Bend but don't break: How resilience helps us navigate stress



Bad news, folks. Life was stressful before the pandemic and will still be stressful after this pandemic is long gone. Bummer, huh?

Well unfortunately, the news gets worse. It turns out that our lives have gotten more stressful even as the pandemic has begun to recede.

Stress and the Big Quit

And what do many of us do when we feel psychological stress? We try to assert control over parts of our lives we have control over. Some deep clean the office. Others knit scarves. And increasingly, we simply quit.

In fact, a record number of us quit our jobs in 2021.

In December, for example, 4.3 million Americans quit, down slightly from the record 4.5 million in November, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. What’s an employer to do, trying to survive during the Big Quit? It’s easy: Help your people build resilience. Help them access the tools to bounce back from the buildup of psychic strain many of us feel every day. (OK, we know it’s not that easy.) It may seem like this all relies on trendy buzzwords and wishful thinking. Maybe it does, a little. But it’s also simply the fundamentals of psychology.

The science of bouncing back

Dennis Stolle, Senior Director of Applied Psychology for the American Psychological Association (APA), says that even though we throw the word resilience around a lot, it has a very specific meaning. “What resilience means to me as a psychologist is the ability for a person to recover from an emotional or psychological strain and get back to their normal baseline,” he says.

You get stressed out. You get stressed out a lot. You might even experience trauma. But if you’re resilient, you’re able to return to your baseline and pursue life, love, and happiness.

This may even include your professional pursuits. In fact, resilience plays a crucial role in a work community’s ability to retain good talent. And goodness knows, we all need resilience these days.

Workers are more stressed than ever

The stats are eye-opening. The APA conducts a recurring survey on Work and Well-being and the headline from the 2021 results is, well . . . not good: “The American workforce reports compounding pressures that are impacting the stress they feel, their ability to do their jobs, and whether they’ll look for a new workplace in the next year.”

Stolle says the numbers really make that point hit home. “We found that more than two out of five workers responded that they plan to switch jobs in the coming year.” Simply put, if you feel stressed, if you’re not able to operate at baseline, you’re more likely to leave your job.

“We found an association between the two where those who were feeling more stress during the day at their job were also the ones who were saying that they were more likely to seek new job opportunities within the next year. The difference was striking,” Stolle says. In fact, the stressed-out cohort was more than three times as likely to take their talents elsewhere.

But don’t be fooled, this isn’t just about the pandemic. Even as the impact of COVID-19 fades (but lingers), other stressors are compounding our collective sense of malaise. Another study by the APA, Stress in America, cites the rise in prices of everyday items due to inflation (e.g., gas prices, energy bills, grocery costs, etc.), supply chain issues, and global uncertainty as add-on stressors “to a nation stuck in COVID-19 survival mode.”

“These more recent findings were alarming,” say the authors of the study, “with more adults rating inflation and issues related to the invasion of Ukraine as stressors than any other issue asked about since the Stress in America survey began in 2007.” It’s a perfect storm that creates the conditions for the Great Resignation, Stolle says. “You put all this together, and it's no wonder we're seeing this phenomenon that we're seeing in society right now.”

Resilience begins with flexibility

So back to employers’ role in all of this. Stolle says the answer is to address the reality of the situation.

“For employers, how do we help our employees be resilient and recognize that these stressors are out there and they're real? We can't pretend it's not happening. We can't deny it,” he says.

The critical question to ask yourself as an employer is, what can we do to help our people get back to baseline as fast as they possibly can so that they're feeling good again about their lives and are less inclined to bolt for a new opportunity?

So how do you help a stressed-out workforce rebound? How do you foster resilience in your teams? Focus on creating tools that give back some of the control to employees. The key is to listen and be flexible.

“Merely the recognition in company-wide communications that these are stressful times and normalizing that feeling for everyone is crucial. It says, you're not alone,” says Stolle. “It may not even be a matter of necessarily setting up new resources. It's merely a matter of communicating the resources that have always been there.”

Recognizing what people want from their jobs is crucial as well. And recent research from the Pew Research Center shows that more Americans prize flexibility in their work. But remember, flexibility can mean different things to different people. It can be flexibility of location, flexibility of working hours, or flexibility of work style. Employees now demand these new ways of working as table stakes to even consider a job.

“It’s critical to understand that all these challenges are interconnected with one another,” Stolle says. “You see that people are feeling stressed. You see that people are thinking about switching jobs. And the key is to recognize that those are not just two isolated data points.”

Listening is job one, Stolle says. Then it’s about taking action. “Because what works today may not work tomorrow. And that's okay.” Be resilient. Bounce back. And keep going.