· Features

HR health and wellbeing special 3/6: Can workforce resilience be nurtured to cope with economic downturn, bereavement, conflict and mental health concerns?

Although some commentators see ‘resilience’ simply as the latest buzzword for managing stress, in its purest sense it refers to the ability to bounce back from adversity.

As this quality is heavily interlinked with the health, happiness and general wellbeing of employees, it is not surprising that the most resilient workforces tend to avoid old-school, intense working practices and long working hours.

Oliver Gray, managing director of wellbeing services firm, energiseYou, says: "The new school is creating a culture in which people are far more productive and healthy. Google and eBay are good examples of new school employers and certain law firms and banks are very much starting to move in this direction. Staff who are engaged, energised and resilient will be far more productive than those who aren't and there are pockets in every industry where directors 'get it' and can see this is a way of outperforming their competitors."

No employer can be certain they have a highly resilient workforce until they are genuinely challenged. Jason Britton, executive director of insurance brokers Jelf Manson, acknowledges he learned more about the resilience of his own workforce during the tough times than when things were good. He says: "When the chips are down and you ask the extra, you see pretty quickly the people standing up."

Even if you have such retrospective proof, past history cannot be relied upon to predict the future, warns Mark Ratnarajah, business development director at insurer Capita Wellbeing and Health. "People can take a small amount of stress, but it can build and build until it reaches a point when they burn out - and past history won't tell you if there is future risk of burnout," he explains. But some accredited stress questionnaires have questions specifically focused on resilience - and role-plays and workshops can shed light on how well people cope under pressure. Anonymous employee opinion surveys, short-term sickness absence statistics and staff turnover figures can all provide clues, as can the general working atmosphere.

Jenny Leeser, assistant medical director at Bupa Health and Wellbeing, says: "There is no single measure for resilience, so you are dealing with surrogate measures. A lot are similar to those used for measuring stress, but resilience is a more positive way of looking at things. If the workplace environment and employee mental and physical health are in good shape, you are more likely to be in a resilient position when something happens."

As a starting point, employers must accept that some employees are naturally more resilient than others. Eugene Farrell, key accounts director at AXA PPP healthcare, explains: "Resilient people tend to have more positive personalities and thought patterns, and their confidence tends to be higher. Resilience is partly about coping and being positive and having confidence and competence and experience to draw on."

But there are still relatively inexpensive steps companies can take to improve existing resilience levels. Louise Flowers, head of risk and wellbeing at Lorica Employee Benefits, says: "Each case is different, but some of the basic HR and management principles can in a lot of cases suffice without any additional expenditure: for example, employee assistance programmes (EAPs), good robust occupational health, basic line manager training and applying consistency in return-to-work interviews."

Providing advice lines, online diagnostic tools and targeted workshops can also prove valuable, as can ensuring people understand why they are doing the work and perceive HR as consistent and fair. Work-life balance considerations should also receive due attention.

Mike O'Donnell, chief medical officer at Atos Healthcare, says: "Resilience doesn't just revolve around work, because if someone is struggling to manage their home life, then their engagement goes downhill very rapidly. Flexible working hours, where necessary, are important and an open door policy can pick up early warning signs."

An open door policy can involve providing access to both suitably empowered line managers and to HR. Maxwell Hodge Solicitors, for example, offers all its 80 staff the chance to see a supervisor or partner or the company's head of HR, Carol Head - who regularly visits all eight offices.

Head explains: "It seems to work quite well having different points of call, depending on what the problem is. We try to come up with a solution that works for each individual and the important thing is that they feel they can talk to someone."

But many experts feel the open door should be primarily to line managers, with HR merely being in the background - unless, of course, the employee actually has a problem with the line manager.

Stephen Bevan, director of the Centre for Workforce Effectiveness at the Work Foundation, says: "Line managers are in the best position to spot the early warning signs. They are supposed to spot even the most subtle behavioural changes and in most cases these will relate to things outside work. On the whole, line managers with the ability to refer to EAPs and occupational health should be able to sort out most things."

EAPs can be a valuable part of the resilience solution because, as well as providing confidential stress counselling, they can help with debt, childcare and legal issues and can be particularly useful in helping employees bounce back from bereavement or from experiencing major trauma. Darren Hockaday, HR director at London Overground Rail Operations (LOROL), is in no doubt that he is getting a good return on investment from the standalone EAP with Aviva accessible to all his organisation's 1,200 employees. During the economic downturn, it has been increasingly used to good effect for counselling employees with financial difficulties and has always proved excellent for providing post-traumatic stress counselling.

