Building Resiliency: From the Individual to the Organization

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January 14, 2020

Building Resiliency: From the Individual to the Organization

By Dr. Denise Kruszewski

Founder The Center for Stress Recovery and Resilience (CSRR)

By Brian von Kraus

CEO FireWatch Solutions Inc

This blog series by Dr. Denise Kruszewski and Brian von Kraus is intended to introduce both the concepts and tools to enable individuals and organizations to build resiliency as part of their duty of care programs. Our human capital is our most important resource and building the capacity to weather stress and trauma is a vital component of maintaining health and wellness and achieving impact.

These blog posts will be presented in two voices. Brian von Kraus will focus on the organizational duty of care aspect and how to embed resiliency systems into the company. Dr. Kruszewski will discuss the tangible application of resiliency concepts, the actual tools and programs that employees and managers can use to build resiliency.

Background

The resiliency program concept is adapted from the Preservation of the Force and Family’s Performance Resiliency program that was used by US Special Operations Command. Due to the operational tempo of combat deployments, combined with the high stress of deployed operations, there was a significant negative effect on the health and welfare of servicemembers and their families. Rates of alcoholism, suicide, domestic abuse, drug abuse, and other factors increased exponentially during the dual wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and severely disrupted the psychological, physical, and emotional health of servicemembers and their families.

The performance resiliency program was a holistic approach to addressing these issues focusing on the three areas of psychological, physical, and spiritual health.  Each line of effort had a prohabilitative and rehabilitative aspect to it, enabling prevention and care. The program proved that adequate preparation and education, proper training, and appropriate professional support led to increased individual and organizational resiliency. This resiliency kept minds, bodies, and families intact.

NGO’s face many of the similar stresses that the military face. Long-term deployments to austere locations, often without access to essential services, seeing firsthand horrible suffering and trauma, and often having limited ability to quickly fix any problems that can be seen. Even when returning home, NGO members have a hard time translating their experiences to friends and families, which often leads to isolation. Guilt is another common factor, with NGO workers often feeling guilt at those they left behind. This risk profile puts NGO workers at high-risk of psychological and emotional harm. Chronic overactivation of the stress response system leaves individuals highly physically and emotionally reactive and chronically depleted.  It is imperative of organization’s duty of care to address these issues.

It is the hope that this blog series will build capacity in individuals and organizations to develop their own resiliency programs to better prevent the negative effects of stress, manage chronic stress and traumatic events, and recover quickly to full health.

Dr. Kruszewski will outline how to apply these concepts with tangible tools and programs below. This first post focuses on building appropriate awareness in the individual.

Application

When a client walks into my office, one of the first things I tell them is that I am not here to make them feel better. Instead, my primary goal is training them to notice whatever it is they are feeling, especially if it is unpleasant. I also caution them that this may initially intensify negative emotion, which is not what many clients want to hear from their new therapist. But I have seen that if an individual can commit to truly feeling what is going on in this moment, including the unpleasant emotions, and accept short-term unpleasantness, that person’s suffering can be greatly reduced in the long-term. As a psychologist, I operate from these assumptions: stress is inevitable for everyone, not all stress is bad, experiencing negative emotions does not mean something is wrong, per se, but it does mean that something is requiring your attention. I also know that how we respond to moments of stress directly impacts our well-being and performance, both in that moment and in times to come. This is the development of resilience and is a topic that is relevant to all of us.

So what is resilience? Resilience is a capacity to limit injury and expedite recovery from stress-exposure. Therefore, stress-exposure can be thought of as a requirement for resilience-building. Furthermore, resilience can be strengthened in a variety of groupings: In my work I help individuals, families, teams, and organizations bolster their response to stressors. Additionally, resilience can be both a trait and a state, such that at different groupings (i.e., individual, team, etc.) there are both inherent resilient qualities that exist as well as moments in time when these qualities are either bolstered or depleted. The good news here is that individuals and groups can be trained to either utilize existing resilient traits or learn new resilient skills to thrive in the context of stressors.

However, I often caution individuals who approach me about resilience training that effective training relies upon the willingness to do something that some people in high-intensity, mission-driven jobs, like those in the NGO sector, aren’t always willing to do. It relies on a willingness to pause, turn inward, and really notice, as if it is the most important thing you have ever done, your own present-moment experience. For leaders approaching me to train their teams, I ask them to first introspect about their willingness to notice their own experience, as well as to publicly model this for their teams, thereby making it safe and welcome for them to do so as well.

After this willingness gut-check, most of the resilience training I offer begins with training in mindful awareness. Mindful awareness is a way to purposely, wholeheartedly, attend to present experience. I often say that mindful awareness is simple but not easy.  Like any tool, the effectiveness of awareness relies on the skill of the user. Training in mindful awareness involves developing the capacity to note the facts of the present moment, while also noting when stories about the past or the future embed themselves into the moment, disguised as facts. Additionally, the ability to return the attention to the present moment, again and again, requires patience and trust. Most importantly, it is a training in the quality of kindness, which is another skill that I focus on quite a bit in resilience training. More will be said about this in future blogs.

Not all awareness is created equal:

Hypothetical example: When the project team is in the capital city and has heard news of a militia attack near one of the field offices. It is unknown whether the attack affected NGO staff or their families.

  • When awareness can be helpful: Members of the project team who hear this news use their awareness to note that they feel worried about their colleagues at the field offices. One of the project team members also notes that they feel guilty that they are not in harm’s way. Another project team member acknowledges they have a similar feeling and recalls times they have been in harm’s way and how helpful it was to receive contact from concerned others. They discuss with one another the best way to reach out to their colleagues to find out how they are doing and what they need.
  • When awareness can be unhelpful: Members of the project team who hear this news are instantly hijacked by a stress response and feel ashamed that they are having these physical and emotional reactions. Without discussing their approach, they separately reach out to the field, flooding them with highly emotional reactions without the ability to offer any real assistance. One member, in particular, gets angry when they reach out to a project team member who seems unwelcoming of the contact.

The key difference between these two examples is that in helpful use of awareness; the individuals took time to pause and notice what their needs were in the moment. Once this data is identified within an individual, they can then determine what resources (internal and external) to bring on-line to meet these needs. The temptation, particularly during times of acute stress, is to jump into action and ignore our internal experience. However, ignoring our own needs is not sustainable in the long-run. As illustrated above, it is also often not the way to most effectively respond to the external stressors.

 

Grounding is an exercise I often start with to help individuals practice calming the body and training the attention to the present moment. In a grounding exercise, I encourage an individual to either stand or sit and turn the attention to the physical sensations of parts of the body involved in the sitting or the standing. I prompt individuals to use their senses of hearing, sight, sound, and touch to notice, from the inside-out, what is present in this moment. These exercises can be done anywhere, any time, and with eyes opened or closed. I recommend practicing it alone, with eyes closed, to really gain a strong sense of this practice and to notice the sensations that are most helpful for you as an individual to tune into. From there, it becomes easier to move the attention to the feet, for example, when having a moment of anxiety in a crowded grocery store.

Listen to this audio clip for an example of a grounding exercise: 

Conclusion

This definition of resiliency will help guide the development of more robust resiliency programs that are tailored to the unique cultural contours of an organization. Future posts will describe how to holistically integrate resiliency concepts into the organization’s daily activities. A resilient organization is always learning, adapting to change, and intentional about devoting time, resources, and bandwidth to employee welfare. This mindset and commitment builds up a sense of trust between each employee and the organization; this trust is the glue that will bind the organization together in the most trying of times.

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