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Four Ways Organizations Can Cultivate Resilience in the Workplace

BY: Cory Smith // Co-Founder & CEO • Wisdom Labs

Resilience has been identified as an important factor in the workplace. But resilience is more than just being mentally or emotionally tough. And it’s certainly more than having “grit,” a popular term these days for tenacity. It’s an ability to persevere in the face of setbacks, be present, and learn from failures.

Imagine that you drop a basketball and a snow globe on a hard tile floor. The basketball will keep its shape and bounce back. The snow globe will shatter to pieces. Thankfully, human beings aren’t basketballs or snow globes, but some seem to hold up under pressure better than others.

For today’s workforce, bouncing back is often easier said than done. A recent Gallup study found that 23 percent of the nearly 7,500 full-time employees surveyed reported feeling frequently or always burned out at work. And when we look at the Millennials surveyed—employees between the ages of 23 and 38—that number jumps to 28 percent.[1]

If that weren’t enough, a Gallup poll from two years ago found that 70 percent of roughly 1,000 Americans surveyed felt stress sometimes or frequently in their daily lives.[2] And we know that chronic stress is associated with higher levels of anxiety, depression, and physical ailments like heart disease and stroke.

In fact, burnout at work has become such a common and global phenomenon that in May 2019, the World Health Organization redefined it as a “syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”

So, how can we foster a sense of resilience in today’s burned out and overworked employees?

1. Resilience Can Be Learned

Some people thrive in high-stakes environments, while others appear to cave under pressure. And in the workplace, resilient employees can deftly handle stressors such as organizational change, new technologies, mergers, and downsizing.[3] While others are far more resistant to change and adversity, and might feel overwhelmed, stuck or become withdrawn. And organization leaders and managers who are naturally more resilient may have a harder time understanding why some of their people are less so.

A person’s ability to bounce back depends quite a bit on their genetic makeup, upbringing, and neurochemistry, according to a comprehensive study by psychiatrists at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York.[4] Another study found that university students who felt happier over all were more satisfied with their lives in general, not necessarily because of their genetics or neurochemistry, but because they had developed the emotional and social support they needed to get through trying times.[5]

Thankfully for today’s high-stress organizations, resilience is a skill that people can learn, cultivate, and make into a habit, despite their physiology. Companies that give their people the tools and resources to cultivate resilience to cope with today’s fast-paced and dynamic work environment consistently rate as top places to work, have happier employees, and are leaders in their fields.

Let’s look at some of the best ways that organizations can promote resilience and avoid burnout.

2. Encourage Exercise

We know that physical activity is essential for whole-body health. People who exercise regularly are more likely to remain healthier, happier, and more productive when faced with stressful situations. But when people feel over-scheduled and overworked, they’re far less likely to prioritize their exercise routine.

_Researchers at the University of New England in Australia found_ ( that both non-aerobic resistance training (which includes weight-lifting and body-weight exercises) and cardiovascular exercise (such as jogging or cycling) produced a measurable decrease in perceived stress and emotional exhaustion. Participants in the month-long study also reported a greater sense of overall wellbeing.[6] A separate study at the University of Chicago found that regular exercise mitigated the negative physical and emotional effects of stress, such as elevated heart rate and cortisol (stress hormone) levels, depression, anxiety, and anger.[7]

Some organizations in both the private and public sectors have been offering exercise incentives with positive results, including ConocoPhilips, Swift, and Google.[8] Clif Bar gives its employees 30 minutes of paid time every day to exercise,[9] while the US Central Intelligence Agency allows three hours of excused absence a week for physical fitness.[10]

So while it might seem that employees’ time is best spent at the desk, your people will be able to face adversity with a healthier body and mind if they have the time, facilities, and opportunities to be physically active at work.

3. Cultivate Connections

Humans are social creatures, and without a strong social support network, we become vulnerable to the adverse effects of stress. Even though your workplace might have dozens of employees working close together in an office building or communicating throughout the day on collaborative virtual platforms like Slack, your people might not feel the social support they need when faced with difficult times. In fact, those who telecommute might be more prone to loneliness. It’s far harder to grab coffee with a colleague when you work from home.

And it seems that loneliness is on the rise. 30 percent of Millennials surveyed by YouGov just this year reported that they feel lonely often or always, compared to 20 percent of those in Generation X (roughly 40-55 years old) and only 15 percent of Baby Boomers (55-75 years old).[11]

Loneliness can have adverse effects on our wellbeing, leaving us more vulnerable to the physiological and psychological detriments of stress and trauma. A team of scientists in 2013 found that breast cancer survivors who reported that they were lonely throughout their recovery process experienced more pain, depression, and fatigue than those who felt they had stronger social support.[12]

Since many of us spend most of our time at work or completing work-related activities, it’s essential that workplaces cultivate a sense of community and support for their people. Organizations that consistently rank on Great Place to Work (—such as Cisco, Salesforce, and Hilton—foster a sense of camaraderie by offering volunteering opportunities, organized sports and group exercise, and even company-sponsored music festivals.[13]

While one’s entire social circle might not necessarily be made up only of co-workers, having that support system will absolutely foster a greater sense of wellbeing, positivity, and resilience in times of adversity.

4. Make Time for Mindfulness

At Wisdom Labs, we believe that cultivating mindfulness—non-judgmental, present-centered awareness—can benefit everyone in the workplace, from CEOs to new hires. And it can be a key element in protecting against burnout and cultivating resilience.

