How employers can boost employees’ emotional resilience

Mental wellbeing is currently the talk of the corporate town, with mindfulness having become one of the latest tools with which employers are striving to help staff manage their stress levels.

Building up employees

  If you read nothing else, read this…

  • Emotional resilience is the ability with which an individual is able to bounce back after periods of stress and adversity.
  • Emotional resilience can be taught and the workplace is an ideal setting to support employees’ mental health.
  • Employers can build and support employees’ emotional resilience to manage stress levels and reduce sickness absence.

The technique, which uses meditation and breathing exercises to help focus users’ attention on the present and relieve stress-inducing thought processes, is proving useful for employers keen to reduce mental ill health among their workforce, as well as their organisation’s sickness absence rates. 

But despite employers’ increasing use of, and acceptance of, the need for workplace mental wellbeing support, many organisations now discuss the subject in terms of emotional resilience.

Emotional resilience is the capacity with which an employee is able to bounce back after adversity and properly adapt to stress. It differs from mental resilience, which focuses on cognitive thinking and how an individual processes information.

Dr Wolfgang Siedl, head of health management consulting at Mercer, says: “If [an individual] has a value system, they generally feel more centred in themselves and better able to be tolerant of other peoples’ values and beliefs.”

Key elements of emotional resilience can include: emotional flexibility that allows an employee to respond to change; the ability to foster good relationships; to feel a sense of control over one’s own workflow; and the ability to establish a sense of community at work.

Siedl says: “An employer should be very interested in [community], because if [employees] have a release they have an opportunity to get rid of some of the tension. There’s nothing wrong with water-cooler conversations to let off steam.”

Staff can learn to build resilience

While resilience is not something an employee is born with, it is something that they can learn. However, employers may feel torn between wanting to be seen as a caring employer, yet not being perceived to be too interventionist, but the workplace can be crucial to building employees’ resilience. 

Fujitsu, for example, piloted an emotional resilience programme after identifying issues that were impacting employees.

Employers can start by creating a health profile of their workforce to ascertain if, and where, staff need support, because ignoring cases of mental ill health can be costly in the form of, say, staff presenteeism, whereby staff turn up for work but do not perform at their best. 

Employers can use claims data for exisiting benefits, such as private medical insurance (PMI) policies, to keep track of employees’ mental-ill-health-related claims.

Greg Levine, director of corporate and intermediated business at Vitality Health, says: “When [staff] actually go for support, [stress] is one of the bigger costs of overall PMI spend. There are a lot of people who never acknowledge the fact that they are stressed and acknowledge that stress is impacting their presenteeism. It’s probably one of the most damaging elements of wellbeing in the workplace right now.”

Highlight benefits support

As part of an emotional wellbeing strategy, organisations should highlight the benefits that can help to build employee wellbeing, such as employee assistance programmes, which can offer therapeutic support to staff. Benefits providers can also help to communicate and promote an organisation’s benefits support, for example wellbeing days and fairs at which they showcase the various support and programmes on offer.

Larger organisations may also consider allocating space for classes such as meditation and yoga, which can help to manage stress. 

But structured resilience training and mindfulness programmes, rather than ad-hoc benefits support, can teach employees techniques and tips on how to deal with pressure and recognise signs of stress in themselves.

Charles Alberts, a senior consultant at Aon Employee Benefits, says: “The vital part is not only personal resilience, but also organisational culture.

“If [an employee] gets to work and there’s an environment that is trusting, one in which they can speak their mind, one where they’re supported and where they feel empowered in the work that they do, that environment is so key to their resilience in the workplace.”

Management training is key

Line manager resilience training is an equally important part of a comprehensive workplace resilience strategy. An emotionally resilient manager can hold teams together under pressure, as well as share stress management techniques with staff who need them. 

Kate Nowlan, chief executive officer at employee assistance programme provider CIC, says: “A really good manager, who is in touch with their inner resilience or values, will be able to support teams.” 

Starting resilience training at the top of an organisation, with business leaders, is key to building an organisational culture that incorporates an open and trusting environment. Aon’s Alberts says: “Where I’ve seen resilience programmes work well is when [employers] start at the top. If there is a firm with partners or directors, you start with them because they, more than anybody else, need to be absolutely resilient. They probably are to a large extent, but everyone can learn, no matter what amount of experience they have.”

Presenting the case to the board

Emotionally resilient staff can help to boost performance and, therefore, an organisation’s bottom line. CIC’s Nowlan says: “Those are staff who not only work very hard, but also know when they need to take their holidays, be with their family or have social support outside of work. That will help performance at work.”

But benefits professionals need to be able to clearly demonstrate these positive outcomes to their business leaders to help secure their buy-in and, therefore, future investment in their strategy.

“One could back up the business case by showing how many [staff] are stressed in the workplace, and therefore reducing stress and underpinning it with research that shows how much impact resilience training has on that could quantify the reason why a board should buy into it,” says Mercer’s Seidl. 

Positioning their strategy within their organisation’s risk strategy is one way for benefits professionals to win their leaders’ attention. After all, high sickness absence rates constitute organisational risk.

