The secrets of workplace resilience

Through years of extensive research, Graeme Cowan has discovered how companies can help their workforce stay emotionally strong

In 2000, business management consultant Graeme Cowan was at the peak of his career. At that time, he was the joint managing director of an executive internet search firm based in Sydney that specialised in e-commerce.

That was until the dot-com crash later that year, which saw the complete collapse of his business over a very short period of time.

But the dot-com bubble burst at the start of the decade saw the complete collapse of his business over a very short period of time.

He would struggle for another three years, before finally leaving the company. 

By the end of that year, Cowan found himself at the lowest point of his life.  His marriage had also broken down, and he had to move back home with his parents.

The unravelling of his professional and personal life gradually drove him into the depths of depression.

“It was like a pot of boiling water, where it builds and builds, and suddenly you realise you are quite hopeless. There was consistent stress and I was just not taking enough time for my own well-being,” says Cowan.

The depression lasted for close to five years, and one that his psychiatrist described as the worst he ever encountered. In 2004, he even attempted suicide.

“One of the biggest things was that I wasn't sleeping well for a long period of time. I was really tired, but I couldn't sleep. There was a lot of anxiety.

“I was really unwell for a long time.”


Commitment to recovery

What led him on the path to recovery, besides good medical care, was actually something else much simpler. 


Catch Graeme at the HR Summit amd Expo on May 9 and 10.

“My commitment to start walking everyday was really what helped to turn things around,” he says.

Daily walks soon led to him reaching out to friends and family, going back to meditation and other forms of physical activities, and eventually writing his first book Back from the Brink.

Cowan found the research process of the book to be one of the most helpful parts of his recovery. He interviewed around 20 individuals who had also battled depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder.

“I learned a lot from speaking with so many different people. I was suddenly doing something bigger than just me,” says Cowan.

“I often tell people that if they're away from work on stress leave and not ready for full-time work, they can consider just doing voluntary work because it gets them outside the house and it also helps others.”

Thankfully, there is a lot more help for individuals – and employees – today. Cowan says this is a stark contrast from the early 2000s, when employee mental health was rarely talked about. Even as recent as five years ago, companies would not openly acknowledge the matter.  

But that has changed a lot in the last three years.

“One reason is that people have started to work out how costly these problems are for businesses,” Cowan quips.

Furthermore, studies have shown that workplace-related depression and anxiety is now at an all-time high, making it increasingly tougher for companies to ignore the issue.

Actively dealing with mental health

Just having conversations about mental health and some provision of help, however, is hardly an effective solution.

Cowan explains that there are three different approaches to tackling mental health at the workplace. They are namely tertiary, secondary and primary.

The tertiary approach is when companies intervene as and when problems arise. This is a passive method that is costly for the business and unsustainable in the long run.

The secondary approach sees companies provide resilience classes, as well as work-life balance and employee well-being programmes. This is a good method, but not as comprehensive as the primary approach.

Organisations at this level are highly pro-active when it comes to constantly and consistently dealing with employee well-being on every level. They continually think about how they can change processes and systems, and ensure that triggers of depressions are prevented altogether.

Cowan says most organisations are “starting to move towards” the secondary stage, where they understand the importance of special training and wellness programmes. But what he really hopes to see in the near future is more companies going even further, and taking on the preventive approach.

Starts at the top

Central to the preventive approach is the idea of mood management, which Cowan writes about extensively in his works.

“I work a lot with leaders and I think it's important to work with them because they set the mood and the environment in a company,” says Cowan, adding that research has shown 70% of staff engagement is due to what a manager or leader does within their team.

The first priority of managers should be to keep themselves well because if they are not in great shape, then they can't help others.

“If managers are in a good mood, that flows on to their teams. If they are in a bad mood or stressed, that also flows down to their teams.”

This is a tool all employers should equip their entire workforce with, and not only managers.

One of the things individuals can do is to be aware of their own intentional actions – things that they choose to do and have control over. Cowan says intentional actions, which can be positive and negative, greatly affect moods.

Examples of positive intentional actions include meditation, regular exercise, spending quality time with family and friends, or even something as simple as walking, all natural remedies Cowan swears by.

“You need to find that one thing that is really good for you,” he shares. “For me, that was meditation. I get real peace from it.”

For the average professional, employing a strength-based mindset is another important element of mood and stress management.

Studies have shown that if people identify what their top five strengths and skills are, and utilise those every day, then they will be 600% more engaged at work.

Once individuals have mastered how to keep their moods in check, then they will find themselves more capable of handling workplace stress healthily and effectively. In other words, they will become more resilient.

How HR can make a difference

Resilience, a theme Cowan speaks about at business conferences all over the world, does not come naturally or easily to at least 20% of individuals.

And this is where HR has to step in.

As HRM Magazine discovered in an in-depth feature on workplace mental health last October, HR is typically tasked with the responsibility of employee health and wellness. Cowan says HR can further add value by approaching wellness strategically.

“HR can influence the executive team to get on board with a mental wellness programme and to take it seriously themselves,” says Cowan.

“The biggest influence of organisational culture is in what the leadership team does each and every day.”

He says the talent management function can study the needs of their people, then implement relevant programmes that are in line with the company's vision.

Measuring employee well-being is another area that more HR teams are now focusing their efforts on. Some companies are now collecting real-time feedback from employees about their mental states via apps and surveys.

“These are the ways that we can tap on to see one of the key employee performance indicators,” says Cowan.

“It's ironic because employees are the most expensive part of a company's expenses but there are very few real-time matrixes available.”

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