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Why are some people more sensitive to stress

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Why are some people more sensitive to stress

Avoid stress sensitivity and recruit for resilience

Why do some people cope with stress better than others? It’s a combination of nature and nurture.

We will be looking at characteristics that are largely genetically determined such as cognitive ability and personality. But also nurture based attributes like skills, experience, and values.

Once you know what qualities make a person resilient you can then recruit for it.

What makes someone more sensitive to stress?

Watch the video to understand the different factors that contribute to someone's stress-tolerance, and how organisations can use this information to recruit a more resilient workforce.

Watch the next video in this series here:

Part 6 – Stress and working from home

And watch the previous video here:

Part 4 – Stress indicators: Are you or your colleagues stressed?

And if you know of anyone who would benefit from this video, please share it with them.

Video Transcript

What makes you sensitive to stress

Hi, Andrew from SACS and welcome to video number five of our eight video series on leadership in tough times.

Here are the subjects that we’ve dealt with in the series so far. We’ve talked about leadership, we’ve talked about a range of things associated with stress and the neuroscience of stress and how to identify the signs of stress.

But this one’s all about why are some people more stress sensitive than others? And that’s addressing the fascinating question of resilience.

So this is a question of why some people are intrinsically better at coping with stress than others.

And later on in the series of videos you’ll see some work on positive psychology and in effect techniques for leadership in tough times but can also increase the resilience of individuals.

Nature vs. Nurture

So the reason that people vary in their resilience is combination of nature and nurture.

And in this particular video we’ll focus on some characteristics which are largely genetically determined.

Cognitive ability is largely genetically determined. Estimates are between 70 and 80% genetically determined. Personality is something that’s also quite heavily genetically determined.

It doesn’t change much over the course of life and a person’s personality has a big impact on whether they are likely to be resilient or sensitive to stress.

And then there are nurture based characteristics, attributes, skills, experience, those kinds of things.

We’ll be talking about values and how a person’s value set, and in particular the degree to which a person’s values meets the values of the team that they belong to, how that can affect their resilience.

Now in the later videos we’ll be talking about how to build the skills and experience to become more resilient but really this is all about why people differing in this characteristic.

And it’s also about how to recruit for more resilient people which is a really important issue.

If you want a resilient workforce, you can recruit for that resilient workforce and then you can lead that workforce to become more resilient as well.

Defining resilience

What is resilience? This is a definition from a fellow called Klohnen and going back to 1996 and defines it as “the general capacity for flexible and resourceful adaptation to internal and external stressors.”

Well, that sounds like jargon but let me tease out a couple of the ideas here.

It’s a general capacity firstly. In other words people who are resilient tend to be resilient not just to one thing like illness, they tend to be resilient to cycle logical distress or economic downturn or family problems or whatever.

Resilience is a general capacity. It’s also a flexible and adaptable capacity. In other words, people who are truly resilient will change their ways of doing things to be able to cope better. So it’s a skill that tends to go with people in the course of their life.

And it’s also to do with internal stress like tiredness or illness or pain or something like that.

But as well as that external stressors which could be things like a pandemic, or it could be things like economic downturn or competition or whatever. It’s a protective factor against mental health problems.

So when a person is resilient, they tend to be less prey to psychological issues like anxiety or depression which are two of the more common psychological issues in the workforce across the world.

An ability to make do with the resources that you have in front of you. So people who are truly resilient don’t wait for solutions from other people. They tend to be able to scrabble around to find a and develop it themselves.

And life stressors may play an important part in building resilience, post traumatic growth

Post traumatic stress

You know, people talk a lot about post traumatic stress and post traumatic stress is a very serious and traumatic event.

In other words, post traumatic stress, when people have been through trauma and in an earlier video, I talked about were trauma goes from being acute to chronic, where it’s experienced for a period and it actually retrains the nervous system to have a chronic ongoing characteristic of stress.

You become hypervigilant and you’re constantly on the lookout for problems.

Post traumatic growth

Alternative to post traumatic stress is post traumatic growth.

That’s where people go through stressful experiences and don’t become traumatised, they actually grow, they become better.

And that happens because of the fact of what they focus on.

And also if they’re naturally set up with the right personality and the right cognitive ability that will support the objective of post traumatic growth.

But when I say better, what do I mean? I mean, less likely to be anxious, less likely to be depressed, happier, better relationships.

Post traumatic growth is an area of particular interest in positive psychology research these days.

Emotional stability

So why are some people more resilient than others?

One of the big determinants of personality based resilience is the characteristic of emotional stability. Emotional stability is the degree to which somebody is naturally emotionally stable.

Now you’ve met people who are emotionally stable and you’ve met people who are emotionally unstable.

A person who’s emotionally unstable has the characteristic where small things appear to be a big deal to them.

So it’s a concern for people. Relatively modest things will upset them.

The second personality based driver of resilience is conscientiousness.


Conscientiousness is a natural tendency to persist, to try hard, to want to work hard, to set ambitious goals.

