Workplace stress is a common cause of mental illness and distress. A Halifax venture is working to protect the health of workers by increasing their emotional toughness.

The Atlantic Institute for Resilience was founded last year by psychiatrist  Jackie Kinley, the institute’s president and CEO.

Resilience is the capacity to not only endure but to grow through challenge and adversity.

“Resilience can be developed. It has several aspects, including mental, emotional and social,” Kinley said.

People need to be mentally strong in order to deal with the complex demands of modern life, she said.

“Emotional resilience enables us to respond, not react. It helps us know our limits and when we need to slow down and relax.

“Low resilience puts people at risk of illness and injury. And we know the immense costs this assumes in human, social and economic terms.”

Kinley and her colleagues are working to boost psychological health and skills through programs they are developing for employees.

“By exploring and practising real-life situations in small groups, we aim to create the conditions for participants to develop social and emotional skills such as empathy and the ability to cope with intimacy and conflict,” Kinley said.

“The learning is effective because of the group context. The group acts like a simulator.”

The institute’s programs are under development and are only offered part time, as Kinley and her colleagues all work elsewhere. Kinley is an associate professor of psychiatry at the Queen Elizabeth II Health Sciences Centre in Halifax.

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Born and raised in Halifax, Kinley comes from a family of physicians. She started out as a family doctor after doing her medical training at Dalhousie but later studied psychiatry at the University of Colorado.

“I wanted to understand what drives people’s behaviour and the social circumstances in which they become ill,” she said.

“I became interested in resilience and in how to create the conditions in which people can flourish.”

She said the skills taught by the institute’s programs work by rewiring participants’ brains so bad habits are lost and new habits take root.

“Brain plasticity, the potential of the brain to change and grow throughout life, is a popular topic right now,” she said.

“There is growing awareness concerning the necessity of resilience, but there are few, if any, evidence-based programs that are specifically designed to develop it.”

She stresses that the institute is not offering therapy.

“It’s not personal. This isn’t about the past. It’s about how you act in the present.”

Kinley began the institute after she and her colleague, Daniel Rasic, took part in the Starting Lean program for entrepreneurs, run at Dalhousie University by Ed Leach and Mary Kilfoil.

The institute’s team now includes Edward Yuzda and three MBA students. Board members include local businesswomen Jane Mitchell and Barbara Campbell.

Kinley stressed that the business is very much in the planning and development phase, and is being built in close association with Dalhousie.

Early financing has been provided by independent private backers.

Kinley sees a lot of potential for growth, as clients and health insurers have already asked if the programs will be offered in other locations.

“We hope this will be a new approach to workplace health and will have a broader social impact,” she said.

“It’s destigmatizing. It’s not about illness. It’s about promoting health to prevent illness.”

She said resilience training can return people to their earlier, healthier selves.

“We are born well. We’re born wired a certain way, but we pick up habits of mind and behaviour that don’t serve us; they hinder our performance.

“This is about the science of health and performance. We have the power to engineer ourselves. It’s about building our psychological infrastructure.”