People who exhibit trait mindfulness—a habitual state of mindfulness—have been shown in a wide range of studies to have higher levels of life satisfaction, vitality, self-esteem, optimism, and empathy. They’re also less likely to exhibit depression, social anxiety, absent-mindedness, and experiential avoidance.[14] Those who practice mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) are far less likely to experience symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after a stressful event than those who don’t, and a growing body of work indicates (paywall) that mindfulness can reduce existing PTSD symptoms.[15]

In addition to helping individuals cope with stressful life events, mindfulness can also reduce feelings of burnout. Researchers at the University of Kentucky found that in a study of 171 social workers—whose work requires engagement with clients experiencing intense pain, trauma, and conflict—those who practiced mindfulness experienced significantly less burnout than those who didn’t.[16] And in 2005, a team of scientists found that even after only eight weeks of mindfulness meditation, a group of healthcare workers reported that they felt a reduction in depression, anxiety, and stress, even up to two months after the eight-week program.[17]

Indeed, when we pause and take time to reflect on what is going well, our accomplishments, and what we have achieved, we’re far less likely to feel burnt out and we’ll be able to recover from stressful events both at work and in our daily lives.

It’s no secret that some of the world’s leading corporations—including Google, Salesforce, and Nike—have been offering mindfulness and meditation classes to their employees and with positive results. Of the 25 percent of employees at Aetna who have participated in company-sponsored mindfulness programs, 28 percent said they felt less stressed, 20 percent slept better, and 19 percent were in less pain; they also reported that they’re accomplishing more at work.[18]

These mindfulness programs have an added benefit of bringing employees together for a shared experience, which also helps build a sense of social support and community. In addition, employees are far more likely to feel that their workplace cares for their wellbeing as individuals, not just as workers.

Successful corporate wellness programs offer more than just wearable activity trackers, blood pressure screenings, or even an on-site gym; in fact, many wellness programs often fall flat. A great wellness program will align with your organizations’ values, ask employees what they want, and provide holistic, mind-body resources that encourage employees to build connections, be active, and be present, no matter what challenges they might face.

[1] Pendell, Ryan. “Millennials Are Burning Out.” Gallup. Accessed October 7, 2019.
[2] Saad, Lydia. “Eight in 10 Americans Afflicted by Stress” Gallup. Accessed October 7, 2019.
[3] Warner, Rod and Kurt April. “Building Personal Resilience at Work.” Effective Executive 15:4 (2012): 53-68.
[4] Gang, Wu, Adriana Feder, Hagit Cohen, Joanna J. Kim, Solara Calderon, Dennis S. Charney, and Aleksander A. Mathé. “Understanding Resilience.” Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience 7 (2013).
[5] Cohn, Michael A., Barbara L. Fredrickson, Stephanie L. Brown, Joseph A. Mikels, and Anne M. Conway. “Happiness Unpacked: Positive Emotions Increase Life Satisfaction by Building Resilience.” Emotion 9:3 (2009).
[6] Bretland, Rachel Judith, and Einar Baldvin Thorsteinsson. “Reducing workplace burnout: The relative benefits of cardiovascular and resistance exercise.” PeerJ (2015): 3e891.
[7] Childs, Emma, and Harriet de Wit. “Regular exercise is associated with emotional resilience to acute stress in healthy adults.” Frontiers in Physiology 5 (2014).
[8] Hollauf, Michael. “5 Companies Where You Can Exercise While Working.” Entrepreneur. May 12, 2016.
[9] “Fitness Fun at Clif.” Clif Bar & Company. Accessed October 9, 2019.
[10] “Careers & Internships: Benefits.” Central Intelligence Agency. Accessed October 9, 2019.
[11] Ballard, Jaime. “Millennials are the Loneliest Generation.” YouGov. Accessed October 9, 2019.
[12] Jaremka, Lisa M., Christopher P. Fagundes, Ronald Glaser, Jeanette M. Bennett, William B. Malarkey, and Janice K. Kiecolt-Glaser. “Loneliness Predicts Pain, Depression, and Fatigue: Understanding the Role of Immune Dysregulation.” Psychoneuroendocrinology 38:8 (2013): 1310-1317.
[13] “A Sense of Community Drives Great Cultures at the World’s Best Workplaces.” Great Place to Work. Accessed October 9, 2019.
[14] Keng, Shian-Ling, Moria J. Smoski, and Clive J. Robins. “Effects of Mindfulness on Psychological Health: A Review of Empirical Studies.” Clinical Psychology Review 31:6 (2011): 1041-1056.
[15] Banks, Kirsty, Emily Newman, and Jannat Saleem. “An Overview of the Research on Mindfulness‐Based Interventions for Treating Symptoms of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder: A Systematic Review.” Journal of Clinical Psychology 71:10 (2015): 935-963. (Paywall)
[16] Thomas, Jacky T., and Melanie D. Otis. “Intrapsychic correlates of professional quality of life: Mindfulness, empathy, and emotional separation.” Journal of the Society for Social Work and Research 1:2 (2010): 83-98.
[17] Johnson, Jill R., Henry C. Emmons, Rachael L. Rivard, Kristen H. Griffin, and Jeffery A. Dusek. “Resilience Training: A Pilot Study of a Mindfulness-Based Program with Depressed Healthcare Professionals.” EXPLORE: The Journal of Science and Healing 11:6 (2015): 433-444.
[18] Gelles, David. “At Aetna, a C.E.O.’s Management by Mantra.” New York Times. February 27, 2015. (Soft Paywall)

Cory Smith
Cory Smith // Co-Founder & CEO • Wisdom Labs

Cory has spent over 20 years aligning purpose, entrepreneurship and social good to create companies that have positive impact for people and the planet. Previously, Cory was CEO of Impact Hub Bay Area, CEO of the Social Capital Markets Conference, the first Innovation Fellow for the San Francisco Mayor’s Office, CEO of Webcast Solutions (acquired by StarMedia/France Telecom) and Co-founder of MediaCast, the first on-location webcast company.