Is Resilience the Secret to Being Happy at Work?

September 12, 2017 by

In the second season of Billions, psychiatrist and performance coach, Dr. Wendy Rhodes is asked to assess a candidate for a private manned mission to Mars. Seemingly impeccable on paper, Dr. Rhodes rejects the candidate as she has carefully avoided adversity throughout her life and thus lacks the resilience to deal with the unknown.

At Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts, students can enroll in a new initiative, Failing Well, which aims to cultivate resilience among students by celebrating failure.

Sheryl Sandberg’s recent bestseller, Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy, documents her own journey to resilience following the death of her husband, drawing upon extensive research and individual stories about this quality.

These three diverse examples are just a nod to the current emphasis on resilience. So, what exactly is resilience, how do you cultivate this quality, and is it important for successful project management?


What is Resilience?

Resilience is defined as ‘’the psychological capacity to adapt to stressful circumstances and to bounce back from adverse events’’. Resilient individuals demonstrate the ability to recover and learn from challenging situations and changing circumstances. Resilience is associated with optimism, managing strong emotions, responding to opportunities, and forward thinking.

Learning is crucial to resilience. We all experience some adversity and setbacks in our personal and professional lives; how we respond to such events can inhibit our growth or propel us forward.

This is the thinking behind the Failing Well course at Smith College. A number of educators noticed that students who were used to being ‘perfect’ or ‘exceptional’ were ill-equipped to deal with the ups and downs of campus life; they were struggling to cope with simple ‘failures’ such as missing a deadline by a few minutes.

Similar initiatives also run in Harvard, Princeton, and the University of Pennsylvania.

As I briefly noted above, changes in our working habits have shifted attention to resilience. Stress, more projects, an always-on work culture, information overload, longer working hours – these all take a toll on the physical and mental health of employees.

Some studies have found that around 25% of employees describe work as the number one stressor in their lives, whilst the World Health Organization cites stress as a global health epidemic.

Some stress is helpful as it nudges us to perform at our peak; however, we often forget to turn off the ‘stress tap’ and become distressed.  Resilience is a way to offset this strong emotion. According to research conducted by PWC in 2014, programs that cultivated a resilient and mentally healthy workplace returned $2.30 for every dollar spent. This return manifested as lower health care costs, higher productivity, lower absenteeism, and decreased turnover.

Now that you’ve read about the traits and benefits of resilience, let’s look at the characteristics in a little more detail.


Characteristics of Resilience

There are three main qualities of resilience.

  1. Challenge: Resilient individuals view adversity as a challenge and opportunity to learn, not a permanent situation or reflection of their self-worth.
  2. Commitment: Those of a resilient mindset have personal and professional goals, and stick with them. They maintain contact with people and participate in events during difficult times.
  3. Personal Control: People who are resilient focus on events and situations they can control. They thus feel empowered and confident, and take action accordingly.


Resilience is also linked to how we explain setbacks to ourselves. A resilient person typically views a setback as temporary (permanence), related to one particular area of their lives (pervasiveness), and linked to external events (personalization). Here is a breakdown of how this looks:

 Resilient Mindset Non-Resilient Mindset
Permanence I didn’t do well on this taskI’m not very good at my job
PervasivenessI’m not good at this particular taskI’m not good at anything I do
Personalization I didn’t know about a change to a process so I couldn’t finish a taskI couldn’t finish the task because I can’t do my job


As you can see, having a resilient mindset brings a very different and positive perspective to our daily reactions and thoughts. Why not take some time to reflect on how you responded to recent challenges? Can you identify either of these mindsets?

It is also worth considering some negative consequences of resilience. Like any strength, if resilience is overused, it can become a weakness. Overly resilient individuals are more likely to:

  • Pursue unattainable goals.
  • Accept difficult situations, especially in the workplace, for too long.
  • Develop aggressive coping mechanisms.
  • Become socially distant in times of pressure.
  • Possess less self-awareness as they tend to push through all challenges instead of recognizing their limitations.



5 Ways to Cultivate Resilience

[Resilience] isn’t about having a backbone. It’s about strengthening the muscles around our backbone.”Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant, Option B  

Once thought to be inherent – something people were just born with – we now know that resilience can be nurtured; after all, we each possess the same stress-response system. Resilience is a dynamic trait and changes over time as we experience life. Instead of waiting for an obstacle or unexpected challenge to gauge your resilience, here are some practical steps to develop this quality.


1. Develop a Growth Mindset 

In Collaborative Project Management: A Handbook, author and BrightWork CEO, Éamonn McGuinness introduces the concept of  ‘falling upwards’, using our failures as an opportunity to grow. This mindset – a growth mindset – is the essence of resilience. Treat every problem as a learning tool and grow. The alternative? Focus on every problem as a permanent threat and develop a fixed, inflexible mindset that leads to more stress.

