About to implement resilience training? Here’s how to ensure it’s money well spent

Take a look at the front page of the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) website and you’ll see the following statistics:

  • 526,000 workers in the UK experienced work-related stress, depression or anxiety in 2016/17;
  • 12.5 million days lost in the UK due to work-related stress, depression or anxiety in 2016/17;
  • Nearly half (44%) of cases said the cause was workload; and
  • Healthcare and social work employees experienced higher than average rates.

In July 2017, the Institute of Directors published an article about the cost to the UK economy of stress and mental health. They estimate a 25% year on year increase in the number of days taken off sick from work due to mental health issues.

The Mental Health Foundation cites research by Oxford Economics suggesting that UK Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in 2015 could have been over £25 billion higher than what it was had it not been impacted by the economic consequences of mental health problems to both individuals and businesses.

There is no doubt that resilience and well-being training is now big business. In 2014, the Financial Times wrote a piece about how UK civil servants were being offered resilience training to ‘toughen up’. Yet a recent piece in the BPS Research Digest, examined the results of a randomised-controlled trial, suggesting ‘wellness programmes’ are a waste of money. In a more provocative piece, back in 2015, the Sydney Morning Herald published a piece suggesting workplace resilience programmes are all a big con. 

Bearing in mind the individual, societal and economic costs of stress-related mental health issues, it is important that interventions have an impact. A group of Australian researchers sought to explore this very issue. The findings of their review of resilience interventions has recently been published in the BMJ Open (the British Medical Journal’s open access site).

The research

Once inclusion criteria had been applied, the researchers narrowed their list down to 17 studies for them to examine in detail. Of these studies, 15 were randomised-controlled trials, with the other two being non-controlled randomised trials. Only 11 of the 17 studies were eligible for inclusion in the final meta-analysis.

The findings

The researchers found considerable variety in the type of resilience programmes and interventions on offer. Most were a combination of the following:

  • Psycho-education
  • Mindfulness
  • Cognitive skills
  • Self-compassion skills
  • Gratitude practice
  • Emotional regulation training
  • Relaxation techniques
  • Goal-setting

These  were put into three categories – cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) interventions; mindfulness-based interventions; and mixed interventions. Interventions varied in duration – from single, one-off sessions of two hours, to multiple sessions totalling 28 hours.

The researchers found that interventions which offer a combination of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) approaches and mindfulness techniques seemed to have a more positive impact on individual resilience.

Implications and ideas

Citing the work of Aaron Leppin and colleagues, the researchers state there is ‘no single accepted, theoretical framework’ to help ‘guide development or application of resilience programmes’. This, combined with the low quality of many of the studies reviewed, leaves a question mark over how effective resilience programmes and interventions really are. Results across many of the studies examined came from self-reporting by participants, rather than more objective measures such as the adversity levels people experience in their roles.

Resilience training may help organisations feel like they’re doing something worthwhile to support their employees but if this is done in lieu of reviewing culture and systems then it is simply a sticking plaster on what could well be a festering wound.

For managers or practitioners looking to purchase resilience training for their teams or organisation, here are some pointers to help you be more considered:

Before jumping to purchasing resilience training, have you taken the time to assess the culture of your organisation or the climate of your team? Find out, through surveys, focus groups and interviews, what it really feels like to work in your organisation and/or team. What kind of support do people feel they need? How do people feel about their work? What could help make work better for people? When I’ve carried out research for organisations, nearly every time most people talk about having more effective managers who are approachable and supportive; and managers talk about not having the time or space to support their staff in the way they’d like.

Have you taken into account what else is going on in your organisation? For example, if your organisation is going through restructure which includes downsizing then this is likely to be a cause of stress. Therefore, rather than a generic resilience intervention, you might want to think about something specifically related to resilience during organisational change. Then there is the impact of organisational change, once it’s implemented. For instance, in my experience many organisations downsize (i.e. cut posts) but the same amount of work actually remains. This means, essentially, you have less people doing more than they were before. This increased job strain is likely to render some of your staff feeling stressed. This links back to the first suggestion of understanding the culture of your organisation. If you have people in roles that are unrealistic and/or that they may not necessarily be skilled or experienced for then you may be better off focusing on tackling that, rather than implementing a resilience programme.

Have you gathered and analysed sickness absence data? It’s important you dig down to get underneath who is reporting stress-related absence. For example, it might be people in specific roles or parts of the organisation reporting this more. This means you can target interventions rather than apply a sheep-dip, one-size-fits-all approach. Word of caution, be careful with the assumptions you make. The data reported only offers one bit of the picture. There may well be people who are ill through stress but not necessarily disclosing this.

Do you have a good enough understanding of roles which might be more adverse? There is increasing research into the impact of high-pressure roles in constantly tough situations – think emergency services, armed forces and social care. The researchers suggest that “regular exposure to trauma or distress is very likely in such workforces, which leads to heightened rates of mental health problems”. Therefore, segmenting your workforce into those roles regularly exposed to trauma or distress and those who aren’t, might help you to target the type of resilience training you bring in.

Are you being targeted in the approaches you use? For example, managers may need two different programmes. One which helps them develop their own resilience; and one which helps them help their teams to develop resilience. I’ve found that for some managers they find it more effective to develop their resilience through individual coaching, either as an alternative to or as a complementary approach to classroom-based training.

Resilience training can cost a lot of money so it’s important you’re as confident as you can be in the return on investment. Taking a more evidence-based approach to your decision to implement resilience training might help you ensure a more positive impact on individuals and your organisation.

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