Business Transformation

Building Workplace Resilience

In our work with organizations across Canada, we are seeing higher levels of anxiety in the workforce than ever before.  This is impacting individual well-being and corporate performance.  The CEOs we advise have been asking what they can do to enhance individual resilience – the ability to respond to adverse conditions – in their organizations.  There are ways to do this, but first, we need to understand the problem.

Our society is experiencing the “wear-down factor” of global events (e.g., Covid, the war in Ukraine, the impacts of climate change).  For more than two years we have been steeped in uncertainty.  

The stress of these factors, which feel deeply out of our control, are impacting us in many ways, some more acutely than others.  This toll on our people cannot be ignored.  Our highest calling as leaders is to enable people, individually and collectively, to be the best versions of themselves in pursuit of noble goals.  If we do not understand and seek to address how our people are feeling, we are failing with this calling.  

Let’s explore some of the inter-related psychological factors people are experiencing before looking at things we can do to help people rebuild their resilience.

Feelings of isolation

Prior to Covid the average person was doing “okay.”  They had social structure and support that integrated them with their respective ecosystems.  I think of my mother who had her children coming to visit, her church, and her circle of friends.  These interactions and relationships enhanced her resilience.  Covid took this away.  It led to feelings of isolation.  Our employees have all experienced some level of isolation through Covid.  

Loss of identity

Through prolonged periods of isolation, many are experiencing a diminished sense of self.  They are questioning who they are and how they define themselves.  The relationships that ground us have fallen out of focus.  In extreme cases, relationships have been severed through different points of view on what constitutes safe or acceptable as relating to Covid.  The result is that many individuals are less clear on their individual purpose and are now going through the motions as opposed to thriving in life.

In extreme cases, people are starting to feel invisible.  They are not feeling seen or heard.  

Diminished vitality

In the two years of Covid, healthy routines have been stymied and many people cancelled vacations and normal escapes that they would use to refresh and recharge.  For some, exercise routines have been disrupted.   Statistics show that alcohol consumption has increased.  Anecdotally, we hear that people are ordering in food more often versus spending time cooking nutritional meals.  

To be at our best, we need rest, recovery, exercise and proper nutrition.  During the past 24 months, many in our society have seen these healthy routines diminish.  This results in positive emotions like love, joy, compassion, and gratitude shifting toward anger, fear, sadness, anxiety and despair.

Reduced cognitive functioning

Our bodies are built to respond to immediate threats.  The well-known fight, flight or freeze response is how our bodies enable us to contend with immediate threat.

Over prolonged periods, this defensive mechanism becomes problematic for many.  Results are increased blood pressure promoting artery clogging deposits, and brain changes that can lead to anxiety, depression, and addiction, ultimately reducing our cognitive functioning.

Whether through nature or nurture, some of us are better equipped to respond to extended adversity than others.  But all of us are impacted to some degree.  

To combat the impacts of these conditions, we must help people return to a receptive state where they are better able to respond to adverse conditions.  In this receptive state, we will see enhanced:

  • Openness to experience
  • Gratitude
  • Optimism
  • Self-compassion
  • Grit

There are concrete actions we can take to help our people move into this receptive state.  Here are a few suggestions:

Be present and vulnerable

The example you set is critically important.  People must be allowed to feel the hurt and speak about it in order to establish healthy responses.  They will follow your lead.  Share some of your fears.  Let them know how the uncertainty has been challenging for you.  Help create a nomenclature around how we might be feeling.  This will not be successful if you start labelling others.  Rather, by sharing your own experience, you will give permission for others to more openly explore and talk about theirs.

Put the fire out!

We are seeing people triggered more easily. When we are triggered we have a tendency to have a fight, flight, or freeze reaction. When people are in this zone, adrenalin is shifting the body chemistry away from cognitive functioning into survival mode.  This is not the time to reason with people nor tell them what to do.  

Put the fire out.  You will almost always be more successful in the long-term by de-escalating a situation and giving people time to breathe.  

This is easier than it sounds.  When in a situation that has become emotionally charged, call it out.  Try this: “I’m feeling that we are both getting into an elevated state.  Can we take a five-minute break to take some deep breaths and come back to this?”  

When you are motivated and focused on creating healthy discussions that are not emotionally charged, your team will follow suit.

Tell your people they matter

A great antidote for people who are losing sense of self is to help them see that they matter.  The driving force for a leader should be to foster a sense of inclusion.  Covid has created a sense of isolation for many.  Now, we are gradually seeing a hybrid form of return to work.  As people come back, they are not entirely sure how they fit into this altered ecosystem.  In many cases, they will be meeting new coworkers face to face for the first time.  

Speak openly about how their presence makes the team stronger.  

The eroded sense of self can manifest as feelings of isolation.  When you lead in a way that fosters a sense of inclusion, you are helping people rewire their thinking toward resilience.  You can foster a sense of inclusion by talking to people about how the collective is better off by their presence and contribution.  Find your own way to express it.  But make sure that every person on your team believes that they matter.

Show gratitude

With global strife and localized inconvenience, our people can feel victimized.  This is an unhealthy state.  Be a leader by example.  Before coming to work each day, spend a few minutes pondering what you are grateful for.  

When you lead with a mindset of gratitude, it wears off on others.  This can be as simple as subtle reminders of the many things we have to be grateful for.  Perhaps above all else, encourage team members to go for a walk together and join them when you can.  Go outside and walk around with gratitude for the safety and beauty of our surroundings.   

Be nice!

How you say things is far more important than what you say.  People are looking for non-verbal cues for safety.  This comes through your voice and your body language.

When you lead with compassion, kindness, and empathy we are enabling an environment of receptivity, helping people become more receptive to life experiences, which, in turn, will enhance resilience.

Remember, we look to our leader for cues.  How you behave as a leader has a profound impact on the people around you.  You don’t need to overcomplicate it.  Mastering a few habits will go a long way toward helping your people build individual resilience, which will create a more resilient team.


Authored by Mike Watson, President at Ignite Management Services.
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Mike Watson
Mike Watson, President at Ignite Management Services. Mike believes that employee wellbeing is not only a business imperative, but a moral obligation, and that, with a defined plan of action, companies can create both economic and social welfare. Mike’s passion is developing intuitive strategic direction for mid-size companies. He is a master facilitator and strategic planner and has advised CEOs and Boards across a range of industries, including steering buyers and sellers through successful acquisitions.


Mike Watson is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. You can follow him on LinkedIn.