10 minute read

Wellbeing: Why resilience just got personal

Do we need a more personalised approach to wellbeing? Kathryn Jackson looks at how we can embrace the science of wellbeing to increase resilience in our teams.

I’d like to begin this article by asking a very personal question.

“How have you invested in your own wellbeing this week?”

As people professionals, we often focus our attention on encouraging other people to invest in their wellbeing: our managers, our employees, even our family, yet this can come at the expense of our own wellbeing.

Some of the most stressed-out people who have come to me for coaching have included counsellors, teachers and HR professionals. Despite being responsible for designing and implementing wellbeing strategies in workplaces around the country, we have lost sight of what we need ourselves to stay strong.

This leads me to another very personal question.

“What are the special things you cherish every day to recharge your battery?”

If you pause for a moment to notice what your business is doing to tick the wellbeing box, I’m sure you’ll notice something interesting. We typically focus on food, fitness and a splash of yoga. The fruit bowls and water stations, discounted gym memberships, lunchtime mindfulness classes, walking clubs and even nap rooms are all wonderful and commendable initiatives, but have we also given our people the knowledge, confidence and permission to personalise their own wellbeing at work?

Linking wellbeing with resilience

How does wellbeing link to resilience? Building resilience is like an equation. We become resilient because of the permission we give ourselves to invest in our own wellbeing, and the things that we choose to invest in are incredibly personal.

For some of us, we might choose breakfast with our children. For others, it’s a run in the park at lunchtime, a phone call with somebody who makes us laugh, writing in a gratitude journal, making healthy food choices, having an early night, inspirational friends, team sports or five minutes of peace.

It’s not the same for everybody, so mandating attendance or limiting choices can be unhelpful if we want to build real, long-lasting resilience in our teams. Noticing these nourishing, recharging moments in our life in themselves can contribute to our sense of wellbeing.

Have we given our people the knowledge, confidence and permission to personalise their own wellbeing at work?

In fact, the world of wellbeing science has identified specific ways to invest in ourselves, which include mental, spiritual, physical, social and intellectual wellbeing. Together, these form the foundations for resilience. Resilient people are those who can adapt well in the face of significant or unexpected stress.

The past 12 months will have undoubtedly highlighted just how important these foundations are within every organisation as we navigated COVID-19. Choosing to charge ourselves up by making these personal wellbeing choices is what leads to fuller batteries and enhanced resilience to better deal with whatever the day, week or year throws our way.

Doing more things that invest in wellbeing will lead to more resilient employees.

Not doing things that invest in wellbeing will lead to less resilient employees.

It really can be this simple.

Workplace culture and wellbeing

Yet, when you tune into the conversations around you at work, I wonder how many are about people investing in recharging their wellbeing by making these sorts of choices, or whether instead they are focused on sharing how busy they are, how many meetings they have, how they have missed lunch (again) or worked late (again)?

In other words, the conversations are more likely to be what they are not doing to invest in their wellbeing. And I wonder how many of these comments are simply taken as being part of the typical culture at work, or whether they are challenged as being not very smart?

You see, I think we’ve accidentally made it cool to NOT focus on our wellbeing at work, which is one factor that has contributed to a decline in resilience at work.

Let’s explore this from another angle by reflecting on a conversation from my days in HR. It occurred during a talent management meeting where performance was discussed and promotions were agreed. The (real) conversation went something like this:

“Laura [not her real name] has been working exceptionally long hours this year. She’s always going above and beyond what we ask of her and showing real loyalty to this firm. She’s also doing an awesome job of bringing in new clients, so she should be a no brainer for promotion.”

Doing more things that invest in wellbeing will lead to more resilient employees.

Undermining or growing

I wonder whether you can see where this conversation is failing to deliver when it comes to supporting wellbeing? Some of our HR practices are unintentionally undermining the very thing we are seeking to grow within our workplaces: wellbeing (which you now know leads to resilience).

As people professionals, we are custodians of the culture. If we are serious about building resilience at work, we need to start being courageous and challenging our senior leadership when we hear this sort of conversation, that’s assuming they are serious about building a wellbeing culture. As a profession, we need to better understand wellbeing and how it leads to resilience so we can build more resilient people from within.

The good news is it’s just a hop, skip and jump away from engagement, which has been a hot topic for over 20 years, plus heaps of research and resources are around to help build our understanding.

Asking questions

There are too many social media discussions about finding tools, tests and assessments to guarantee that we have a resilient workforce. We want a hack or quick fix to build resilient teams.

