Survive and thrive under work stress

Dear colleagues,

When confronted by difficulties in a job - restructuring, bullying, reprimands, dismissal - some workers take things very badly. They crumple and go even further downhill. Others survive and even thrive. What's the difference?

The ability to handle difficulties can be called resilience. Salvatore Maddi and Deborah Khoshaba have studied the way different employees respond to pressures and stressful changes. In their book Resilience at work, Maddi and Khoshaba spell out their insights in a practical, straightforward way, with many vignettes to illustrate coping and non-coping behaviours.

The key to resilience is what they call hardiness, a set of attitudes and skills that enable effective responses. Maddi and Khoshaba founded the Hardiness Institute for consulting and training in this area.

There are three elements to hardiness: commitment, control and challenge. Commitment means remaining involved with people and activities. Control means attempting to influence events. Challenge means learning how to take opportunities in stressful times and helping others to do the same.

Training to promote hardiness focusses on two key elements. The first is transformational coping, which involves reconceptualising stressful change and turning it to advantage. "At the mental level, stressful circumstances are placed into broader perspectives, so they can be managed more easily ... At the action level, mental insights are used to plan and carry out decisive courses of problem-solving actions" (p. 44).

The second element of hardiness training is fostering supportive social interactions: "you identify and resolve ongoing conflicts that exist between you and others, and replace them with patterns of sharing assistance and encouragement" (p. 45).

In a logical sense, this seems perfectly clear. In the face of bad news or tough conditions, it's not productive to get down in the dumps, let your work slide, avoid those you think did you in, spend all your time complaining and drink more heavily - as tempting and justified as such responses might be.

Maddi and Khoshaba provide clear recommendations on what to do and what not to do in order to survive change and even find it invigorating. For example, the road to transformational coping is to:

"* Treat changes as problems to solve,

* Take the necessary mental and action steps to solve problems effectively, and

* Draw observations, insights, and wisdom from your coping experiences in order to learn and grow" (p. 85).

Is this approach another example of blaming the victim, by putting the onus on the worker under stress to be able to handle it? Perhaps. But blaming managers, bullies or the system generally, however justified, doesn't give much guidance for individuals. Maddi and Khoshaba have one chapter on what companies can do, but how many senior executives are going to pay attention? A companion volume on how to campaign to create a supportive work environment would be nice.

The important message from Resilience at work is that attitudes and skills can make a difference. Workers need not accept outcomes as inevitable, but can learn how to do better - and help others to do the same.

Brian Martin
14 May 2009

PS Thanks to Vicki Crinis, Karen Crowe, Bryce Fraser and Peter Gibson for helpful comments on a draft.


Reference: Salvatore R Maddi and Deborah M Khoshaba, Resilience at work: how to succeed no matter what life throws at you (New York: Amacom, 2005)

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