
    • Self-efficacy instead of victim role (the conviction to be able to act independently instead of being at the mercy of others)
    • Humor
    • Creative problem solving ability or solution orientation
    • Have a strong concept of core values and beliefs
  • Social and structural resources
    • Stable and high quality social relationships with people who:
      • give us security and believe (in) us
      • open up new perspectives for us
      • actively help us to find solutions
    • Group membership that strengthens concepts of meaning and values (e.g. religion)
    • Practice rituals and routines

Is resilience learnable?

Individual resources for resilience are therefore primarily character traits. They are formed by genetic conditions, experiences of early childhood and life events. Resilience is neither a sequence of actions that can be copied from others nor knowledge that can be internalized by memorization.

What is important are lasting learning experiences. Thus multi-methodical and long-term training concepts – like structures for learning a new instrument.

In addition, it is important to emphasize that both stress and resilience are very individual and changeable (see stress model of Lazarus). What is meant by this? Each challenge does not represent an equal psychological load for all individuals. Those who are very resilient at work may well be more vulnerable in private relationships. And for those with an existing mental illness, preventive training in resilience, in isolation, is not sufficient.

Good resilience training, therefore, is  not standardized (no template) but rather adaptive. It offers space to understand one’s own “sore spots” and to develop tools that fit one’s own psychological foundation.

How are resilience, mental health and professional performance related?

In the context of the discussion about resilience training, it is important to emphasize that the performance, productivity and satisfaction of employees is not determined solely and significantly by their resilience characteristics. In particular, workload and workplace resources have a significant influence on people’s ability to work. Important factors are, amongst others:

  • Structures, processes, culture (e.g. meetings, feedback, time tracking systems, remuneration)
  • Communication and communication channels, information and knowledge management
  • Diversity of tasks, congruence with interests and strengths, over- vs. under-challenge
  • Interruptions, fragmentation of processes and topics
  • Leadership and team behavior
  • “Psychological Safety”: feeling of security and belonging as an individual
  • Effective strategies on topics such as family friendliness, new work, diversity & inclusion and complaint management

Can resilience training in companies also do harm?

In order to understand the possible risks, the following points should be emphasized once again in summary: 

Resilience can only be learned to a limited extent and is closely related to individual life history and current living conditions

Performance and mental health in companies is also significantly influenced by the organizational culture. Therefore, not only should employees train their resilience, but companies should also prioritise  the provision of health-promoting work structures 

Resilience training is therefore risky under the following conditions:

1. if a company offers resilience training without taking its own responsibility for mental health seriously, this is professionally, morally and economically reprehensible
2. if the content or concept of a training course (e.g. a one-off short workshop) suggests that resilience is easy to learn, this leads to pressure, false expectations and dissatisfaction
3. if employees with a mental illness  take part in resilience training, it is l significantly harmful to suggest “you just have to be a little more optimistic”. This can worsen the condition. Statistically, this affects up to 30% of those present

Company resilience training often aims to ensure that employees develop a “thicker skin”. Symbolically, this is tantamount to the company saying: “This way, the pain that our organizational structures cause is more bearable”.

How can resilience training be designed to have a positive effect on mental health at the workplace?

Here is the 10-point checklist for good resilience training.

If you are interested in an exchange, consultation or training offers, please feel free to contact me at any time without obligation. In order not to miss further articles of this kind, you are welcome to follow my blog or network with me through Linked in.

1. Before such training, companies should do their homework in Corporate Health Management (GER: BGM “Betriebliches Gesundheitsmanagement”) and create health-promoting work structures.
2. Resilience training should point out the created BGM structures and benefits. Participants are often not aware of them.
3. A training course should also provide information, at least in passing, about other factors influencing mental health in the workplace (e.g. work processes, leadership). A contact point should be given for any discussion needs in this regard.
4. If resilience training is offered to employees, it should also be  prioritised for managers. Managers demonstrate significant role-modelling for employees and are often themselves under a lot of pressure. They should also support stress reduction measures for their employees.
5. A good training should include sufficient space for exploring individual stressors and not simply generalize advice.
6. The right expertise of the trainers is of course indispensable. Have they themselves already successfully accompanied other people out of (stress) crises?
7. Good training is a learning experience instead of a frontal/instructive course. So-called “blended learning” formats, buddy programs, mentoring etc. are suitable.
8. High quality resilience training should also include a short digression. What is the difference between a stressful experience and a mental illness? For whom is it likely that resilience training does  not help? And what can these people do (see 9)?
9. Indications of available professional psychological help should be given. It is likely that the support needs of some of those present cannot be adequately met through training (see 8).
– Psychological company offers
– Employee Assistance Programs (EAP)
Crisis Consultations
– Guidelines for finding psychotherapy (here you can find a guideline on “how to find psychotherapy in Germany”,  which is especially helpful for international employees who need this information urgently to navigate the health-system-jungle)
10. The success of good training should be measured with a scientifically based evaluation of success.
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