Falling upwards has a second benefit – increased compassion for the failures and struggles of others. Compassion for ourselves and those around us can boost our happiness, improve collaboration, and decrease stress.


2. Challenge Your Self-Talk

I recently read you talk to yourself more than anyone else. Going a step further, our actions are linked to our thoughts so if we constantly tell ourselves negative stories, then our actions and interactions with others are likely to be affected.

Use a journal to track your thoughts and reactions for a few days to identify any patterns. Do you frequently think ‘I can’t or ‘it’s too difficult?’ If so, how does this determine your reactions? Is there evidence to support or contradict your thought? How do your thoughts impact on your energy and interactions with others?

It’s also worth looking at your wider network of family, friends, and colleagues; do they use positive or negative language when discussing a situation? It’s easy to adopt the thoughts of our peers.

By recognizing these patterns, you can now pivot to positive language and reactions. The next time you think ‘I can’t, ask yourself ‘Why can’t I?’ Phrases such as ‘always’ or ‘never’ may indicate you tend to think in permanent terms; replace these with ‘sometimes’ or ‘lately’.


3. Recovery

Recovery from work and daily stressors is critical to resilience. Recovery is not the same as rest; we may take a ‘rest’ or break from emails for a few hours but this is not enough time to recover and recharge completely. As noted above, work is a huge source of stress for many individuals, which can affect other areas of our lives, including health.

Often, exhausted employees try to compensate for reduced productivity by working even longer, which leads to more exhaustion and a reduced ability to deal with challenges.  The trick is to work hard, stop, recover, and try again.

Recovery can take many forms such as investing in your physical and emotional energy and building internal and external recovery points into your working life.

  • Internal recovery refers to taking regular breaks during your working day and switching between tasks after 90 minutes. It’s also a good idea to block time for particular tasks such as emails to manage your ‘cognitive load’. This refers to how much information we need to process during the day. Setting aside this time reduces the need to constantly switch between tasks as more information (or another email) becomes available, which improves productivity and decision-making.
  • External recovery includes taking annual leave, developing non-work related hobbies, and disconnecting from work at the weekends – so stop checking your emails! Recent research shows that ”practically all of people’s free time goes toward screens of some sort.” If possible, put away all devices or reduce your time on social media.


4. Positive Attitude

Returning to Collaborative Project Management, developing a positive attitude is key to navigating life’s challenges. A simple way to start is to practice gratitude and reflection every day. Several studies have demonstrated gratitude practices improve physical and mental health and our relationships.

Too often, we become fixated on negative events and emotions, which eclipse everything that is going well. Gratitude helps us to focus on the present moment and increases our sense of self-worth, which improves our ability to resist stress and negativity.

In your journal, jot down three things you are grateful for today – this could be music, a work colleague helping you out, a great cup of coffee. Big or small; it doesn’t really matter. Over time, this daily practice will shift your thinking towards positivity and also acts as a handy reference tool if you feel overwhelmed by an unexpected challenge.


5. Organizational Resilience

In Option B, Sheryl Sandberg discusses organizational resilience, highlighting the importance of acknowledging failure and providing honest feedback at all levels. Using post-mortems or debriefs at regular intervals can lead to fewer mistakes and increased innovation as teams feel more comfortable when trying something new. She also suggests managers and team members not only seek feedback from their peers but reflect on how they reacted to this feedback.


Next Steps – REP

Like any personal trait, it is possible to nurture resilience over time. There are lots of tips and suggestions in this article so I suggest using the REP principle to get started.

REP is a personal change management approach we have developed at BrightWork and stands for Research, Execute and Post-Mortem. The idea is to tackle any changes in smaller, manageable chunks with time allocated to reflection and learning.

Let’s take the example of self-talk to start with.

R: Use a journal to track your thoughts and reactions for a few days. You can also carry out some online research into the benefits and practices of positive self-talk.

After a week, review your journal and pick one or two habits you want to change. Perhaps you say ‘ I can’t frequently’ – can you improve this and how?

E: During the execute phase, start implementing your positive self-talk for a week or so. Keep recording your experiences in a journal.

P: After a few days, review your latest journal entries and take note of key learnings and improvements you need to make. You may also like to select another area to work on and start the REP cycle again.


Image credit 


Collaborative Project Management: A Handbook

Grace Windsor

Grace is a content creator within the marketing team at BrightWork. She loves creating actionable content in different formats to help others achieve more project success. Grace spent far too long at university studying English literature, which instilled a life-long love of learning and upskilling.

In her free time, she enjoys a challenging session at the gym, tucking into a good book, and walking the beautiful Galway coastline with her dog.
Grace Windsor

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