Team Resilience

Strategies for workplace safety, health and wellbeing

by Alexander Tirpitz, EO Institute Berlin

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In 2018, the DGUV German Social Accident Insurance reported around 877,000 work-related accidents in Germany. This relates to a 0.4 percent increase compared to the previous year. According to a 2018 EUROSTAT analysis, only the UK, Sweden and the Netherlands observed less workrelated accidents.

However, the recent health reports of the German Techniker Krankenkasse and the BKK umbrella organisation (German health insurances) point at all-time highs of days absent caused by illness. Mental illnesses in particular are gaining momentum, taking a 20 percent share of all absent days. Coughs and sneezes as well as dorsal pain account for a significant share of these days. Companies should accordingly
place paramount importance on the promotion of their employees’ safety, health and wellbeing. More safety, more health, and more wellbeing, mean less days absent and thus more performance and productivity.

Core values

Safety and health should consequently be among the core values of every company. A DGUV survey found 96 percent of company boards to generally consider safety and health as important. In this regard, a safety and health culture means all values, norms and behaviours of a company with regard to safety, health and wellbeing. These values, norms and behaviours reflect the actual importance of health, safety and wellbeing within an organisation. Thus, it is alarming that one quarter to one third of the leaders surveyed in
the GAMAGS study do not consider safety or health respectively to impact on company success. This is a critical finding, since leaders’ attitudes and behaviours do significantly shape a company’s culture.

So, the health and safety culture of German companies is definitely improvable. The essential question is then, by what means can safety, health and wellbeing become core values of an organisation?

Leveraging safety and health through training?

Central to fostering safety, health and wellbeing is, first and foremost, the creation of awareness among all members of the organisation.

However, even though large organisations and SMEs alike are obviously able to create a strong ‘wefeeling’ underpinned by certain values, it is the group-level that needs most attention when it comes to shaping culture and behaviour. Then, a culture of safety, health and wellbeing is best facilitated at the group level, since groups can be considered as small units of organisational behaviour and culture. Training efforts with regard to the creation of a culture of safety, health and wellbeing should therefore aim at teams. On the one hand, it is the resilience of a team that can help to manage workplace-related risks. On the other hand, training can be considered the strongest leverage on culture. Training approaches that facilitate team resilience are better than an interesting strategy to make teams more capable in the face of risks for safety, health and wellbeing.

New risks require new approaches

At modern workplaces, classical risks and hazards are increasingly supplemented by “new” risks. Employees face digitalisation, flexibilisation, and other psychosocial challenges. In consequence, work has become the major source of negative stress for Germans due to high workloads, time pressure, permanent interruptions, information overload and unprecise tasks. Some decades ago, the latter were definitely not regarded as risks which needed the utmost attention. This, however, has changed.

Flexible and mobile work structures increase and provide chances as well as risks, and might eventually affect employees’ wellbeing and health. Thus, the mental illness related absence rate of German employees increased by nearly 80 percent within the last decade.

“more safety and health means better performance”

Employers are increasingly attracted to the idea of simply provide their workforce with resilience training to cope with work-related stress factors and the involved risks. An idea that has been promoted since the 1990s when the concept of resilience gained popularity through a broad landscape of advice and self-help literature and training offers. Originally, resilience factors were identified through research on children who were exposed to unusually high levels of stress and difficult circumstances. However, stressing individual resilience at the workplace shifts responsibility for coping with today’s workplace risks and challenges to the individual. This seems inappropriate for different reasons.

Firstly, many training programmes on individual resilience do not include real stressors, are not repeated as a matter of sustainability and lack effectiveness controls. Secondly, at the workplace, it is often the entire team and not only the individual who is challenged and exposed to risks, so the resilience has rather to be trained at the team level. Then, the focus is more on team resilience than individual resilience.

Team resilience training

Based on a literature review of (organisational/group-level) resilience and stress management studies, industry specific approaches to stress management (aviation, special forces, surgery, etc.) and data from a case study with more than 700 employees of an organisation undergoing organisational change, specific team resilience training was developed by the author and his colleagues. The training itself was then tested with seven teams from a pilot organisation.

The extant literature stressed that team resilience is not the sum of many highly resilient individuals, but instead derives from a number of smart team routines. Routines helping to:

  • Anticipate and preventively minimise stress factors
  • Manage stress factors by means of team resources
  • Support team learning and improvement from prior stressful situations

These routines enable the team to effectively cope with stress factors and risks before, during and after a high-pressure or load situation. Thus, team resilience can be considered as dynamic capability at the sub-organisational level. Dynamic capabilities are usually defined as a set of organisational routines which enable organisations to adapt to their environments, cope with risks and challenges, and stay competitive. Team resilience is then made up by a set of interdependent team routines which help teams to anticipate, manage and learn from highly stressful work situations.

