A fresh approach: Three first steps to regain resilience in an exhausted workforce

- July 13, 2022 4 MIN READ

In the face of labour shortages, return to office pressure and recession fears, it is essential that we learn to regain resilience or suffer further risks to the wellbeing of employees and the health of the organisations that employ them, writes Rebecca Houghton, author of Impact: 10 Ways to Level up your Leadership and founder of BoldHR.

Whenever I am asked to support a business through change, I always know I am going to see a similar pattern of reactions. Those that resist the change until the last minute (and often beyond), those that lean into the change from the get-go, and everyone in between.

But when change is the nature of everything, impacting everybody, everywhere all at once, this constant reactiveness can be – and has proven to be – exhausting and stressful.

Here in Australia, burnout is among the highest in the world, with 85 per cent of people citing their wellbeing as worse now than it was in 2018 (when it was the worst we had ever recorded).

A fresh approach is required

In the face of labour shortages, return to office pressure and recession fears, it is essential that we learn to regain resilience or suffer further risks to the wellbeing of employees and the health of the organisations that employ them.

Workforce resilience is typically described as the feeling of stability, security and capability required to handle today’s pace of business without losing engagement or motivation. The opposite feeling is one of distrust, cynicism, insecurity and exhaustion. These people may well leave, but even more likely – and even more damaging – they may well stay.

So we need to take a fresh approach to building, leading and sustaining workforce resilience.

The ability to compute the reality of what’s facing us and to self-regulate our response reduces friction, which means less demand on our resilience. This is easier to achieve when our logical and emotional needs are met, and there are two well-known models to help leaders ensure this happens on a regular basis – both for themselves, and for their teams.

  • A little like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, humans have motivational needs that can easily create a strain on our resilience and motivation. Robert Dilt’s NeuroLogical research shows us six levels that the workforce needs to ensure that their tangible, motivational needs are met. This includes purpose, identity, values, capability, behaviour and environment. When any of these are changed or threatened, the impact on our motivation is disproportionately high, which has a correlating effect on our resilience.
  • Sudden peaks or troughs in business direction or team dynamic can also deeply effect our psychological safety undermine our resilience. David Rock’s model of NeuroLeadership shows that we have five factors required to maintain – or regain – psychological safety; status, certainty, autonomy, relationships and fairness. If those are regularly readdressed to ensure they are perceived as stable and secure, then our reaction to the threat is also more stable and less exhausting.

Four young designers laughing and working together

Three steps to better workforce resilience

With these models in mind, there are three levers that I recommend to my clients as a first step:

1. Start with transparency

Our brains are a machine for making sense of things. When we don’t understand why something is happening, it puts immense stress on that machine and it tells us that we have little control over it – both of which present a grave challenge to our resilience.

More time spent sharing the ‘why’ behind decisions acts as a reassurance to the brain that the reasons are valid, and even if we don’t like the outcome, we will logically and emotionally adjust to it with greater ease.

2. Fast-track leadership resilience

Investing in leadership resilience is a fast-track to regaining workforce resilience.

Despite popular opinion, most leaders are not master of their own destiny; there is almost always a boss of your boss. As a result, almost all leaders face the very real prospect of their direction-setting being changed by the will of other people or parties around them.

Leadership has become less about setting a direction and sticking to it and more about changing tactics, at pace, with minimal disruption to your team. This requires leaders to manage their own reaction to changing circumstances so that they can lead with a more even-keel manner.

According to BetterUp, a team with a highly resilient leader experiences 52 per cent less burnout and 80 per cent lower intention to leave.

3. When all is uncertain, ready for anything is a certainty

The most extreme test of resilience is often found in military scenarios, which is why some of the greatest leadership advice for uncertain times often comes from military leadership training.

Consider being a combat leader. You know your purpose. You also know that your opponent will disrupt you at every possible opportunity, but how, or in what order, you cannot predict. All you can do is be ready for anything.

When your team focuses less on what might happen, or what has happened, and focuses more on how capable they are to respond to anything that might happen, their resilience goes up. The certainty that our brain craves is satisfied by having a method with which to respond, rather than fixating on an outcome it cannot predict.

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