Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine | 23 February 2017
The Positive Effect of Resilience on Stress and Business Outcomes in Difficult Work Environments
Employers are adopting resilience training for their employees at a rate faster than any other intervention in the United States. Resilience—the ability to use positive mental skills to remain psychologically steady and focused when faced with challenges or adversity—contributes substantially to how workers deal with stress and perform at work. Employers are developing resilience to achieve a competitive advantage, similar to how the military trains active-duty soldiers and their family members to withstand challenges.
Interest in the psychological construct of resilience has grown significantly over the past decade, from fewer than 30 peer-reviewed studies per year before 2000 to more than 650 in 2014. In the past, resilience has been defined as “the ability of an individual to recover from a traumatic event or to remain psychologically robust when faced with an adverse event” and “the process of negotiation, management, and adaptation to significant sources of stress or trauma.” In other words, it reflects an individual’s ability to respond well and experience fewer harmful consequences when under duress. More recently, however, studies have examined how resilience influences responses to more common life challenges such as health events and work stress.
Broadly defined as the ability to “bounce back” from adversity, there is evidence attributes of resilience—such as emotion regulation, impulse control, causal analysis, self-efficacy, and realistic optimism—can be learned and developed. In this framework, resilience extends beyond one’s inherent predisposition toward life events and includes a set of acquired skills that mitigate the experience of stress and speed productive responses when setbacks occur.
As interest in employee resilience increases, employers may question whether individual resilience simply reflects the settings and environments in which employees work. It is plausible that employees feeling appreciated and supported at work report higher resilience, while those feeling unsupported in demanding jobs report lower resilience. Further, employers may question whether resilience can counteract the negative effects of a difficult or stressful work environment.
These are important questions because stressful work environments are a known health risk, with documented negative physical and mental health consequences. Job strain—combinations of high job demands, low decision latitude, and low social support—have been linked to stress, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes, as well as rates of absence, disability, and turnover. Beyond producing general mental distress, there is also evidence suggesting that stressful work environments increase the likelihood of developing depression or anxiety for the first time. Further, recent findings point to difficult work environments as a contributing factor in the premature death of workers.
There is some evidence that resilience has a moderating effect on the negative relationship between job strain and job satisfaction. This suggests that workers’ learned ability to be resilient could have protective effects in demanding work settings. More broadly, employers require a better understanding of how resilience scores relate to important health and work outcomes, such as perceived stress, depression, job satisfaction, intent to quit, absenteeism, and self-reported job performance. It is also important to differentiate individual resilience from elements of the work environment, such as social support, job demands, and individual discretion. This cross-sectional study examines the question of whether having greater levels of resilience mitigates the negative effects of stressful work environments.
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