• Sophie H. Janicke, Ph.D.

4 Practical Ways to Boost Resilience at Work

It is getting to the end of the year, final projects that need to be finished are piling up, coworkers are drained by a nerve wrecking month of elections and more tragedies hitting the world. In the midst of violence and destruction, however, there is hope. Hope that stems from the understanding of coming out stronger on the other end: Resilience.

In a wonderful post by the Positive Psychology Program on resilience the author refers to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (2015) who defines individual resilience as “ the ability to withstand, adapt to, and recover from adversity and stress. “ This definition basically describes the reality of people bouncing back to their normal functioning after a stressful event.

However, some people actually become stronger after an adverse event. This is also called post-traumatic growth. The authors Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt write in their book “The Coddling of the American Mind” that we need to work on making our youth more “antifragile.” The term describes an object that is strengthened by stress, rather than just being unbreakable, following Friedrich Nietzsche’s slogan:” What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” (or as you may know it better from Kelly Clarkson’s 2011 hit “Stronger”)

Why foster resilience and antifragility in everyday life?

While some people are more prone to resilience and being antifragile than others, the good news is, it can be learned.

Antifragility is not only extremely important in a time in the U.S. where tragedies hit our nation with every news cycle, but it is also important to consider in what we have to deal with in everyday life. Luckily, most of us do have a job (and I am very grateful for that) and because we are employed, we do spend most of our life time at work. Therefore, I will focus on ways to increase workplace resilience in this post in specific.

There are many reasons for why resilience is so important at the workplace. On a company level, resilient employees are more productive, and resilience has been found to reduce the turnover and health costs associated with burnout for companies. On an individual level, resilience is associated with greater optimism and creativity, improved communication, better stress management and grit (i.e., perseverance).

4 Ways to Increase Resilience at Work (and otherwise)

1. Authenticity

Research shows that bringing our true self to the work-place is very beneficial for boosting our antifragility. It is tiring to constantly putting on a mask and pretend to be someone we are not. Being true to oneself and living true to our values also shines through in our communication with others, for which in return we are trusted more. But in order to bring our authentic self to work, we really have to know what that authentic self of ours is.

While we can all name certain attributes of our personality, it helps to learn about our character strengths (i.e., curiosity, kindness, fairness), which we may have not thought about much before. Sometimes we don’t have the right words to describe clearly who we are, but the more precise we can articulate our personality traits and characteristics, the better can we implement them in everyday life, or remember them when we had a bad day. I can only recommend taking the VIA character strengths Questionnaire for free. It provides you with your top character strengths, and research shows when we implement them in difficult situations, we become happier as a result.

My top 3 character strength are: Forgiveness, Curiosity and Self-regulation. What are yours? Comment below.

2. Mindfulness

Yea, yea, I know…mindfulness is the answer to everything. But hey, that’s a good thing, right? Mindfulness has been shown to be highly beneficial to reduce anxiety and stress, which are emotional responses that over time can reduce our capacity to bounce back from hardship or tackle difficult problems.

Did you ever feel overwhelmed by the smallest mishap at work? Such as, the copier is not working, you spill coffee on your pants, or you can’t find the file you are looking for, and you completely loose it? If that is the case, this is clearly a sign that some form of stress has tired you out. A regular mindfulness practice has been shown to reduce the everyday stress response over the long term and even in the moment. A study with healthy male adults who meditated 15 minutes before playing a stressful computer game showed reduced stress response on a psychological and physiological level. So, freak out episodes over minute things at work don’t have to be as draining as they can be. Just find a quiet place, plug your headspace meditation app in your headphones and you are boosting your resilience on the go.

Maybe, you are lucky and part of a company that offers daily meditation sits for their employees. If not, become a leader, just like Scott Unterberg at Adobe who started Project Breathe in a closet, where he offered short 15 minute meditations for himself and anyone interested. Now, his program became an all company wide adoption and is spreading even beyond Adobe.

Be the change you want to see. You will be surprised how many of your colleagues would love for you to start a meditation group at your work-place.

Time Off Work for Recovery

The word recovery does not only apply to sports or injuries. Recovering from work strain is a real thing and unfortunately one of the most undervalued ones in the U.S. economy. Somehow, we got to a point where the general belief is that working non-stop without vacation is how we become successful and happy in life. Well, let me be very frank with you: That, is completely false! Even our phones need to recharge, what to speak of our bodies, minds and hearts!

