Most not-for-profit organisations deal with big, difficult problems, or work with marginalised people or communities – both of which can create high levels of stress for staff.
While some people naturally thrive in this environment burn out is all too common, and can affect everyone in the workplace.
Building resilience – the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, or stress – can help people continue to perform at work, even in challenging times.
Dr Kathy Cranney, Head of Talent and Learning at Save the Children and long-time organisational psychologist says that building resilience in a team isn’t easy, but it is achievable – and something that organisations need to make a conscious choice to do.
So what is resilience?
According to Cranney, the word “resilience” is vague. It helps, she says, for your organisation to have a solid definition of what “resilience” means, such as:
“We support and equip our leaders to deliver sustainable performance in a challenging environment.”
The sustainability part of the definition is key, notes Cranney. It’s realistic. The goal should never to be for staff to dismiss feelings of stress or anxiety. Instead, people should voice their feelings and strive to work in environments that take action before negative feelings worsen.
“There is a tendency for people who are committed, engaged, motivated and passionate to act as an heroic martyr,” Cranney says.
“But they are humans. They need sleep, exercise and rest to operate effectively.”
Otherwise, Cranney cautions, there can be consequences. Employees who don’t take stock of their overall health and wellbeing can suffer in the form of fatigue, illness, over-emotional responses, lack of attention to detail and more interpersonal conflict. All of which can have knock-on effects to other staff in an organisation.
“This is a long-distance journey … as organisations, we need to look at ways we can structure ourselves for that [long-term] resilience,” says Cranney.
Drawing on her experience as an organisational psychologist, Cranney recommends four ways NFP organisations can start to build more resilient teams.
1. Make regular one-on-one meetings with managers mandatory
While Cranney acknowledges that organisations can use surveys or checklists to determine resilience with moderate success, the best way to monitor resilience is for managers to have regular one-on-one meetings with their direct reports.
“Managers should be alert to changes in their team members behaviour such as difficulty concentrating or appearing more worried or anxious,” Cranney says.
In that situation, “they can’t get anything done and their performance may decline.”
Cranney says organisations need to give managers the tools to have conversations appropriately.
For some managers, this type of conversation does not come easily. Grace McCarthy, Associate Dean Education – leadership and coaching at University of Wollongong suggests some key things to remember when it comes to having difficult conversations:
- Stick to the facts – simply state what you believe to be fact. Keep your tone neutral, and don’t make assumptions on how the person is feeling or why they are exhibiting certain behaviours
- Don’t judge – acknowledge the person’s view of the situation, and listen to their answer without judgement
- Allow time out – make sure the person has time to process information to allow for a rational response
- Ask the employee what they think – after the person has had time to process the conversation, ask them to summarise what they think has happened, and what the best way to move forward should be
- Offer support – tell the employee how you plan on supporting them going forward
- Acknowledge improvements – follow up from your initial conversation, and acknowledge when the employee seems to be improving.
Equipping managing with the resources they need to advise their staff on managing anxiety, mindfulness, and how to get the support to help them through their concerns is important, says Cranney. If this can’t be provided internally, then there’s a clear case for investing in training for managers in this area.
2. Create a culture of psychological safety
Employees need to feel safe enough to speak up when they aren’t handling things well.
“Try to generate a culture where people are supportive and look out for each other,” says Cranney.
A 2010 study by tech giant Google found that simple tactics, such as:
- Ensuring everyone has an equal voice in team meetings; and
- Cultivating empathy among team members by sharing openly about yourself
helped to create a culture of psychological safety.
Moreover, the teams that displayed these characteristics were among the most high-functioning teams in the organisation. Put simply, the way team members treat each other can be a distinguishing factor when it comes to success.
3. Invest in an EAP
Cranney adds that organisations should be diligent about ensuring their staff have resources at their disposal to help them through difficult times.
An Employee Assistance Program (EAP) – where staff can access a qualified counsellor without charge to them – can be a significant investment for an NFP with a tight budget, but Cranney says it’s an essential one, providing staff with an outlet and advice that they’re unlikely to get within the organisation itself.
“You need to have an EAP – which includes counselling – and make sure managers are across what [the EAP provider] offers.”
A typical Employee Assistance Program offers employees counselling for stress, abuse, financial or emotional problems, family turmoil, health matters, grief, loss and other sensitive situations, independently of their employer.
4. Help information “flow up”
Managers can have one-on-one meetings but if the information doesn’t flow up to those making decisions, nothing happens. Cranney says any reports about overworked staff or unusual stress levels should influence which projects are prioritised, and how employees are chosen to work on them.
“Think strategically,” she says, advising managers to use the information from one-on-one meetings to influence and filter through to the leadership level.
“Think about how you prioritise tasks, how you manage workloads,” Cranney says.
“It’s good for people to feel safe and say they aren’t okay,” Cranney says, emphasising that having information freely flowing upwards and downwards allows for better decision-making to support staff.
Build resilience to breed innovation
Building resilience isn’t just about creating a positive team environment, says Cranney. New ideas and innovation thrive if your staff are feeling happy and well.
If people aren’t stressed “they’re able to be curious, think about future states and find solutions that aren’t immediately obvious,” she says.
“That’s where innovation comes from.” Another good reason to build resilience in your organisation.