Especially in high-risk environments, professionals do heavily rely on team routines since their daily work is characterised by high levels of uncertainty and low levels of predictability (e. g. special forces, firefighters, surgery teams, flight and space shuttle crews, etc.). These teams are regularly exposed to high levels of physical and mental stress and risky situations but need to function optimally, regardless. Therefore, these teams stick to certain routines. Routines are an appropriate approach, since they help to save cognitive and physical energy, which might be needed for nonroutine situations. As a whole, these routines build the foundation of their team resilience.

“routines build the foundation of team resilience – they help to save cognitive and physical energy, which might be needed for non-routine situations”

Drawing on the Swiss cheese model by James Reason, these routines should ideally be designed in an interlinked fashion and they should mutually support each other. Further, smart team routines should be based on or at least foster open team communication and role clarity.

Seven different teams received the developed team resilience training. The training started with short theoretical inputs on individual resilience, specific stress factors in teams, the notion of open team communication and the role of clarity within teams, and finally the concept of team resilience.

Then, based on the model proposed by Alliger et al. (2015) teams were guided to develop simple routines at three levels:

  • Pre-challenge = minimise
  • During-challenge = manage
  • Post-challenge = mend

In order to test these routines and adjust them, teams were finally exposed to stress factors by means of a complex team task under time pressure.

Developing routine-based behaviours

In order to cope with safety and health risks, the team routines need to support anticipation, management
and recovery from high-pressure (or even high risk) situations.

Minimise

Routines to anticipate and minimise future stress factors’ impact. By anticipating stress factors, these routines help to both make use of team members strengths and compensate weaknesses at the same time.

In one of our pilot groups the routine of a team-written travel guide was developed since the self-responsible organisation of frequent business trips put stress on team members. Team members documented their experiences with hotels, restaurants and recreation places. This did effectively reduce searching and planning efforts and the related perceived stress.

However, for most teams it turned out to be rather difficult to think of potential minimise-routines. Instead of an abstract discussion about potential load situations it was helpful to analyse real past situations and then derive routines that could have helped in advance.

Manage

Next are routines to actively manage acute load situations as a team. Team members must be able to identify and name actual stress factors and take countermeasures. At the same time, the team needs to make sure that standard working procedures are maintained. The development of checklists and standard operation procedures are appropriate approaches.

In our pilot groups all teams integrated an individual-level “workload traffic light”-routine in their regular team meetings. Thus, team meetings did not focus on detailed project reports but on the individual load situation of each team member. Every single team member reported his or her load situation according to the traffic light principle. In consequence, a highly cooperative reallocation process was initiated among team members. Team members with lower workloads took tasks from members with an overload. Thus, the traffic light routine ensures team performance as a whole.

However, even though all teams adopted the traffic light routine, especially younger team members seemed more willing to transparently discuss their individual workload situation. Some elder team members expressed concerns about the high transparency created by that routine.

“in order to cope with safety and health risks, the team routines need to support anticipation, management and recovery from high pressure situations”

Mend

These are routines to recover from the actual load situation and to prepare for future challenges. The team needs to openly address fears, mistakes and emotions from previous situations and discuss necessary adaptations. At the same time, success factors must be named, team performance and in-group support should openly be acknowledged.

Originating from the military domain, debriefings are a useful routine all pilot teams adopted. Thus, the whole team systematically reviews team performance after completion of a project or any other high stress situation. Lessons learned are elaborated and improvements for future work are derived.

However, questions all pilot teams faced were the following: When does a debriefing take place? What shall the debriefing exactly deal with (guideline or questionnaire)? And how to ensure that the results of the debriefing enable team or even organisational learning and development?

Simplicity, not perfection

Establishing team routines to build team resilience seems a promising prevention strategy for the modern workplace, where risks do increasingly arise from mental hazards. Besides the aforementioned example routines many other helpful routines are imaginable. The developed team resilience proved its effectiveness. The trained teams developed several simple and highly effective routines; however, it is essential that these routines are developed by and within the team itself. If this is allowed, teams are able to develop resilience at the group level. Then, these teams possess a group-level capability of anticipating stress factors early and can start up appropriate coping strategies. The pilot groups that received the team resilience training made effective use of the “workload traffic light”– routine. With this simple routine as core to their revised cooperation approach, they were able to reduce perceived pressure and complete projects under less stress. The knock-on effect being that they could recover more quickly, and consequently start new projects more powerfully, making team resilience routines a positive self-reinforcing mechanism for them.

Author Details

Alexander Tirpitz, EO Institute Berlin

Alexander Tirpitz is the Managing Director of the Berlin based EO Institute. As a consultant and trainer, he advises blue chip companies and SMEs on corporate health management, leadership, organisational and team resilience.