So if a person is emotionally stable and highly conscientious, they are much more likely to be resilient.

Here’s a diagram of resilient personality (refer to video).

This is the HEXACO model of personality. And what we see is the key drivers are things like emotionality.

When a person’s low in emotionality they’re more likely to be resilient. We see conscientiousness and particularly prudence.

You see prudence is this personality characteristic which is all about being thoughtful and planned about how you go about things.

And then extroversion, particularly with a focus on liveliness.

Liveliness is the characteristic of being likely to be optimistic and positive and seeing a good outcome, a cheerful person in effect.

Cognitive ability as a driver of resilience

Then we turn our attention to cognitive ability and cognitive ability is a kind of an interesting driver of resilience.

All things being equal, people who are highly smart tend to be a little more resilient because they’re better able to craft solutions, they’re better able to come up with ideas.

They have a greater degree of their ability to build resources than a person who’s low in cognitive ability.

So cognitive ability can be a driver of resilience. But on the other hand, if you are highly emotionally unstable, if you are a natural fretter, being smart can actually make it worse because it’s almost as though you can dream up more reasons that things will go wrong.

So in general, cognitive ability helps but it can be a burden for a who’s very smart, that kind of almost genius for fretting kind of an effect.

Now we know that cognitive ability is strongly correlated with work performance so people who are smarter tend to have less work stress simply because they’re able to get through the work easier and quicker than a person who doesn’t have such high cognitive ability.

The Schwartz model of values

Values and resilience.

Now values so certainly can affect people resilience. One of the things that we know is that if you work in a workplace where your values match that workplace you are much more likely to be engaged with that workplace and you’re much more likely to be resilient.

Now, what do we mean by values?

Well, every organisation in the world nearly has a value set and in fact, it may interest you to know that something like 60 or 70% of the companies in Australia have the value of integrity.

Very few of them tell you what that means but there is a science of values. And particularly the researcher Shalom Schwartz is one of the world’s leaders in that science. What he identified is that there are 10 personal values that tend to be persistent right across the world. And so one of them for instance is universalism.

Now that sounds a little bit abstract but universalism is the kind of value characteristic of I want to make the world a better place. It’s a value of I believe that it’s good for me to have the goal to try to improve things.

So that could be environmental sustainability or it could be social to justice, helping other people in effect.

Now, if a person is high on that value but they’re working in a workplace that’s low on that value and maybe the workplace that they’re working in is focused on achievement, which is much more about profit, growth and getting things done in terms of moving ahead from a career advancement and from an ambition point of view.

A person who is high on universalism works for an organisation which is low on universalism but high on this sense of achievement.

Well that person’s likely to be more stressed and less resilient because the environment that they’re in causes them not to fit in.

Values can change over time

Now, as I’ve mentioned earlier in this sequence of videos human beings are social primates and we like to fit in.

And what Schwartz says is that the evolution of values has been to drive this process of fitting in.

So if our values modify themselves to fit in to a certain world then that certainly happens over the course of life.

And unlike personality, our values change over the course of life.

But if we come into an organisation where the values of that organisation are very different from ours, don’t expect such high levels of resilience and certainly expect higher levels of stress.

Recruiting for resilience

So that means that resilience can be recruited for and so this is a study (refer to video) that we undertook where we measured resilience of some thousands of people across Australia and New Zealand. And we also measured their personality and we measured their values.

And in effect, what we found is that without knowing anything about their skills or background we could predict about 33% of their resilience, purely and simply knowing their personality and values.

And what we see here is some of the key predictors of resilience that were found in this study.

And these things here are beta weights which are standardised weights which says how much each of these predictors can contribute to predicting resilience.

And without going through it in detail, basically what it shows is that honest, cheerful, hardworking, optimistic people tend to be more resilient than people who are cranky, difficult, lazy, that kind of stuff. Now, if you’re going to recruit people who are optimistic smart can get along with other people, cheerful, hardworking, emotionally stable, all of those sorts of things of course are wonderful characteristics for work performance generally.

So if you psych test to bring those kinds of characteristics into your workforce, yes, you’ll be increasing your resilience but you’ll also be increasing the productivity of that workforce.

So resilience can be recruited for, and this is an example of an instrument that we use at SACS that we developed out of this research to predict the level of resilience of a particular candidate. And you’ll see that this candidate is highly resilient and that’s a good thing.

So the risk of the person from a resilience point of view is low.

So three more videos to come in this sequence on leadership in tough times.

We’ll be talking about stress and working from home.

Then we’ll be talking about wrapping up some of the ideas that we’ve given earlier in the sequence to talk about stress management techniques for leaders and then specifically focusing on some leader behaviours for tough times.

So join us for the next video which is about stress and working from home.

Watch the next video in this series to find out more about leadership in tough times:

Part 6 – Stress and working from home

And watch the previous video here:

Part 4 – Stress indicators: Are you or your colleagues stressed?

And if you’d like some help with developing your leaders to better handle challenging times, contact us about our Wellbeing and Engagement Survey.

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