Resilience allows you to bounce back when things get hard, whether that’s something as small as a bad day in the office or more serious adverse events. And while it can be easy to think of resilience as something we either do or don’t have, research suggests that isn’t the case: rather, our level of resilience changes in different contexts.
A new study, published in Group & Organization Management, looks closely at resilience in the workplace. It, too, finds that resilience isn’t a static phenomenon, and that it should be seen as something distinctly more flexible instead.
Participants were members of a marching band at a university in the United States, chosen because of the high levels of commitment and effort that were required for them to remain on top of performances and practice. Participants first indicated whether or not they were new to the band and completed a measure of emotional stability, indicating how much they agreed with statements like “I change my mood a lot”.
Then, every week over a twelve week period, participants completed scales measuring emotional exhaustion (e.g. “I feel emotionally drained”) and commitment (e.g. “I feel a strong sense of belonging to the marching band”), and stated how high their workload was. Finally, at the end of the period participants indicated whether they intended to stay in the band. The researchers also looked at whether they actually remained in the band during the next season.
As the term and study went on, band members felt that their workload increased, with more demands being placed on them. This increased workload was also accompanied by increasing feelings of burnout and emotional exhaustion, and decreasing levels of commitment and belonging.
This increase in feelings of burnout across the course of the study was similar for people who were high and low in emotional stability. However, when it came to commitment, those higher in emotional stability were more likely to remain committed and retain feelings of belonging than those low in the trait, who experienced a slow decline throughout the twelve weeks. Those new to the group were also more likely to remain engaged than those who had been members for a longer period of time, and showed less of an increase in burnout over the course of the 12 weeks.
Trajectories that show less of an increase in burnout and continued commitment in the face of increased workload are reflective of resilience, write the authors. So the key takeaway from the results is that resilience isn’t simply a case of personal character. Though emotional stability did impact how committed participants were, other factors including how long they’d been involved in the band also influenced these trajectories.
As you might expect, there was also a relationship between feelings of commitment and intent to stay in the band. Those who remained at the same level of commitment (or whose commitment increased across the course of the study) were more likely to say they wanted to return to the band, and to actually do so. Levels of resilience, therefore, had a material impact on the make-up of the band and participants’ experience of being part of it.
The study shows that resilience is a process, the authors say — one that fluctuates over time rather than staying stable. This may make annual employee surveys somewhat moot, they argue: because they happen only once a year, they’re unable to capture the shifting complexities of resilience, burnout, and likelihood of employee retention, which are likely to change from month to month, project to project, and person to person. Taking a more flexible approach to resilience — as well as employee wellbeing more generally — could be a better way of maintaining a healthier workplace.
Future research could look at protective factors: are there things that groups or organisations can do internally to foster resilience, belonging and commitment? Other recent research, for example, has looked at the positive impact of cultures of respect within workplaces.