People in the U.S. work 140 hours more a year than a couple of decades ago. The U.S. is one of just 13 countries in the world that does not guarantee paid time off. The average amount of vacation days in the U.S is 10 days in the first 5 years of your job, then 15 and after tenure at a private company you may get 20 days.

My sister, who works in Germany was telling me how she will be able to have a spring, summer and fall vacation next year AND some extra days she can take here and there because overall she gets 38 paid vacation days! Yes!! Other countries have similar numbers around the 30 day mark.

Now, here is the jaw dropper though. Of the 15 or so days that Americans have paid vacation, 52% of Americans did not even use all of their vacation days in 2017. Say whaaaat?

There is a trend that started in 2000 where more and more people take fewer and fewer days off.

So not only do Americans work more hours, but they also don’t even take all of their minimal vacation days.

Now, there are certainly many reasons that play into that. For one, many workers feel like they will be even more stressed coming back from a vacation trying to catch up on all the work that has been left behind, which is a strong sign of mismanagement on an organizational level and a lack of resources for task accomplishment via other means.

Some argue that the increase of technology use has made workers even more engaged in the workplace and thus harder to let go from work.

Furthermore, I think the culture of gross materialism in the American society that equates money, business success, houses, cars and fancy vacations with the ultimate happiness, certainly does not help to take a break from work. After all, without hard work the American dream will not be accomplished and thus, ultimate happiness will never be obtained (at least that is what people think).

Another important aspect that I think leads into the problem of overwork in this country is the identification with one’s work. We over-identify with our roles as managers, administers, teachers, leaders, and think that without us, the world would stop spinning. And how could we not identify with our working role? After all, we have been conditioned early on to succeed in tests, stand out with our extracurricular activities and be special in whatever we do. So early on we find acknowledgment and approval through our accomplishments, not by who we are. Once lost in the rat race of catching up with college dept and living the expensive life Hollywood portrays, we have less and less ways to feel valued by other means: Our friends, our spiritual connection, our families, our inner self. And once our mind is conditioned in a specific way, it is hard to break the habit of running in the hamster wheel. Undergraduates now do not know anymore how to be bored, how to just be and self-reflect. The comparison and stimulation via social media is a constant process, leaving little time to connect with nature, music, friends, or the sacred. However, these are the things that research in positive psychology has been shown to make us happy. Not money.

If you are still not convinced that endless work and money is not bringing you happiness, here is some research nugget for you: Research shows that people who took fewer than 10 of their vacation days per year had a 34% chance to get a promotion within the next 3 years. People who took more than 10 of their vacation days had a 65% chance of receiving a promotion or bonus. Ha!

Yes! We need to recharge. Even if it is just an extended weekend at home without work; we recharge, increase our resilience and become more productive and happier worker as a result.

4. Optimism

Lastly, having an optimistic viewpoint of things can boost our self-confidence and resilience as a result. When something negative happens, instead of attributing it to be permanent, pertaining to all aspects of our lives and based on a personality flaw (pessimistic viewpoint), optimists attribute the negative situation to be temporary, specific to the circumstances, and due to factors that are external and can be changed next time (i.e., work on the project earlier). An optimistic person sees challenges as opportunities to learn and grow, rather than obstacles to overcome. These optimistic viewpoints are learned according to Martin Seligman and have far reaching consequences. As outlined in an article by the positive psychology program, “optimists succeed in almost all areas of human endeavors including relationships, business, general health, sport and academic success”. Not bad for a simple mind trick of adjusting our way of thinking.


These are just 4 out of many more ways to boost our resilience at work and otherwise. Other important aspects that have been shown to be important for fostering resilience at work include finding your calling, maintaining perspective, interacting cooperatively, staying healthy and building networks, just to name a view. The Resilience at Work scale designed in 2011 by organizational psychologist Kathryn McEwen and well-being researcher Dr. Peter Winwood provides an easy assessment of where you stand in your own resilience at work. You can download the questionnaire here.

If you are interested in more tools for increasing happiness at work in general, check out the Happiness at Work MOOC from the Greater Good Science Center hosted on edX. It’s free and incredibly useful!

Now, go out in the world, show your authentic self, breathe, take a Realbreak every once in a while and look at the cup as half full. If you do it, your co-workers will follow your lead and one individual at a time, we can build a workforce that is filled with antifragile people.

#research #happiness #habit #work #RealBreak #productivity #mindfulness

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