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Why understanding an individual’s stress resilience is a key element in mental wellbeing.

20/10/2021

The environments and routines within which we function, operate, work, and enjoy downtime become our safe haven of familiarity. We build up a comfort and an ease with our surroundings and schedules and shape them to bring the best out of us as individuals (and those around us). But what happens when all that suddenly changes?

Well for virtually everyone, this is exactly what happened, almost overnight, when the global pandemic started gathering pace and governments were forced to take action to restrict the spread of the virus in order to save lives.

The Impact of Covid on our Mental Wellbeing

We went from our daily routines of commuting to our places of work, interacting with our colleagues, before returning home to our personal routines – whether with family, friends or leisure activities we enjoy – to almost nothing.  Suddenly we were told to stay at home, avoid going out, don’t interact with people you don’t know and keep your distance.

Before we knew it, we were being furloughed (or worse), or asked to work entirely remotely from our own homes, whilst simultaneously home schooling our kids.  For most of us, this this was a challenge, as busy family households, or the reality of working in solitary isolation from a small flat, made remote working difficult for many.  78% of the global workforce (12K employees across Managers, HR leaders, and C-level executives across 11 countries) say the pandemic has negatively affected their mental health.

So why did some people just crack on with it and easily adjust, or even thrive, during the lockdown period, whilst others found it extremely difficult to deal with?  Well one of the explanations is that it was down to our individual stress resilience.

Stress in the workplace

Recent analysis from Perkbox has shown that in 2020, of British adults in employment – a staggering 79% commonly experience work-related stress. This is 20% higher than 2018’s findings.  Just 1% of UK employed adults say they ‘never’ experience workplace stress, while 17% ‘rarely’ experience stress of this kind.

Of those who experience work-related stress, sadly, 55% experience anxiety as a result. Anxiety can cause numerous physical and mental impacts on the body and it’s important that anyone suffering from anxiety seeks help and feels comfortable to disclose this to workplace leaders.  Further, many employees are also noticing the effects of stress on their health and wellbeing. Almost half (43%) experience a loss of sleep due to work-stress, while a third turn to comfort eating.

However, although stress is unavoidable, it must be made clear that stress is not altogether a bad thing.   Stress can help us perform better, provide opportunities for growth, and protect against the damaging effects of catabolic hormones like adrenaline and cortisol.

 

What is Stress Resilience?

Stress resilience can be defined as our ability to adapt well in the face of adversity or significant sources of stress.  Those with high stress resilience can continue to function as normal without it significantly impacting on their performance.  Those, on the other hand, with low stress resilience will find it could quickly affect their thoughts, actions and behaviours and ultimately impact on their performance.  What’s more, is that sources of stress could snowball internally, within the individual’s mind, and end up being blown up out of proportion in relation to reality (decision paralysis, loss of temper or outbursts of emotion).

Some people with high stress resilience can actually thrive under periods of high pressure.  This may sound like a positive personality trait – to be able to cope with stressors and return back to their natural equilibrium after the stress has been offset.  It does, after all, protect them from anxiety which can lead to different behaviours that can ultimately affect performance (which could cycle into more stress and health issues).

However, those people with high stress resilience are less likely to outwardly show their emotions – they could seem almost robotic or clinical in how they deal with things.  This works well for them in terms of internally coping, but it means others may not be able to relate to them as well or know when they actually need help or support.  They could appear as if they don’t always care or come across as ambivalent to a certain situation or circumstance.  Obviously, depending on the personality traits of the other person in any given situation, this can lead to a range of different outcomes (and not all of them favourable).

High stress resilience can also lead to individuals not noticing when the work is getting too much for themselves, or others.  For example, if team leaders have high natural stress resilience, that may not necessarily appreciate when others are under pressure and may not make allowances for those who are less resilient.  This could potentially lead to decision making which could create pressures for other people.

Helping employees deal with stress

As we said earlier, stress is unavoidable.  Stress is caused by change and, as much as we can try and avoid change, the external environment beyond that which we can control is always going to be continually moving and evolving.  So if we can’t avoid it, and we can’t change who we are, we just have to focus on working on how we deal with it.  However, a recent survey showed that only 11% of organisations are offering any training in stress resilience or stress management in how to cope with stressful situations.

Brainfacts.org state that “When coping with stress, it is important to remember that our biological stress systems do not have eyes or ears. The only way our stress response systems get information about the world is through the lens of perception. Shifting the perceptual lens can, therefore, produce “real” changes in our biological responses to stress. So, it is possible to change people’s stress responses relatively quickly and easily if the correct perceptual processes are targeted in situationally appropriate ways”.

What this ultimately means is that there are actions organisations can take to help individuals deal with stress better.  This will undoubtedly improve mental wellbeing amongst its staff before stressful situations grow to become performance inhibitors and even snowball into anxiety and deeper mental health issues.