Helping Your Workforce Become More Resilient

April 26, 2021 | Shannon Shoemaker

As we pass the one year anniversary of stay at home orders because of COVID, are we taking care of our essential and remote workers as well as we could be? In March of 2020, workers packed up laptops, essential workers were issued PPE, safety protocols were put in place, and the lines at drive-through labs testing for COVID-19 wrapped around city blocks.

As if working through a global pandemic wasn’t difficult enough, through the summer, following the death of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Elijah McClain (among others), protesters filled city streets. The news each day reported incidents leading up to the election, including the insurrection at the nation’s Capitol on January 6. We’ve also experienced weather events, most recently in Texas, where people went days and even weeks without power, water and access to the internet. And more recently, a mass shooting in Atlanta that targeted members of the Asian American community shone a light on increased violence directed toward AAPI people as a result of the previous administration’s rhetoric around the novel coronavirus.

HR leaders who were already struggling with safety protocols for essential workers and supporting newly remote teams also had to find ways to support employees who were afraid, grieving, isolated, and dealing with challenges from the financial to familial as many parents were supervising children in virtual learning environments, many having to leave jobs to do so. Our HR teams supporting employees on the verge of burnout were becoming burned out themselves. Many of us wondered if this was the “new normal” and, if so, how long we could keep it up.


Supporting a Workforce in Survival Mode

There are basic needs that must be met (food, water, shelter) in order for your employees to be as productive as possible and shift from survival mode to thriving. In the early days of the pandemic, this looked like stores with shelves as empty as they are before a hurricane. We sent out employee surveys asking what our employees needed, how they were holding up as essential workers dealing with the public or handling the isolation (or chaos) of working from home. Many employers sent cases of supplies like toilet tissue, grocery delivery gift cards, raised hourly wages, offered unlimited paid time off for parents and caregivers – all to ensure that our employees had enough of whatever their families needed.

For most companies, these gestures were received and welcomed. But engaging employees who are suffering emotionally is more challenging. Because of the stigma around mental health and privacy concerns, many employees whose employers offer EAPs (employee assistance programs) did not take advantage of them. Some companies brought in outside vendors, like BetterHelp, so employees could get private counseling virtually. Others formed internal ERGs (employee resource groups) and encouraged Black, LGBTQ+, and AAPI employees to meet in a safe and supportive setting. Still, employees were stressed, and employers saw a spike in substance abuse throughout 2020.


How Resiliency Can Be the Key to Supporting Your Workforce

Psychologists define resilience as the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats, or significant sources of stress—such as family and relationship problems, serious health problems, or workplace and financial stressors. Simply put, it’s the ability to bounce back from adversity. There are many factors that come into play around how people respond to stress, including whether or not their basic needs are met (food, water, shelter); whether or not a person is part of a marginalized group (a person who has experienced racism may be deeply affected by seeing clips online or simply listening to the news); and a person’s existing support system (a remote employee living alone and single may experience isolation differently from an employee with a partner and children).

Organizations that want to stay competitive and relevant must learn to move forward with resilience and adapt to new challenges, but an organization is only as resilient as its workforce. If your people struggle to adapt and bounce back from stress, your company will struggle, too. While part of an individual’s resilience may be somewhat unchangeable based on the factors we mentioned, it is possible to improve resilience through intentional training.

If you or your team is leading intentional training, start with leader evaluation: Are the team members who plan to coach, mentor, and model behavior…well, are they okay? Choose leaders in and outside of HR who have been able to tap into their own reserve of resilience, let your team know that it’s OK to not be OK, and ensure these team members have leadership support.


The Four Essentials to Effective Resilience Training

Once you’ve identified your resilience team leaders, center your training on four resilience factors on both organizational and individual levels:

    1. Be able to adapt and be mentally flexible.
    2. Focus on developing social connections, both big and small.
    3. Develop a shared sense of purpose.
    4. Focus on hope.


As much as resilience involves “bouncing back” from difficult experiences, it can also involves profound personal growth. Resilience training is not a one-off; it has several components, including mindfulness, connection, meditation, work-life balance, and an openness around talking about wellness, especially in terms of mental health.


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