Departments - November/December 2008

The Insider:
Building Resilience in Turbulent Times

By Catherine Eberlein Pfister


It's not news that our nation's workforce is nervous and distracted by a growing multitude of economic fears. This month, we talked to some industry leaders about ways to build a resilient workforce in spite of the sometimes-overwhelming economic news.

"Now is the time to ask: Do you have a resilient workforce? Have you historically engaged with your employees and customers?" said Rodger Stotz, vice president, managing consultant with Maritz Inc. and chairman of the Industry Leadership Council Advisory Board of the Incentive Federation. "It's necessary to focus on both the short-term and long-term impact of having engaged employees—because it affects resiliency and the ability to get through hard times and thrive."

How can you impact engagement? Rewards and recognition are part of the answer, according to Stotz, "Companies have to recognize the value of intangibles, not just their physical assets—and a major intangible asset is their people," he stressed. "Studies have shown that the greater the level of employee engagement, the higher the level of connection with the company and its customers, and the higher the level of customer satisfaction. Effective employee engagement, reward and recognition programs go a long way in support of building a resilient workforce."

Author David Lee, another expert on the topic and founder of HumanNature@Work, agreed that building a resilient workforce is akin to making it "recession proof." "By that I mean do the things that help employees remain motivated, determined and inspired during difficult times."

If employees are overwhelmed, they're not engaged, said Lee. "Employee engagement—the desire to contribute to one's employer's success—requires energy and interest," he added. "Overwhelmed, beleaguered employees don't have the energy or the interest necessary for engagement. Their attention and limited energy are focused on trying to make it through another day. Employees in survival mode usually aren't thinking of new ways to provide value to their employers.

"Employee engagement is most important—and most challenging to achieve—in difficult times," Lee added. "Thus, if you want maximum employee engagement during these turbulent times, you need to know how to maximize your workforce's ability to handle (things) without becoming stressed or overwhelmed. In short, you want to help maximize your workforce's level of resilience."

A more resilient workforce can handle the pressures of work without becoming overstressed. And that impacts your ability to compete. "The intellectual, emotional and physical consequences of stress directly compromise the sources of competitive advantage in today's marketplace," Lee said. How?

Stress compromises the ability to create brand-building experiences. "Research on the brain supports what we know from personal experience: When stressed, people have difficulty experiencing empathy and compassion for others," Lee said. "People are less likely to respond with patience and goodwill. If your business's success depends on providing great customer service, you must address employee stress."

Stress compromises an organization's ability to respond quickly to change. "This is perhaps the most important organizational quality in today's world," Lee explained. "What stress does to the brain poses a serious problem. Decades of research show stress activates primitive hard-wired programs in the brain that lead to neophobia (fear of anything new) and behavioral inflexibility (repeating the same action, despite the fact that it isn't working)."

Stress compromises innovation and intellectual capital. "In today's knowledge economy, smart rules," said Lee. "Unfortunately, when people are stressed, they're not as creative, they're not as logical, they're not as capable of noticing alternatives and opportunities. Stress affects attention and mind share.

Stress compromises talent acquisition and retention. "Your ability to attract and retain talent obviously depends on your reputation as an employer. If your workplace is known as a high-stress, human-unfriendly workplace, don't expect to be a talent magnet."

Stress compromises productivity. "Stressed-out workers eventually burn out, costing you in terms of increased turnover, mistakes, workers' comp claims and health insurance premiums," Lee added.