All people go through rough times at work, some of them major, like the loss of a job, and some relatively minor, like being reassigned to a new role as part of a reorganization. The common belief has always been that people will naturally bounce back and quickly recover from setbacks, even the major ones. In other words, people are naturally resilient. But new longitudinal research upends this assumption, showing that people can struggle mightily after setbacks and that this struggle can last for long periods of time, up to several years. This has important implications for how organizations prepare their people for the inevitable stressors at the workplace.
Previous research claimed that people are typically resilient to major life stressors, such as divorce and unemployment, but newer research conducted at Arizona State University (ASU) provides compelling evidence that this has been a largely false claim.[i] What makes the new results so important is that the researchers used the exact same database used in previous research – the German Socioeconomic Panel Study, a longitudinal survey that began in 1984 and assesses people over a wide range of measures. For this study, the outcome measure was life satisfaction over the years.
Previous research had analyzed data under certain restrictive assumptions. For instance, two groups of people – resilient and non-resilient – were compared to one another, but the people within each of these groups were treated the same. In other words, all resilient people were thought to recover at the same rate and have equal life satisfaction trajectories, and the same was modeled for people in the non-resilient group. However, this assumption is frequently not the case. The ASU researchers removed these assumptions in their analyses and found that people can differ dramatically in how long it takes them to recover. For example, older research found rates of resilience in the face of unemployment were 81 percent, but the new research, using the exact same data, found the rates to be much lower, around 48 percent. And while the older research suggested that most people are largely resilient to major stressful events, the newer research found that it usually took people several years to return to their previous levels of functioning.
The implications of this research are profound. First, most people don’t naturally “tough it out” after a stressful event. Assuming that people will recover on their own is dangerous – assistance should be provided to help them recover.
Second, and perhaps more important, is that people should be trained to be resilient before adversity comes their way. This proactive approach gives people the wherewithal to withstand setbacks and move forward in healthier ways. In fact, the U.S. Army trains soldiers to be resilient for just this reason. For organizations this means that training their people on resilience skills is critical. A wide range of research shows that resilience training is effective.[ii] It is also one of the most important life skills a person can have. Research shows that resilience is significantly related to job performance, job satisfaction, work happiness and commitment to the organization.[iii] [iv] Further, people with high resilience are more likely to support organizational change, possibly because they experience more positive emotions and optimism while going through the change.[v] This is significant since organizations are constantly in a state of change.
We now know that people are not as naturally resilient as once thought. But we also know that resilience is a skill that can be learned. And once learned, it is a gift that helps people throughout all aspects of their lives. Organizations will benefit from providing their employees with the resilience they need to withstand the pressures of the modern work environment.
[i] Infurna, F. J. & Luthar, S. S. (2016). Resilience to major life stressors is not as common as thought. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 11 (2): 175.
[ii] American Heart Association. (2017). Resilience in the workplace: An evidence review and implications for practice. Retrieved on April 16, 2018, from https://healthmetrics.heart.org/resilience/
[iii] Luthans, F., Avolio, B., Avey, J.B., & Norman, S.M. (2007). Psychological capital: Measurement and relationship with performance and job satisfaction. Personnel Psychology, 60, 541-572.
[iv] Youssef, C.M., & Luthans, F. (2007). Positive organizational behavior in the workplace: The impact of hope, optimism, and resilience. Journal of Management, 33, 774-800.
[v] Shin, J., Taylor, M.S., & Seo, M. (2012). Resources for change: The relationships of organizational inducements and psychological resilience to employees’ attitudes and behaviors toward organizational change. Academy of Management Journal, 55(3), 727-748.