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InPsych 2014 | Vol 36

December | Issue 6

Cover feature : Psychological health and wellbeing in the workplace

Building individual resilience to improve workplace wellbeing and work outcomes

Since the industrial revolution, the main concern of business has been to organise work to maximise productivity and minimise costs. In Australia, we have traditionally focused on improving processes, methods and systems, rather than on developing people. Our managers are also commonly criticised as being selected on their technical rather than their people management skills. In addition, we now experience greater workplace pressures such as ongoing organisational change, work intensification and greater job insecurity. There is mounting evidence that these changes in work environment are having substantial adverse effects on occupational health and safety (Quinlan & Bohle, 2009). Combined with poor people management skills, managers are ill-equipped to deal with this new workplace environment.

Are we expecting too much from our managers? Are we trying to run 21st century businesses with 20th century workplace practices and programs? Should we instead be expecting a greater level of resilience from everyone in order to run a successful 21st century business?

The converging themes

Three converging themes associated with poorer workplace wellbeing can be identified. These three themes work together in a dynamic interplay and each impact on the others.

Lack of management skills

Firstly, we have many managers without good management skills. This is despite an increase in business management education. In 1995 the Karpin Report (a government-commissioned review of Australian management practices) suggested that the main problem with Australian management was a lack of leadership skills, and a failure to develop future leaders. Twenty years on, and research conducted by the Australian Institute of Management and Monash University found that middle managers are significantly underperforming across the range of key indicators including people management, communication and leadership, as rated by their (non-middle management) colleagues. So although there has been an increase in leadership and management education over the last 20 years, the general criticisms around manager skills remain.

Rapidly evolving work environments

Secondly, we are living and working in a volatile, uncertain and globally influenced environment, where the way all of us work is being challenged and changed. We don’t know what the world will look like in five years, let alone 20 years. Workplace changes in the last decade have been dramatic. Increased global volatility has resulted in job destruction and job insecurity. Increased emphasis on cost reduction has demanded greater output from fewer workers, supported by increasingly sophisticated and ‘connected’ 24/7 technology. These changes are recent. For example it was only in 2007 that Apple introduced the i-Phone and in 2010, the i-Pad. There is also an increased need to work with people from different cultures, in ‘virtual’ teams, or across multiple projects. There is a greater pace, scale and intensity of change and our sense of wellbeing at work has reduced. The 2012 Towers Watson Global Workforce Study of 32,000 full time workers across 27 countries found that 35 per cent of respondents felt they experienced excessive pressure on the job. Employees everywhere expressed some level of concern about their financial and professional security, their stress on the job, their trust in leadership, and their engagement on the job.

Unchanged expectations of managers

Lastly, we have the same expectations of our managers that we had last century. Both managers and employees are caught in the old management model that had a clear distinction between the manager and the non-manager role. In reality this distinction has become more muted and more variable. Instead, we are disappointed when our managers fail to live up to the role we expect them to play. Managers are becoming more stressed at not being able to work in the way they have in the past. We haven’t questioned or started to articulate new roles, new expectations and new behaviours.

The impact

Combining these themes, we now have a situation of turbulent and demanding work environments, with expectations that managers are responsible for making change happen. The reported shortfall in management skills combined with increased pressure on managers to make radical organisational change is impacting on reduced motivation, morale and wellbeing for both the managers themselves, and the people they manage.

To make matters worse, research by Les Worrall and Cary Cooper (2013) in the UK showed a widening disparity in perceptions of the effectiveness of this organisational change. For example, senior executives were more than twice as likely as junior managers to believe that change had led to increased productivity, faster decision making, increased employee engagement and increased flexibility. Junior managers were more than twice as likely as their senior executives to think that change had caused the organisation to lose key skills and experience. This suggests that senior executives are becoming more distant from the day-to-day reality of the organisations that they are leading, including an awareness of the impact of stress on their managers and staff.

Anecdotally, a similar picture emerges in Australia. For example, in many Australian public sector organisations there are recurring concerns around the increased volume and pace of work and having to do more with less. There are concerns from middle managers about increased expectations to introduce and manage change without a clearly articulated vision or goal. There are concerns from middle managers about the demand for innovation and increased risk taking, with little associated tolerance of risk or failure. There are frustrations with rules and processes. There are concerns about job security.

It is therefore not surprising to see a substantial increase in the incidence of work-related stress injury. In Australia, this is estimated to cost the community not less than $25 billion annually (Safe Work Australia, 2012). Overwork and fatigue is implicated in at least half of the $60 billion cost of physical injuries at work.

