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Resilience in the Workplace and How Art Can Help

by | Dec 21, 2020

If there were a word to sum up 2020, it would be “resilience.” As a society, we have been navigating a pandemic, political unrest, and economic uncertainty while fighting to stay optimistic and push ourselves forward. The environment around us is causing us large amounts of stress. Feelings of burnout, depression, and anxiety are on the rise, but we continue trying to adapt to the “new normal” as best we can. We have been resilient. 

So it’s only fitting that resilience is listed in the World Economic Forum’s 2020 Report on the Future of Jobs as a key skill for the job market. The value of resilience has increased in the workplace over the years, with numerous studies linking resilience to successful growth in entrepreneurial pursuits because of its characteristics of adaptation and mental strength [1].  

The success attributed to these mental attitudes can be applied to other work environments as well. They create a way for professionals in various industries to work through hardship – whether economic, physical, or emotional. They are what push us to keep going. 

“The best way to describe resilience,” says Dr. Marc Moss, “is a characteristic of being able to bounce back when faced with adversity or a tragedy…what’s important about resilience is it can be learned.”

Dr. Moss, a recent guest on The Artian podcast, is the Head of Pulmonary Sciences and Critical Care Medicine at the University of Colorado School of Medicine. He has been studying the effects of building resilience among healthcare professionals since 2006. 

In 2018, his research led him to apply for, and win, funding from the National Endowment for the Arts to create the Colorado Resiliency Arts Lab, a research lab otherwise known as CORAL. 

Together with Katherine Reed, Creative Arts Therapy Program Manager at Children’s Hospital Colorado and Michael Henry from LightHouse Writers Workshop, CORAL uses artistic disciplines such as drawing, singing, and writing to enable healthcare professionals to give a voice to emotions that may be harming their mental health – to do as Dr. Moss suggests – build resilience. 

“It can be very scary to sit in front of a white canvas and say, now what do I do?” Reed said, describing the feeling of creatively blocked artists and relating to professionals who may be confused about what path to take. There is a fear that they may choose the wrong one. 

“Even processing through that fear offers yourself a chance to trust, take risks, and then expose yourself and connect to vulnerability…in all those ways, resilience starts to build automatically,” she added.

But how do these artistic concepts relate to resilience in entrepreneurship? According to an article in the Harvard Business Review, there are three qualities that function as the building blocks of a resilient mind: a realistic outlook, ability to find meaning, and ingenuity.

 

Composition (No. 1) Gray-Red | 1935 Piet Mondrian | Source: Art Institute of Chicago

Rooted in Realism

Some scholars might say that optimism is what truly drives a resilient mind to stay strong by staying focused on possible positive outcomes. However, this outlook can backfire when things go sour more than once. If the positive outcomes never come true, it can be easy to get depressed. 

Instead, it is better to stay rooted in realism. Optimism can still be a part of that reality, but it’s important not to let that perspective skew judgment. This way, decisions can be made objectively, with consideration for the current environment.

Artists are associated with being dreamers, but in order to dream, they need to be aware of reality’s parameters. They are future-focused but need to know about the present to represent it and move beyond it. 

For example, Picasso painted Guernica as a response to the German bombing of a Spanish city with the same name. While the painting is relatively abstract, it is rooted in Picasso’s perception of reality, which he then translates into something that evokes feeling. 

Reed knows that art allows us to tap into who we are and our subconscious, giving us the opportunity to check our own realities and reflect on them.

So take the time to think about your experiences. Do you feel as though you are at a crossroads in your life? Is there anything you’re afraid of? Remember Reed’s advice? Processing fear can help build your resilience.

Start a journal and write these thoughts down. Learn to become comfortable with discomfort, with vulnerability. It is part of our reality. 

Developing Meaning

This skill is vital in difficult times. It allows us to create goals that we can work towards or a set of values they can focus on during times of stress.  Focusing on these gives us a purpose to pull them through adversity.