Hockaday says: "We have had a couple of cases of drivers who have come across people attempting to take their lives and EAPs have minimised sickness absence by providing instant support. Staff who have witnessed assaults have also benefited from counselling, and just one or two cases such as this a year will mean the EAP pays for itself."

EAPs can also feed back valuable absence management data and most provide management coaching, which can actually help management cope themselves. This can seem a far more acceptable way of providing them with a means of support than suggesting they seek counselling.

Experts stress it is essential employees know where they can access EAPs and exactly what they offer - because EAPs can differ markedly both in the facilities offered and in the standards of counselling qualifications held.

James Slater, product director at Ceridian LifeWorks, says: "EAPs must be adequately communicated and promoted, but often buyers focus on how many people use them, rather than on how many people know about them when they need to use them. There has been a shift towards counselling. In the recession, we have seen them used far more to support crises, such as anxiety and depression."

But most experts stress that EAPs are not the be-all and end-all and that there can never be a one-size-fits-all approach to any part of the resilience jigsaw. It is important for management to have a policy setting out a framework, so everyone knows the conditions they are working within, but different individuals will always respond to different conditions in their own way.

Walk the talk: cognitive behavioural therapy

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), which typically involves between eight and 20 hour-long sessions, looks at what we can do to change our behaviour in response to our thoughts. It is the recommended treatment for stress by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) and has been demonstrating spectacular results. For example, financial services multinational, Legal & General, which has a tie-up with CBT Services, refers to 68% success rates at getting employees back to work within a year.

Because CBT challenges negative beliefs, it is widely talked about as an effective solution for tackling resilience - which very much boils down to individual beliefs and perceptions. Paul Shires, sales and marketing director at Westfield Health, which started offering CBT via its cash plans' EAPs in 2010, says: "Cognitive behavioural therapy is very much about resilience, as it gives people with mental health issues the resilience to cope."

Julia Piper, founder of Privategp.com, says: "CBT can be hard to use if people get very depressed, but as they get better it can be very good for getting the left brain, which is the logical side, to understand how to overcome negative feelings. It would be great for employers to consider its use, but they are probably not doing so much yet."

One of the main barriers to usage is that referrals for CBT on the NHS are hard to get and can involve lengthy waiting lists. Even for private treatment, there has traditionally been a lack of suitably skilled practitioners, but employers with private medical insurance (PMI), cash plans or income protection may find their provider has bought into a network able to secure prompt access. Online CBT formats are also becoming increasingly available. But, even if practitioner numbers dramatically increase, not everyone believes CBT necessarily represents the most effective potential solution for staff.

Adrian Lock, senior consultant at Roffey Park Institute, says: "CBT is no doubt helpful, but I believe there is another dimension that can yield even greater resources in adversity that is often ignored. It is the extent to which we give time and energy to answering deep questions, for example.

"HR directors need to provide personal effectiveness programmes for staff that go deeper than both work-related and interpersonal skills and can help people have clearer senses of identities of who they truly are.

"If they use these for purposes beyond themselves to serve a higher good, then often what follows is a sense of wellbeing that goes beyond current employment and makes them happier and more engaged."

Case study: Aspire Global Network

Resilience measures introduced last May at Aspire Global Network are beginning to pay off handsomely. Staff turnover at the West End-based media and digital recruitment consultancy has since reduced from 30% to 16% and productivity has also improved.

Charlotte Mullen, HR director at Aspire, explains: "Recruitment is very pressurised and targeted, and having happy staff produces better results. Introducing flexible working for all staff has been especially popular. It is almost unheard of in recruitment, but we have quite a mature workforce and they are likely to choose their hours sensibly in a way that is not detrimental to meeting their targets."

Other measures have included offering all 80 UK staff free access to: fruit and healthy breakfasts; a 20-minute chair massage every month; quarterly talks on wellbeing; and four 'duvet days' a year - which enable people who don't fancy coming to work to phone up and say so on the day.

Regular desk assessments also help ensure employees are sitting at their desks properly. The introduction of a cash plan with Health Shield last December now provides help towards a broad range of minor health costs. "It has been received brilliantly," reports Mullen. "People love it."