How to respond

In response to the first two themes, that is, poorly skilled managers confronted by increasingly volatile and ambiguous work environments, it is critical that the development of management skills continues to be a priority. Using combinations of training and coaching to help managers build the skills and confidence to manage people and deal with change is important. We also need to keep encouraging business leaders to review those business strategies that are contributing to the rise in mental health issues. We need to keep the spotlight firmly on the impact of working harder, faster and longer.

It is in responding to the third theme, our expectations of managers, that perhaps we can make most difference. It may be time to add resilience to the core skills required by both managers and the people they manage to better cope with the new state of work. We need to include resilience as a core component of management education, and must encourage the development of resilience programs for all workers. We all need to take accountability for managing our selves in this new work environment.

Developing resilience

Resilience is the ability to recover from adversity, to keep calm in the face of difficulty and to solve problems. It is the ability to manage your own emotions and remain aware of the emotions of others. It doesn’t mean you don’t experience difficulty or distress, but it does involve the ability to live with those

emotions. It means doing what you know is important, despite it being something that makes you uncomfortable. It is self‑awareness and knowing your own values, strengths and weaknesses. It’s being able to reflect on situations and take a balanced view.

Resilience can be developed using a range of different psychological approaches. A number of self-help approaches to resilience-building have been developed and have traditionally drawn on the theory and practice of cognitive behaviour

therapy. For example, the Penn Resiliency Program is a widely used and evidence-based school program using a combination of CBT and positive psychology approaches. Positive psychology has an expanding evidence base on the relationship between positive emotions and resilience. Studies show that maintaining positive emotions whilst facing adversity promotes flexibility in thinking and problem solving, and counteracts the physiological effects of negative emotions.

Other approaches can be helpful depending upon the situation. For example, the acceptance and commitment therapy framework and interventions can help to build psychological flexibility. This is the ability to call on different responses for given situations and act in accordance with one’s chosen values. To the extent that individuals are able to step back from their automatic responses and see them in the broader context of their aims and values, they have more options for action and thus more flexibility (Bond, Flaxman & Bunce, 2008). This skill would be invaluable particularly in workplaces like the ACT Government which is experiencing high levels of ‘bullying’ and associated stress-related claims (3.6 mental health claims per 1,000 workers in 2013-14, surpassing the 1.9 claims from the Australian Public Service and 0.4 claims in the private sector in the same period [McIlroy & Colley, 2014]).

Because there are clearly several effective approaches for developing resilience we may be best to accentuate the commonality between different resilience programs, rather than focusing on differences, or we risk losing coherence and impact.

Benefits of developing resilience

Developing resilience helps all of us deal more effectively with stressful situations. We are smarter. We are more compassionate, flexible, creative and patient. We are physically healthier. Having resilient employees also provides benefits for the organisation, with likely outcomes such as higher engagement, higher productivity, better customer service, greater flexibility, more cooperation and collaboration, lower turnover and less absenteeism. Developing resilience enables us all to better deal with challenges in our own way, in our own time, whenever it is needed.

The future

We can’t stop the global changes that make our working lives more uncertain. We may not always be able to choose our managers. But if we have the skills to choose the way we respond to adversity and challenge then we can become more resilient and as a consequence, change how we view the manager/employee relationship in the 21st century. n

The author can be contacted at susan@psychologyatwork.com.au


  • Bond, F. W., Flaxman, P. F., & Bunce, D. (2008). The Influence of psychological flexibility on work redesign: mediated moderation of a work reorganization intervention. Journal of Applied Psychology, 93(3), 645-654.
  • McIlroy, T. & Colley, C. (2014, November 11). Hearing Told of Bullying in the Public Sector, The Canberra Times, p2.
  • Quinlan, M, & Bohle. P. (2009) Overstretched and Unreciprocated Commitment: Reviewing Research on the Occupational Health and Safety Effects of Downsizing and Job Insecurity. International Journal of Health Services, 39(1), 1-44.
  • Safe Work Australia. (2010). The cost of work-related injury and illness for Australian employers, workers and the community 2008-09. Canberra: Author.
  • Towers Watson. (2012). 2012 Global Workforce Study. Available at http://www.towerswatson.com/Insights/IC-Types/Survey-Research-Results/2012/07/2012-Towers-Watson-Global-Workforce-Study
  • Worrall, L., & Cooper, C. (2013, September 8). The Quality of Working Life: Managers' Wellbeing, Motivation and Productivity. The European Business Review, http://www.europeanbusinessreview.com/?s=Worrall+Cooper+2013

Disclaimer: Published in InPsych on December 2014. The APS aims to ensure that information published in InPsych is current and accurate at the time of publication. Changes after publication may affect the accuracy of this information. Readers are responsible for ascertaining the currency and completeness of information they rely on, which is particularly important for government initiatives, legislation or best-practice principles which are open to amendment. The information provided in InPsych does not replace obtaining appropriate professional and/or legal advice.