The reality is that, currently, these assessments can certainly help us to hire people who have more knowledge about resilience, or who are predisposed to invest in themselves, but you can guarantee that life will come along to test and break their natural resilience levels someday. The person who gets the highest resilience score on record will likely still crumble when somebody they love dies, when they receive devastating news about their health or watch their colleagues lose a job.

Instead of using these tests, you could instead ask another personal question like this during interviews:

“Tell me how you managed to get through a really stressful time at work”.

This will not only give you an insight into how they manage their own wellbeing (and therefore resilience) under pressure, but it might also remind the person you are interviewing that they have courage and strength and can make it through hard times.

If you are serious about building resilience at work, then you must be ready to accept that wellbeing is something that ebbs and flows. You might be one of the lucky ones and never experience life’s biggest challenges, or enjoy great role models who have helped you to understand that sometimes things just don’t work out in life, but you can still find a way through; however, most of our employees will not be so lucky.

If we are serious about building resilience at work, we must help our people understand this most important of equations.

We also need to ensure our people become more aware of what they need to do to stay fully charged and to notice faster when their battery is fading. Above all, we need to clearly give them the permission to take evasive action so they can remain as buoyant as possible in a changing world.

This won’t inoculate them against workplace stressors, but it might just mean they thrive at work despite the ever-changing policies, annoying customers or random interruptions from colleagues.

The Mental Health Foundation has an unambiguous definition of wellbeing: “Feeling good and functioning well”. When we consider the example of high-performing Laura against this definition, I hope you can see where the opportunities for HR and wellbeing lie. She might be functioning well with all these awesome results, but is she really feeling good? Her long hours seem to have been going on for much of the year (she’s not just been busy for a few weeks as can happen to many of us), so I wonder what could be going on for her?

Perhaps she adores her job and finds herself hugely energised by her role – a factor that is very possible. For her, then, simple reminders of the need to remain vigilant for signs of burnout and regular feedback to ensure she knows she’s doing a great job might be the answer.

But what if she’s afraid of losing her job? Perhaps she lost a job previously and believes it was because of not working hard enough. This could be a driver for her behaviour, and it’s not a healthy one.

What if she struggles to make friends outside work and uses long hours as a coping strategy, so she doesn’t have to go home to an empty house? This is another possible reason that isn’t going to end well when it comes to resilience.

We must get better at noticing and asking each other more personal questions if somebody doesn’t seem to be feeling good and functioning well.

Choosing strength Wellbeing at work (which leads to resilience) isn’t just fruit, gyms and mindfulness classes. It’s flexible working, leaders who genuinely care, roles that fit with our strengths, friendships at work, regular supportive feedback, talent-related discussions; the list goes on.

And it is at the heart of what modern HR should represent.

Suppose we are serious about building resilience at work and embracing the changing face of Aotearoa. In that case, I believe we can beautifully bring both topics together – and address them – by simply personalising wellbeing and becoming more confident at talking with our people about how they are doing.

Instead of designing complicated wellbeing programmes or mandating attendance at mindfulness clinics, why not ask more personal questions of your teams.

• “How have you invested in your own wellbeing this week?”

• “What are the special things you cherish every day to recharge your battery?”

• “Tell me how you managed to get through a really stressful time at work”.

If you’d like to do more, here are three simple ideas to consider.

1. Embrace the science of wellbeing. We are fortunate to live in a time when research is highlighting what we need to do. We can use this knowledge to make different, stronger choices. For a free poster to help you with this, visit www.careerbalance. co.nz and download the Mental Health Awareness Poster.

2. Be the change you want to see in the world. Gandhi knew a thing or two about leading change, and at the heart of his words was this simple advice. Check you are investing in your wellbeing, noticing when you need to recharge and showing others how simple it can be. Be the wellbeing role model.

3. Make it cool to invest in wellbeing. Use your personal development conversations, team meetings, newsletters and one-to-ones to do this. Talk about what it looks like for everybody at work, encourage them to define it for themselves and explore ways to regularly invest in their recharge. Find ways to celebrate those who choose strength, not stress.

Kathryn Jackson is a leadership coach with over 25 years of experience as a people professional and a reputation for positively disrupting the way we approach wellbeing and grow resilience at work. She is the author of Resilience at Work: Practical Tools for Career Success, a finalist for the Best International Business Book (London) and the Australian Career Book Awards (Melbourne). During the past year, she launched a six-part workshop series called Let’s Talk Resilience at Work, which brings her book to life in a format that is part seminar, part team coaching, part self-reflection and a whole lot of practical application. With public courses running each month, and options to train for in-house delivery, there’s never been an easier way to learn about the science of wellbeing.