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  • Writer's pictureRebecca Bryan

Who is responsible for Workplace Resilience?

Ideas and connections are churning in my brain - I feel the need to get some thoughts out knowing that this is going to be an evolution. I am seeing an intersection between the construct of workplace resilience and trauma-informed principles, and it all begins with something I've struggled with for a long time - the sense that we don't appreciate enough the impact that interactions and our relationships at work have on the degree of resilience in our jobs. Resilience is the ability to bounce back from challenges and adversity we inevitably face. Resilience overcomes trauma. It is said that the strongest predictor of resilience is connections with others, but this is usually discussed within the context of family or close friends rather than coworkers. Meanwhile, we spend more hours each week with the people with whom we work, than we do with those with whom we live.

The Neuroscience of Stress

When interactions and relationships at work become stressful, our survival brain hops into the driver's seat of our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. The problem with functioning out of survival mode is that it's more difficult to think in the abstract and retain new knowledge. Orientation to time shifts to the present moment as our brains are on high alert for the next stressor or challenge, which makes it harder to plan for future events. And being on high alert is fatiguing, right? We are biologically wired for connection with others, but when we are in survival mode, levels of the stress hormone cortisol increase, which impairs our ability to relate to others. None of this is great for productivity.

It was once thought that technology would reduce our workload; instead, the opposite has occurred. When is the last time you had a couple of weeks completely off, with no expectation of checking email or answering a text? Add to that power plays and territorial behavior that are unfortunately too common in organizations - and I would venture to guess that many people are functioning out of survival mode at work on a regular basis.

Resilience - who's responsible?

Resilience is most often discussed as an individual issue - people are born with different levels of resilience, and it's something that can be learned. I also hear people confuse it with self-care - and indeed, overlap exists, i.e., if I sleep and eat well and if I practice mindfulness, I will have more reserve for the next time I'm stressed. However, if the workplace doesn't support opportunities for self-care, it runs the risk of becoming another item on an overflowing to-do list. This is where I think adopting principles of a trauma-informed approach would contribute to workplace resilience and ideally improve productivity. The foundation of any trauma-informed initiative is safety - not just physical safety (though that, especially in this age of rampant gun violence, is important) but emotional and moral safety as well. Emotional safety: do I feel safe to be my authentic self? To share ideas and expect fair and open feedback? Or am I at risk of being "put in my place", diminished, or even ridiculed? Moral safety: do the decisions made by my organization align with my values? Transparency/trust would increase resilience: do I clearly understand what is expected of me? When decisions are made by leadership, is the thinking behind a decision explained? Structure and predictability reduce stress levels: just this morning on the radio I heard, "uncertainty causes anxiety". Is my organization's culture reactive, or proactive? Am I fairly prepared for meetings and projects in which I am involved, or am I being caught off guard? Organizations that embrace principles like these and expect interpersonal interactions to reflect them would reduce the likelihood of employees functioning from their survival brains. Connection with others and rational, productive thoughts and behavior would increase. Resilience is the responsibility of both the individual and the organization.

This is a work in progress for me - I'd love to hear your thoughts on it. Valuing our relationships at work - and promoting a culture that values safety, transparency, trust, structure, and predictability in those relationships would create a pretty cool place to be employed!

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