United Kingdom

The link between stress and resilience: How employers can provide targeted support

Self-confidence, flexibility, adaptability, adjustability… these are all words which are often associated with resilience. At its essence, resilience is about the ability to respond and adapt to potentially difficult situations or events. In an organisational context, a resilient workforce will be able to adapt and adjust to changes (or challenges) in their working environment or in their personal lives.

In today’s world, the importance of resilience cannot be underestimated.

The number of sick days taken due to stress increased 113 per cent over the last year, according to absence management platform e-days, with 58 per cent of the UK workforce reporting they’re feeling ‘exhausted’ rather than ‘excited’ despite easing of restrictions and the imminent warmer months. These findings are backed up by a recent YouGov study which found that 42 per cent of the UK population is feeling stressed compared with just 24 per cent who are feeling optimistic.

“The importance of employee resilience in today’s world can’t be emphasised enough,” says Charles Alberts, head of wellbeing solutions at Aon. “The 2020 Aon Rising Resilience study which was initiated before COVID-19 hit, found that just 30 per cent of employee respondents are resilient. The subsequent pandemic has shown us just how important it is to bolster employees’ individual ability to cope when things are getting thrown at them.”

The impact of stress on resilience, says Alberts, is significant. Continued high levels of stress can be detrimental to how an individual functions both in their personal lives and at work. It impacts on individuals psychologically and physiologically. “Whilst resilience helps us to cope with stresses, stress can also diminish an individual’s resilience to cope with other unexpected things that may happen in their life – we each have so much capacity. As such, stress can inhibit performance, impact on relationships in the workplace and lead to poor judgement for decision making. At worst it can lead to burn out and mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety.”

According to the HSE, work-related stress is the most common cause of work-related ill-health in the UK.

In Alberts’ view, organisations need to look at opportunities to reduce the amount of stress people are put under. “Individual resilience contributes directly to organisational resilience,” he says. “So it absolutely needs to be addressed.”

Here are five ways employers can provide targeted support to boost resilience, according to Alberts and his colleague Rachel Western, principal at Aon:

Listen to your employees

“Before anything else, employers need to listen to employees to find out what issues they might be struggling with,” says Western. “Whether that’s conducting a stress risk assessment, pulse surveys or asking staff directly, employers need to find out what pressures are employees facing. What’s making them feel stressed? What’s difficult for them right now?”

Use data to inform strategy

Data collected from audits and assessments can be used to inform strategy. As Alberts explains, things can change very quickly, so when the data changes, so too must strategy. “Data is absolutely crucial, more than ever,” says Alberts. “We’re less together in person than we were, so it’s not always possible to tell if employees are struggling as you’re not seeing them everyday. Data can help organisations become proactive and address issues before they really start to impact people and the business.”


“The key message here is communicate, communicate, communicate,” says Western. “Overall, organisations have communicated really well over the pandemic with more leaders engaging than ever before, so this needs to be kept up.”

As part of this, organisations should communicate clearly what benefits and services are on offer, how they benefit individual employees and how they can be accessed. Communication around training should also be considered.

“Communicate about training programmes, communicate about benefits on offer, communicate about what help and advice is available, communicate about relevant events and campaigns coming up, communicate just to acknowledge that times are hard,” Western insists. “Above all, communicate with your workforce, don’t be at arms’ length.”

It’s a balancing act, however. Information overload can have the opposite effect and lead to communication fatigue. To counteract this, keep communications short and sweet and vary the format: quick 1-minute videos, posters, infographics and jargon-free emails.


Alberts advises training for everyone, not just line managers, so everyone can be more proactive in their approach to stress and mental health, rather than just waiting for an employee to present with chronic stress or another mental health condition.

“Training can help to increase the level of mental health literacy within organisations,” he explains. “It requires a collective effort to normalise discussions around health and in particular mental health, genuine and sustained culture change won’t happen if just down to a few people or line managers.”

But it’s not just mental health training which is needed. Resilience training, where staff are given skills on how to look after their own mental health and boost their ability to deal with change, uncertainty and pressure is equally vital. “It’s a proactive, preventative approach that’s needed now,” says Alberts. “Often we offer clinical treatment for individuals to help manage mental health conditions, but of course it makes more sense to be working towards preventing them in the first place.”

Teaching mindfulness or meditation techniques can also useful and can be used as part of a workplace health and wellbeing initiative.

To this end, Aon are soon-to-launch a new suite of mental health tools in collaboration with partners which will provide various interventions such as mood monitoring, mental health awareness, guided meditations and exercises to help with stress management, sleep hygiene and other common mental health issues.

Provide the right tools

It may seem obvious, but providing and signposting to the right tools and services is important. Employees may feel bombarded with a wealth of information and available benefits but may be unsure where to turn, especially when in crisis. “The biggest issue is employees not accessing services, despite needing to,” Western points out. “There needs to be clear, easy-to-read information with mental health helplines or services. Employers need to make it clear which tools are available for employees in time of need. It’s also about knowing what the key risks are as a corporate and how these risks are affecting their workforce.”

At the same time, employers should be mindful that not all benefits will be relevant to everyone, hence the importance of segmenting benefits communication to ensure the right people are matched up with the right benefits. Working parents may benefit from additional child mental health support for example, or someone else struggling to pay their rent may need to know about existing financial support packages provided by their employer.

A recent New York Times article predicted that the dominant emotion of 2021 is likely to be ‘languishing’: a sense of ‘stagnation and emptiness’ after the rollercoaster of emotions – and grief – last year. “It resonates with so many people,” says Alberts. “If 2020 was about grief then yes, 2021 will be about languishing.”

Western adds: “It’s a feeling of ‘meh’ without really knowing why and it’s likely to affect everyone at some point. A languishing workforce won’t be resilient one, so awareness and providing targeted support is going to be key.”



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