This means developing meaning from failures as well, which allows for growth instead of getting discouraged. We see this trait among many artists and entrepreneurs. Instead of letting failure get them down, they both tend to look at the experience as something to learn from. 

Artists also seek to create meaning in their art. They work to take their experiences and create something that others can find meaning in. They know how to take meaning from their own lives and communicate it in a way that others can identify with. It provides the artists with a sense of control over their experiences so they can process it on their terms, a concept Reed mentions as well. 

“By creating something, it’s giving you a different way to experience that trauma…almost looking in the mirror and saying, you don’t have control over me. I’m going to actually use you to make meaning out of my experience. And so then the art provides that vehicle to make meaning,” she said. 

Think back and ask yourself, what is meaningful in your in life? What meaning can you extract from those moments? Have you gone through any experiences that you ended up learning from?

Ingenuity

Airbnb co-founder and a fine art graduate, Joe Gebbia once said, “ingenuity goes hand-in-hand with the hustle to survive.”

This statement perfectly describes the essence of what ingenuity means: a clever inventiveness to come up with solutions using the tools you have. It allows you to find possibilities where others may see obstacles.  

A resilient mind knows how to create with whatever the current circumstances provide. Instead of getting stuck in a rut whenever failure comes their way, they learn how to adapt to the new environment in order to keep going. 

Both entrepreneurs and artists are known for being audacious and fighting to achieve their goals no matter the circumstances. They know how to use the tools they are given instead of waiting for something that may never come. 

In Reed’s experience as an art therapist, she often encounters adults who believe they lack the creativity to undergo her art activities. But everyone is creative. Her first step is re-instilling their belief in their own ingenuity – in their ability to use whatever skills they have to complete the task at hand. 

She encourages us to stop waiting, but realize that we should take the leap if something calls to us. 

Have you ever wanted to play an instrument? Write a book? Perform? Take that first step. Pick up any instrument and start to play (even if it’s pots and pans), start writing your novel (it’s ok if it stays a short story) and learn that monologue (even if you perform it in your living room). No matter what you will be pursuing your goal with the tools you have around you, instead of developing a defeated mentality. 

 

Portraits at the Stock Exchange | 1868 Edgar Degas | Source: The Met

Through the Business Lens

So how can we relate these lessons to us as leaders in the business world? Dr. Moss mentioned three points that management should keep in mind when deciding whether or not to incorporate resilience training into their workplaces. 

Firstly, we must remember that workers are human beings who need empathy and encouragement. Employees that are working in a stressful environment want to be seen and have their struggles understood. They need to be given the tools and support to release their anxieties and maintain good mental health. 

Secondly, resilient employees will make sure to give their best to the customer, and those who are feeling symptoms of burnout will not operate at 100%. Through his research, Dr. Moss realized that burnout negatively affected the level of care given by healthcare providers, and clients noticed. If businesses want to keep their customers happy, then they need to keep a happy workforce. 

Dr. Moss’ third point looks at the financial bottom line: burnout is costly. In his experience, the burnout that plagues healthcare professionals results in millions of dollars spent in turnover, with many emergency rooms replacing an entire staff of nurses every five years. Art programs to boost resilience are investments that organizations can make to prevent this kind of spending and use their funds elsewhere. 

During our discussion, he emphasized the importance these programs can play, tackling the above issues by making sure everyone feels like they are part of a community that accepts vulnerability so when they are faced with difficulties, they are prepared to overcome the challenge. 

Listen to Dr. Moss and Dr. Reed discuss fighting the burnout endemic among  healthcare professionals with art in our podcast episode, “The Art of Resilience.”

 

 

–Marisa Cedeno

 

References: 

[1] Ayala, Juan-Carlos, and Guadalupe Manzano. “The Resilience of the Entrepreneur. Influence on the Success of the Business. A Longitudinal Analysis.” Journal of Economic Psychology, vol. 42, 2014, pp. 126–135.

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