Spiritual resilience

Once their strategy is in place, employers may consider addressing workplace spiritual resilience, but some organisations and staff might consider this to be a stretch too far in a work environment, with some assuming the subject refers solely to metaphysical beliefs. 

But spiritual resilience can be defined as having meaning or a purpose in life, which can help to further support employees’ sense of wellbeing. 

CIC’s Nowlan says: “The spiritual bit is really the holding of values; somebody working for an non-governmental organisation, as a journalist or as a nurse or as a policeman, probably has a very strong set of values as to why they are working in that sector, and that really supports emotional resilience.

“If an employee has meaning in their life and something they really believe in, it will help when they have to work 18-hour days. I think that’s very much part of emotional resilience.”  

Overall, employers that take an interest in the emotional resilience of employees will find that their support will contribute to a more motivated and happy workforce, and one that is, ultimately, more productive and engaged with the business goals of their organisation.


  • 39%: the total number of cases of work-related stress, depression or anxiety in 2013–14 for all work-related illnesses.
  • 11.3 million: the total number of working days lost due to stress, depression or anxiety in 2013–14, an average of 23 days per case of stress, depression or anxiety.
  • Human health and social work, education and public administration and defence: the industries that reported the highest rates of total cases of work-related stress, depression or anxiety, over a three-year average.

(Source: The labour force survey, Office for National Statistics, updated October 2014)  

  • 26%: the number of respondents that cited financial concerns as a significant type of stress.
  • 46%: the number of respondents that cited unrealistic time pressures as a significant type of stress.

(Source: Britain’s healthiest company, VitalityHealth [previously PruHealth] and Mercer, published in July 2014)

Case study: Browne Jacobson offers mindfulness and resilience support to staff 

Brown Jacobson

Mindfulness and emotional resilience are hot topics for Browne Jacobson. The law firm communicates the importance of workplace wellbeing through its induction programme for new recruits.  

It also runs workshops on how to build personal resilience, which are open to all employees, as part of its learning and development programme. 

Yana Belmega, learning and development project manager, says: “[The focus] is around increasing resilience, so looking at what [resilience] is and the difference between pressure and stress, and so on. It also looks at strategies around managing it.

The organisation extended these workshops to create an additional programme for supervisors. “We thought it would be very useful to have another workshop for supervisors, to [enable them] to identify anything in the [staff] that they are responsible for,” adds Belmega.

In partnership with insurer Aviva, the organisation has also held a talk for employees with a mindfulness professor, which detailed what mindfulness about oneself and as a leader means. 

In addition, Browne Jacobson runs an annual wellbeing fair across all five of its UK offices, which promote the health and wellbeing benefits available to staff, including the resilience workshops, as well as putting staff in touch with benefits providers that can give them more information on any support that they require. 

Staff also have access to a local chaplain, who makes monthly visits to the organisation and is available for all staff, and a wellbeing and faith room that staff can use during their working day.

A sports and social committee runs a variety of workplace activities for staff, and a community action committee supports an employee with two days out of work to take part in a community project in, for example, a local school or hospital. 

Helen Whitt, HR adviser, says: “As a fast-paced legal environment, we have our targets to meet, our clients to support, and having well-engaged people here is critical to our business. We recognise that stress and issues arise internally from work, and externally from outside work, and we do this to support people in work.”

Emma Mamo: Employers have many options of how to support staff wellbeing

Emma Mamo

Prolonged stress can both cause and worsen mental health problems, which can result in sleep and concentration problems. Identifying and tackling the sources of stress in the workplace can prevent issues spiralling. Since we all have mental health, employers should prioritise the wellbeing of all staff, whether they are struggling with their mental health or not.

Organisations that promote staff wellbeing are rewarded in terms of increased staff morale and productivity and decreased sickness absence. Small, inexpensive changes such as offering flexible-working hours, buddy systems and regular catch-ups with managers can make a huge difference and save businesses a great deal of money in the long run.

Employers are starting to take these issues more seriously, in large part because of the high costs associated with poor mental health including sickness absence, staff turnover and reduced productivity.

Despite some progress, most employees still don’t feel comfortable talking about their mental health at work. According to a poll we conducted, published in November 2014, 95% of employees who took time off sick because of stress gave their boss another reason for their absence, such as a headache. Only 5% told their employer they had needed time off due to stress.

Similarly, an Axa PPP Healthcare survey, published in April 2015, found that more than two-thirds (69%) of managers didn’t feel mental ill health was a valid reason for time off sick. Staff need to be assured that if they do open up, they will be supported.

Under the Equality Act 2010, an employer has a duty to make adjustments for an employee with a disability, including a mental health problem. Adjustments are typically inexpensive and might include offering flexible hours or changes to start or finish times; changes to role; increased support from managers in prioritising and managing workload; and quiet rooms. Supporting staff is more than a legal obligation; it is part of being a responsible employer.

Any employer worried about a colleague’s wellbeing should ask them how they are doing. They should try not to make assumptions about their mental health and how it might affect their ability to do their job. A well-supported member of staff experiencing a mental health problem can carry out their role to a high standard.

Emma Mamo is head of workplace wellbeing at Mind