Understanding the importance of resilience

A positive mindset can help individuals to overcome the most difficult of situations. Anna Harrington discusses the importance of resilience both in and out of the workplace.

Recognising the importance of good mental health at work is growing, not just because of the rise in mental ill health as the main cause of sickness absence (Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), 2011), but due to growing recognition that performance and engagement can be affected by a worker’s state of mind. According to the CIPD’s absence report in 2011, one employee in five admits to absence that has not been caused by “genuine” ill health.

The current economic climate can have an adverse effect on an individual’s mental state, affect performance and engagement at work, and increase “presenteeism” (the situation where individuals work when unwell or are present at work but not fully productive). For businesses to survive during difficult economic conditions, creativity and adaptability are needed (Davies, 2009). Fear and anxiety limit these capabilities and are potentially catastrophic to the individual and to the business.

History of resilience

Understanding resilience and recognition of its importance have developed through psychological studies of individuals and groups in adverse circumstances, such as after disasters (Bonanno et al, 2006) and children with mentally ill mothers (Garmezy, 1974) or children exposed to other risks.

Resilience research analyses why some people go on to experience more problems and others develop into adults who can contribute positively to society (Werner, 2004).

The studies question why some can survive difficult situations and become stronger and more able, while others suffer from depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. The quote from philosopher Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche “what does not kill me makes me stronger” (Nietzsche, 1888) suggests that it is the event or challenge that strengthens the individual, but research points more to the role of individual responses. As the Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist Victor Frankl said: “The last of human freedoms is the ability to choose one’s attitude in a given set of circumstances.”

Defining resilience

Resilience has been defined as an attitude that enables the individual to examine, enhance and utilise the strengths, characteristics and other resources available to him or her. Definitions of resilience include:

  • An individual’s response and methods used to allow them to successfully navigate through or past an event perceived to be stressful.
  • “The flexibility in response to changing situational demands, and the ability to bounce back from negative emotional experiences” (Tugade et al, 2004) or “a set of flexible cognitive, behavioural and emotional responses to acute or chronic adversities which can be unusual or common place.” (Neenan, 2010).
  • “The capacity to mobilise personal features that enable individuals, groups and communities (including controlled communities such as a workforce) to prevent, tolerate, overcome and be enhanced by adverse events and experiences” (Mowbray, 2010).

The term “bouncing back” is used to describe resilience, but this belies the struggles and adaptations that an individual has to make in order to emerge stronger from a stressful situation and the growth that is part of resilience.

Box 1: Elements of resilience

Emotional Organisation, problem solving, self-determination.
Spiritual Vision, self-confidence, self-determination.
Social Interaction, relationships, self-confidence.
Family Relationships, interaction, vision, self-confidence.
Physical Self-determination, vision, self-confidence.

The definitions mentioned above state that it is the individual’s appraisal of the event and their actions – physical, cognitive and emotional – in response that are important. Therefore, the individual needs to be at the heart of any intervention and needs to analyse themselves, their capabilities and the resources available to them.

Resilience is not about struggling alone, it is about the use and mobilisation of ordinary human processes (see box 2).

While the development of individual resilience requires the person to focus on their thoughts and feelings and examine their actions and responses, it can be either assisted or disturbed by the context in which the individual finds themself (Neenan, 2010).

A programme of resilience training within a workplace will need to pay attention to the organisational culture and the effects that has on the creation of resilient individuals or how it impinges on an individual’s ability to be psychologically strong. Coping is part of resilience, but if the environment restricts the mechanisms that allow for coping then the individual will become increasingly frustrated.

Resilience is about the internal cognitive factors, the external contextual factors and the actions that the individual performs.

Key elements

It is agreed throughout the literature on resilience that it is a multi-modal construct. In particular, this involves the creation of positive emotions and thought processes (event appraisal). The literature contains similar views on the key elements of resilience, such as the seven-elements approach by Professor Derek Mowbray. Another model has been used by Professor M Seligman with the US army, which includes physical, emotional, social, family and spiritual elements.

Emotional: “Approaching life’s challenges in a positive, optimistic way by demonstrating self-control, stamina and good character with your choices and actions.”

Organisation is important to emotional control as it allows the mind time and space to direct effort towards maintaining emotional calm and balance, rather than being distracted about managing the external needs and requirements. Problem solving and emotions have a symbiotic relationship.

As mentioned earlier, when faced with an event we will appraise the situation reflecting on our own skills and make an assessment of whether or not they are sufficient to navigate the event successfully. If we feel there is a deficiency, this can lead to reduced optimism and positivity. Having prior experience of successful problem solving provides confidence and can assist in the development of a positive attitude. People with high levels of determination are strong self-believers; they believe that they will be able to tackle most things, which gives them positive feelings.

Spiritual: “Strengthening a set of beliefs, principles or values that sustain a person beyond family, institution and societal sources of strength.”

Having a vision gives a sense of purpose and direction to one’s life. Without a life vision, activities and actions have a reduced value and therefore affect the effort and determination that will be applied to overcoming the obstacles that get in the way of achieving the goals associated with the vision.

Box 2: Human processes

1. Reframing

2. Positive emotions

3. Participation in physical activity

4. Trusted social support

5. The use of personal and authentic strengths

6. Optimism

Source: Positive Psychology; Theory, Research and Applications; Hefferon, K, Boniwell, I; 2011, Open University Press

It also means that when competing demands arrive it is easier to allocate time and energy when appraising them according to goals/vision, which will direct what takes precedence. Having a vision can contribute to self-confidence, hope and excitement about the future. Having goals has been stated as being essential to our survival. It is the movement towards the goals rather than the achievement of them that play a significant part in the creation of positive emotions (Hefferon and Boniwell, 2011).

