True Grit: How you can build resilience to thrive in the most challenging of times

This post is written by Kellie Lewis, GM – Wellbeing, Sentis

Across industry, the constant and rapid pace of change, economic uncertainty, restructures, redundancies, doing more with less, demanding performance targets and competing priorities, cost pressures, increased competition, commuting, and being constantly connected or wired in - are just some of the pressures and challenges facing the leaders and employees in the modern workplace and industry today.

The result of this high pressure environment are rising stress levels in the workplace. The impact of this workplace stress is increasingly psychologically unhealthy and unhappy employees. In fact, it is estimated to cost Australian business approximately $30 billion dollars each year in lost productivity and stress/psychological injury claims.

The challenge to business today is what to do about it. The answer is to build resilience. Resilience is an individual's capacity to respond constructively to change, challenge and other stressors and to learn from that adversity to be even stronger and more capable than before. In other words – it's our ability to withstand stress and recover quickly from life's challenges. Building resilience, together with organisational level strategy such as effective change management practices, realistic job design, and providing role autonomy and flexibility, are fundamental parts to lowering workplace stress.

Building resilience is becoming increasingly important to businesses in the industry because of the direct commercial benefits of having employees who deal effectively with change and other challenges and stress. Individuals who are resilient are happier; less stressed, and report higher overall wellbeing than those who are not. The improved performance outcomes of increased employee resilience and overall wellbeing are increased engagement, improved productivity, and decreased stress/psychological injury claims. In essence, investing in employees' capacity to be resilient is good for the individual and good for business.

Importantly, what we know is that resilience is a skill. The most recent advances in applied psychological science tell us that whilst some of us are naturally more resilient than others, resilience is a defined set of characteristics and behaviours which can be learnt. If we can understand and embrace these qualities we will deal with change more effectively and respond to change and stress in our lives in ways that are helpful.

BUILDING RESILIENCE                        

There are three key dimensions to resilience. They are what we call Active Self-Management, Taking Control and Meaning & Purpose. These dimensions form the foundation of the qualities and characteristics of resilience. They empower us when facing challenges and allow us to feel happier and healthier in life to perform at our best.


Active Self-Management

Active Self-Management refers to managing our initial response to stress and how we can proactively establish helpful choices around what we call the Big Four Lifestyle Factors of resilience - Sleep, Nutrition, Exercise and Positive Relationships.

  1. One of the most scientifically established and simple ways to manage your initial reaction to a stressful situation is conscious and controlled breathing. There are a number of ways this can be done. One tool is called 5 x 5. It allows us to take control of our automatic and biological stress response and minimise the many unhelpful stress responses we can sometimes display. Try this:
    1. Take a deep breath. Check that your abdomen is moving, not your shoulders.
      1. Count slowly to 5. Hold for a count of 5. Breathe out for a count of 5. Hold for a count of 5.
      2. Repeat this cycle 5 times and then return to breathing normally.
  3. Getting enough sleep, eating well, exercising daily, and investing in building and maintaining supportive relationships all help us deal with life's ups and downs more effectively. It's not easy in today's busy world and it takes discipline. It is also one of the cornerstones of resilience. Ask yourself - "What is just one thing I can do to improve one thing in the Big Four Lifestyle Factors?"

Taking Control

Taking Control focusses on consciously choosing our thoughts, feelings and behaviours in response to any situation by taking control of our thinking and the results that we get in life. Individuals who believe they are in control of their lives are more resilient, and no matter what happens it is our choice how to think, feel and behave.

One of the ways we can do this is reframing - a very powerful way to look at difficulties in a fresh and positive way.

To help us reframe a challenge we can ask ourselves:

  1. What is the outcome I am trying to achieve?
  2. What is my current response to this situation? What am I currently thinking, feeling and doing? Is this getting me the result that I want?
  3. What is a more helpful response to this situation? How do I need to be thinking, feeling and behaving? Will this get me the outcome I want to achieve?

Meaning and Purpose

Finding meaning and purpose is about the need to explore the value and opportunity in a situation to be able to embrace it positively so we can learn and grow. This is not a process for pretending everything is rosy. It is about acknowledging a situation is not easy and experiencing the emotions associated with this whilst knowing the circumstances can be overcome. It is a process of consciously thinking to help us consider what opportunities a change or challenge presents and searching for where we can find meaning – wherever that meaning and purpose lies for us.

One of the most powerful tools we have to help us search for that meaning and purpose in a situation are questions. The brain has an automatic response to search for the answers to questions it receives. This means that strategic use of questions can be a powerful tool to influence both our own thinking and others. Questions we ask ourselves determine what our brain focusses on and strongly influence how we approach a challenge. Consider the individual who asks themselves "Why does this always happen to me?" compared to the individual who asks "What do I need to do to meet this challenge?" We would suggest the second individual is going to achieve a better result and show greater resilience in facing the challenge.

When feeling stressed about a situation we can ask ourselves: "How am I going to constructively overcome this challenge/respond to this change/deal with this situation?"

While some people seem to naturally display more resilience than others, all of us can improve our resilience by investing energy in the three dimensions of the Resilience Model. And in the simple, yet deeply insightful words of Khalil Gibran:

"Your living is determined not so much by what life brings to you as by the attitude you bring to life; not so much by what happens to you as by the way your mind looks at what happens."


Kellie Lewis, BSc(Psych&Human Biology), BPsych(Hons), MPsych, MBA

GM – Wellbeing, Sentis

With over 15 years’ experience working with individuals and organisations, Kellie applies her extensive knowledge of applied neuroscience, psychology and business to helping clients achieve their individual and organisational change goals and high performance targets.

Kellie is a member of the executive leadership team at Sentis and has been part of the team responsible for providing clients with results driven solutions in safety and organisational excellence and growing a highly successful and award winning global business.

This has included being part of the team leading Sentis to being named one of Australia’s best places to work for four consecutive years in a row (2010-2013), winning an Australian innovation award and multiple international innovation and service awards (2012).

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