What is resilience? How can we build it in ourselves and others?

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In a recent article published by the Chartered Association of Business Schools I reflect on the role of the personal tutor and an inclusive learning environment. See the article here.

This last week I have been thinking about resilience. It has been talked about a lot lately. It has been dubbed a positive by-product of adapting to the challenges of the pandemic. If it is such a good thing, why aren’t we putting more explicit onus on resilience building activities throughout education and career progression? This post wont have all the answers, but I am hoping it gives some food for thought, so to speak.

What is resilience?

The first thing I did was to try and define resilience (I am an academic after all). I came across three main resilience ‘categories’: 1) Mental, 2) Physical, 3) Social. Mental resilience refers to the ability to manage stress or adapt to an unexpected change in situation. Physical resilliance refers to stamina and strength to deal with life situations and social resilliance refers to response to social change. There are other resilliance ‘domains’ discussed in the literature such as emotional and spiritual resilliance. But in basic terms, I understand resilience to be our ability to ‘bounce back’ from challenges, or our ability to cope with life situations. We may do this on our own with our own strategies for having some kind of ‘time out’ from life. Or, we can utilise our surroundings and draw upon informal and informal support structures to overcome those situations where we may need resilience.

Reflecting on my own resilience, I realise that like wellbeing, it is subjective. My own response to life situations is based upon my life experience, as is my perception of a life situation. Something that might be stressful to me, may not be to someone else based on their own perceptions of what is stressful.

A good friend also reminds me that not all stress is negative. We can have happy stress, but it still absorbs our time. She explained that everyone has a stress bucket. Each little thing we do can have a certain level of stress; positive or negative. We place it in the bucket and as it gets fuller, the weight of stress starts to become heavy. It can take the smallest thing to make that bucket overflow. With that in mind, I think resilience strategies need to be a continuous thing, not just when we reach crisis point.

Putting resilience into recent context, behavioural scientists talk about disasters bringing people together. We can see this in communities during the pandemic to form a united front: ‘we are all in this together’. This type of resilience leads me to consider resilience as a by-product of collegiality or community.

So, there are different levels of resilience. There is resilience in terms of response to a significant event, but it is also a continuous process of our everyday actions.

Is there scope to create environments where this can happen for staff and students? Can institutions create an environment which leads to resilience? Or, is it a behavioural response to a situation that can’t be mimicked? With that in mind, is resilience born out of our coming together amidst a global disaster? I think it is a little of all of these.

Why is it a good thing?

It helps us cope with everything life throws at us. It means we can adapt well to change and cope with stress. Great! I’ll take mine to go please!

Is building resilliance in students a role for institutions?

I certainly think so. Yes, we are focusing on delivery of courses primarily, but the support mechanism which surrounds course delivery can aid students in adapting to the different ways of learning which may be presenting themselves in the next academic year. But we cannot build resilience for them, we should merely help them to develop their own subjective resilliance strategies. What works for you may not work for them.

Remember, an element of resilience is about a communal sense of collegiality. This can be encouraged and shaped by education institutions through pastoral care and giving students a sense of belonging; the academic community. We should certainly be able to help there.

Building resilience in staff – is there a role for managers to play?

Yes, to some extent. Like with students, it is about being there. Encouraging collegiate environment – a united front. Some people wont want to take part, and that’s fine. Remember, it is subjective. While I like to work with others to form solutions and help others through a situation, some prefer to go it alone. We are all different. There is no right way. That said, we also need to support those who decide to ‘go it along’. And, forced collegiality does not work.

Building resilience in ourselves – what can we do?

This is something you will need to answer yourself. But some suggestions based on my own thoughts about resilliance and what helps me:

  1. Consider a change in perspective (I touch on this in this article about opportunity).
  2. Utilise formal and informal avenues for support.
  3. Push yourself outside of your comfort zone – you might enjoy it.

I think sometimes, withdrawal or avoidance is the easiest option. But this can easily lead to a path of self-disruption. It is not the best option for our mental or emotional wellbeing in the long-term. You may not feel like attending another informal Zoom coffee meeting, but it might actually be OK. Like one of those nights out you really didn’t want to go on, but you really enjoyed it after all.

Closing thoughts: It is human nature to not like change. We are creatures of habit. Sometimes we are forced to change the way we do things out of necessity, some times it is tough going, but it could lead to something good. If you are reluctant to embrace change, it will be difficult and unpleasant. If you are hesitant but embrace it anyway, you may even begin to enjoy a new way of doing things. If you take a positive stance and embrace change, even if it goes wrong, you may reflect ‘at least we gave it a go’. I think perspective and resilience work quite well together, and perhaps positivity has a place in resilience building. Though as it is subjective, you may of course, disagree.

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