The New HR Agenda: Workforce Resilience

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Resilience is about more than powering through. It’s about embracing new possibilities.

The importance of workforce resilience and well-being is front and center as it has become clear that we all expect disruption to be ongoing. This reality means that what human resource professionals now manage includes new aspects of physical and psychological safety alongside helping employees adapt to new ways of working and changing business models.

This also means there is the opportunity for what feels like a fresh start, where we’re no longer beholden to outdated approaches and policies and HR is at the forefront of all of this change. 

According to a recent survey by Paychex, 98% of HR leaders report that the Covid-19 pandemic has transformed their roles. HR leaders increasingly need to work to stay ahead of workforce issues and solve for the dual challenge of supporting their people’s well-being and at the same time helping them remain productive amidst a changing landscape of impediments. This is where resilience comes in.

Resilience is not only about managing through adversity. Resilience allows people to summon the internal capacity to come through with a renewed sense of self-efficacy that actually motivates them to go even further. It allows organizations to come out of a defensive crouch and capitalize on new opportunities.

As Gallup’s recent State of the Global Workforce noted: “As employers rethink their workplaces in 2021, they have lessons to learn from 2020. Most importantly, leaders need to recognize the influence of employee well-being and employee engagement on workforce resilience.” As CEO of a resilience training business, I got a firsthand view of how HR leaders were challenged beyond their imaginations, working to keep people safe and productive as the business adjusted supply chains and devised new ways to meet their customers’ needs, and then had to adjust benefits and policy to help people manage the strain of shifting social conditions—all while communicating positivity to their people.

Some organizations were slow or unprepared and fell behind. But others demonstrated the flexibility to successfully adapt—and came out stronger—and there are clear lessons to be learned from them as we move forward. Among many examples, three stood out:

  1. A large manufacturer was able to switch its production line to make PPE and then return to making its usual products within months. Its employees had been trained in the basics of resilience—emotion control, empathy, self-efficacy, optimism—and were able to adjust to change and stay engaged.
    Takeaway: Those organizations that had previously elevated the importance of resilience and agility and provided resilience training to the workforce had an advantage. They were able to adapt quickly to changed conditions.
  2. Based on extensive employee risk data, a life science company with many employees still in the lab acted swiftly to address burnout and immediately overhauled its company-wide PTO for employees. The data drove home to the C-Suite that yesterday’s PTO policies were an existential threat to their business.
    Takeaway: Predictive risk data is a critical HR tool, allowing employers to identify the segments of their workforce most at risk for anxiety, depression and burnout and those who were prepared to face the challenges.
  3. An insurer with a history of support for well-being and resilience immediately amplified that support using Town Halls to reinforce the company’s commitment to supporting all employees. The message was clear: there would be flexibility to manage work and home life and well-being, and effective training to support their managers. As a result of this coordinated support they achieved a significant reduction in reported workforce stress.
    Takeaway: Perceptions of employer support serve as a critical buffer against threats to employee well-being. Data confirms it: employees who felt well-supported by their employer had 90% better outcomes than those who didn’t.

With today’s challenges, the entire organization must have the agility and adaptive capacity essential to surviving and thriving. Cataloging the strengths and actions of leading organizations reveals four aspects of resilience critical to workforce well-being and performance.

  1. Primary Preparedness
    It is now essential for the entire workforce to be prepared with baseline resilience skills to handle ongoing change: empathy, focus, problem solving and self-confidence. These are the skills that optimize potential, enhance well-being, increase agility and protect against burnout risk.
  2. Risk Detection and Intervention
    96% of HR leaders now see mental health as an employer responsibility and 40% see the link between mental health and well-being, according to the Paychex survey. A baseline assessment of workforce well-being and resilience to identify risk and provide interventions is a baseline protection.
  3. Cultural Commitment
    Organizations whose actions and communications reinforced their culture and built trust were able to keep workforce performance at high levels.
  4. Analytics and Insights
    The kinds of analytics that are improving customer understanding and organizational productivity have a parallel in employee well-being and engagement. HR has an important role in bringing real-time predictive, pre-clinical analytics and insights that unearth trends and provide insights into employee mindsets to the whole C-Suite. Business leaders need help in understanding where there is widespread risk for stress and an inability to embrace change.

The pandemic underscored for HR leaders that workforce performance and well-being are interdependent and essential to managing through change and crisis. The complexity of the pandemic—and its ongoing effects—highlighted the advantage of a sustained, systematic approach to ensure that every individual is capable of living and working at their best.

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