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How leaders can help workers navigate and embrace struggle

Some people are more resilient than others, and thus it is incumbent upon team leaders to better empathise and encourage their staff, says one expert.

Speaking recently on The Wellness Daily Show, researcher and biomedical scientist Dr Adam Fraser said that all workers in professional services will respond differently to external stimuli and therefore team leaders must make sure that they validate and support those workers when they are struggling.

“One of the worst things [you can do when somebody says], ‘Sorry, I don't know if I can cope with this and I've got all these on my plate and I'm unsure and I got—’ is to respond with, ‘Come on. It's not that bad. Just do this and then do this, then do this’, as the person will walk away with not only the struggle they’re dealing with but also the shame that you’ve diminished your response,” he explained.

“So, a leader has to totally get where you're coming from and understand what's going on for you, how you're feeling, what sort of things are happening. When I validate your position and how you feel, your ability to move to constructive action is far greater. That's one of the big things leaders can do.”

Psychological safety in the workplace is, rightly, a huge topic of conversation in businesses right now, Dr Fraser mused, and noted that such a discussion point is not just about safety – it’s also about judgment, or one’s lack thereof.

“Most people don't want to express to the person they report to that they are struggling or finding things difficult. Really, it's up to the leader to create that environment where if people express that they're not coping, they get support rather than judgment,” he argued.

“A very simple thing is checking in with people and ask, ‘how are you coping with the workload? I see you’ve got a lot on’. Also, putting themselves in that sort of position and talking it through, saying, ‘I remember when I was at your level and I have this, it would often make me feel like this. Is this something going on for you?’ It's almost projecting or trying to pull out of that junior person what's happening for them. When they do it in that way and they see that they're not going to be punished for it, that's when they start to feel safer to share that stuff.”

This all said, there is a level of struggle that is not only productive for workers in professional services, Dr Fraser outlined, but a level at which it is beneficial for one’s health and wellbeing, and thus team leaders must make sure to exert the right amount of stress on their employees.

“The beautiful thing about struggle is it allows us to display courage and to evolve. Those two things are critical for human beings. We crave to be courageous as much as we crave love and connection. It allows us to exhibit courage and to evolve. We feel most alive when we're evolving and progressing,” he mused.

“You obviously have to balance that out with recovery and get relief from it. But what our research shows is that when we talk to most people, they look at struggle and say, ‘yes, I need more struggle like a hole in the head’. However, this attitude of struggle is bad; it’s really detrimental to our wellbeing and mental health as well as our ability to evolve. One of the key things that came out of the research is can you see struggle as an opportunity to develop, rather than a threat. Most people see it as a threat. It’s not about the presence of struggle, it’s about our reaction to it.

“The most satisfying part of this is the part that has the most amount of struggle and discomfort in it. We found this and then we spent all this time trying to understand what that means and how do we use it.”

To listen to the full conversation with Dr Adam Fraser, click below:

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“Kindness is the language that the deaf can hear and the blind can see.” – Mark Twain