Social: “Developing and maintaining trusted, valued relationships and friendships that are personally fulfilling and foster good communication including a comfortable exchange of ideas, views and experiences.”

We need others to survive, and our methods of interacting will affect the degree to which we obtain our needs. Mowbray advocates strengthening our ability to create reciprocity, the ability to respond, understand and assist in the needs of others and, in return, the “other” will respond to your needs.

Many different types of positive relationships provide many positive emotions, which then affect our sense of self and self-confidence.

Positive relationships assist in the acceptance of ourselves – “well if they like me I must be OK”. Acceptance of yourself is about acceptance of the whole self – including better and worse aspects. Self-acceptance is not based upon performance or result, it is about acknowledging failings and recognising that effort needs to be made towards improvement.

It is essential to consider the work context when contemplating personal resilience, including the effect of line managers. If a manager is limiting the individual’s progression, subtly or overtly, it will be a challenge not to allow this to affect an employee’s feelings about themselves, and stop them from developing a “hard done by” attitude, and to remain connected and engaged at work. On the other hand, a manager who is capable and invests time in encouraging and nurturing employees will make it easier for individuals to be more resilient.

Family: “Being part of a unit that is safe, supportive, loving and provides all the resources needed for all members to live in a healthy and secure environment.”

Everyone needs a relationship where they feel safe enough to “just be themselves” without any fear of belittlement, ostracising or other forms of behaviour that make the individual feel that they need to adapt and modify their behaviour. Usually this comes from within the family structure and it is these relationships that can be the most punitive and damaging, in which case the individual will need to develop considerable resilience.

Physical: “Performing and excelling in physical activities that require aerobic fitness, endurance, strength, healthy body composition and flexibility derived through exercise, nutrition and training.”

This dimension implies that a healthy body composition is an essential requirement of the physical aspect of resilience. However, the literature on physical exercise suggests that resilience derives from the degree of effort required in each session, and the commitment to an exercise programme over a sustained period of time, usually a minimum of 20 to 30 minutes of significant effort three times per week over three to four months (Leith, 2010).

This model was developed for the US army, so it may be that the dimension reflects that cohort. A commitment to an exercise programme as described requires self-determination. The actual achievement of this goal contributes to mood control, creates positive emotions and raises self-confidence and, consequently, self-belief.

Resilience programmes

A programme that intends to enhance the resilience of employees must take into consideration the work environment and culture.

Employers can use tools to assess organisational culture, such as the “Healthy Organisation Assessment”, which considers the way individuals are treated, the strength of commitment that the employees have towards the organisation’s clear and unambiguous vision, the levels of trust, the amount of integrity that is felt in the organisation and other measures.

quotemarks Resilience has the potential to assist an individual to live a happy and fulfilled life and can transform organisations towards being flexible, able to accept change with minimal disruption and being seen as a good place to work.”

The Management Advisory Service delivered a programme to 800 employees of an international pharmaceutical company and had to allow the transfer of resilience skills to fit with cultural differences. The evaluation showed that it was highly successful in being of value to the majority of employees, averaging 4.7 out of five for satisfaction with the course. In addition, only three people stated that they would not find it helpful in their daily working lives.

The “Comprehensive Soldier Fitness” programme aims to assist soldiers and families with the psychological strengths required to face the physical and psychological challenges that are inherent in the job. It is a commitment to long-term efforts to identify required changes and implement actions within the organisation, environment and individual. More details can be found on the Comprehensive Soldier Fitness website.


Resilience is the development of psychological strength to assist the individual to overcome and grow from challenges. It requires a close review of the environment in which the person exists and an honest examination of oneself.

It is not a one-hit wonder but requires a long-term consistent commitment to working towards a stronger self.

It requires some underlying traits such as courage, appropriate event appraisal, honesty, tolerance of frustration with positivity, an ability to connect with others, self-acceptance and adaptability (Neenan, 2010).

Resilience has the potential to assist an individual to live a happy and fulfilled life and can transform organisations towards being flexible, able to accept change with minimal disruption and being seen as a good place to work.

This, in turn, can add value to the employer brand and make it easier for the firm to recruit high-calibre employees.

Anna Harrington is an occupational health adviser specialising in resilience as a way of improving productivity and engagement. She runs a health and wellbeing consultancy and training service, Harrington Enterprises


Bonanno G et al (2006). “Psychological resilience after disaster: New York City in the aftermath of the September 11th terrorist attack”. Psychological Science 17:3 pp.181-186.

CIPD (2011). “Absence management: annual survey report 2011”.

Davies R (2009). “Key questions for business survival and growth”.

Garmezy (1974). “The study of competence in children at risk for severe psychopathology”. In Anthony EJ and Koupernick C (Eds.) “The child in his family: children at psychiatric risk”. pp.77-97. New York: Wiley.

Hefferon K, Boniwell I (2011) McGraw-Hill.

Leith L (2010). Foundations of Exercise and Mental Health; 2nd Edition.

Neenan M (2010). “Developing resilience: a cognitive behavioural approach”. Routledge.

Nietzsche F (1888). Twilight of the Idols.

Tugade MM, Fredrickson B, Barrett LF (2004). “Psychological resilience and positive emotional granularity: examining the benefits of positive emotions on coping and health”. Journal of Personality, 2004 72 (6): pp.1,161-1,190.

Werner EE (2004). “What can we learn about resilience from large scale longitudinal studies?” In Handbook of Resilience in Children; New York, Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers.

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