Emotional resilience. Do you want to talk about it?

Follow up article posted 4th April 2016.

Something about the recent and rapid offerings of personal resilience training in universities is concerning me. I suspect we are all familiar with posters around our campuses of stressed brains being soothed by caring hands. I feel compelled to capture some thoughts.


(And here is some tranquil spa music).

Resilience, in the medical sense, is defined by Luthar et al (2000) as:

“the maintenance of positive adaptation by individuals despite experiences of significant adversity”.

The Management Advisory Service also defines resilience as strategies needed to “cope effectively in times of crisis and challenge”. (Management Advisory Service n.d.).

In a number of occupations, such as health workers, where people face not unsurprisingly high levels of stress, researchers are looking at the relationship between resilience and mental health outcomes (Rees et al 2015). What surprises me now the rapid implementation of personal resilience techniques as a strategy within UK universities, and that this has been introduced silently and undisputed. When did my workplace become one in which I may experience significant adversity, crisis and challenge?

We need to look at this carefully. Luthar and colleagues’ paper on the construct of resilience informs us of how it is often viewed as a personal trait, and that creates a confusing picture:

“can inadvertently pave the way for perceptions that some individuals simply do not “have what it takes” to overcome adversity”.

A better way of thinking should be to consider resilience as a process and not a personality trait, in which the preexisting conditions need to be considered, and these include the understanding of the threat or stressor in the first place. I am writing, not because I’m a psychologist, but as someone worried that these strategies have slipped in, the fact that we need them in universities at all, and that the narrative formed around them may lead to further damage to the individual.

UK university resilience – what’s the score?

A quick Google search of “university staff resilience” brings up over four pages of hits linking to courses and services to “build mental resilience” and “build inner resilience”. Of course it goes without saying the importance of recognising stress in the workplace – within ourselves and our colleagues in all departments and services – is of paramount importance. I do worry that the upsurge in this approach as a strategy puts a ‘sticking plaster’ over some deeper seated organisational issues. (Loughborough, Staffordshire, St Andrews, Bristol, Reading, Portsmouth, QUB, Leeds, West of Scotland, Oxford Brookes, Cardiff, Canterbury, Ulster, Liverpool Hope, and many more).

What these courses claim?

The language within some of the course web pages and brochures for me have echoes of what Richard Hall writes about with the restructuring of the labour of the academic community as a commodity.

The motivations behind the resilience courses include:

to advance knowledge of the factors contributing to worker resilience”.


Now we are workers. And the onus very much on us to be resilient and productive.

“This course gives staff an oversight of stress, its causes and effects and at how we can build personal resilience”.

“The objective is to enable individuals to become more resilient, less stressed and more capable of coping with events and pressures they experience”.

“Helping you to maintain wellbeing and bounce back from setbacks”.


These courses promise to enhance our psychological well being:

“The second half of the course, Resilience, will provide strategies for individuals to prevent and manage stressful feelings by increasing resilience”.

“Managing strong emotions and impulses (such as anger and anxiety)”.


More optimistically, only one referred to creating a preferential working environment:

“Fostering a working environment that enhances the physical and mental well-being of its staff”.


The organisational psychology worries me here more than the fact that our academic communities have been denigrated to the position of workers in a system. The subversive messaging that the onus is on us as individuals to “bounce back” and the role of the organisation as a whole and as a source of the acute or chronic stressors is largely being overlooked, or certainly I can find little reference to it.

Who is delivering these courses, and are they qualified psychologists to work with people’s mental well-being? What if the training doesn’t help and someone has the added burden of thinking themselves a failure because they haven’t “bounced back” this time? Our anger and fatigue are a natural response to stress. I worry that the resilience is masking what our brains might naturally need to repair?

What do staff perceive resilience to really mean? Are staff also being encouraged to speak out and are they listened to in their organisations? What if staff perceive resilience to mean not speaking out and to generally shut up?


What is the scale of the problem?

The scale of the problem of overwork in higher education, and the tensions therein are well documented in a number of recent surveys and articles. The fact that we have a problem and this is recognised nationally must be a start. The University and College Union (UCU) shares resources and an invitation to participate in a survey regarding workload.

Despite what is known of the magnitude of stress in the sector, staff turnover seems relatively static, with of full time academic staff (128,425) and part time staff (66935) in December 2013, around 15% and 4.5% of staff move year on year roles within the same HEI provider, and about 5% and 9% of full time and part-time staff leave the sector (retirement, change in profession etc. HESA Staff Statistics). What has changed year on year are university staff reporting their jobs as stressful. In the 2014 UCU survey, The proportion of respondents from HE who agreed or strongly agreed that they find their job stressful has increased from 72% in the 2012 survey to 79% in 2014 (n = 6,439 , albeit around 3% of academic staff population, and possibly those most affected responding) (UCU 2014).

Take a breath. In 2014, 79% of academic staff surveyed strongly agreed their job was stressful.

When we corroborate with other surveys, even if we interpret the results semi-quantitatively, the impact on long working hours affects academic teams and professional service colleagues alike. Times Higher survey of 2,852 academic, professional and support colleagues, reported similar views, with all staff reporting the need to work long hours.

For academic staff on ‘teaching and research’ contracts, the burden is double, and also more often subject to workload management within the commodification of our university system. It is this monitoring and perceived lack of freedom and control that comes out regularly in surveys as a stressor.

Are we understanding the roots of the problem?

I believe one of the major problems we encounter is lack of communication and sometimes collegiality between academic teams and professional and support staff. The combined ‘student experience’ is a figment of all of these people working harmoniously together, and I know from previous work, the power of team building, breaking barriers, and sharing conversations. One of the big problems with university operations today is the segregation of academic teams from our professional and service colleagues – technologists, librarians, our administration and curriculum and timetabling teams. Everyone is equally important, but clearly something is going wrong within our higher education system, with one of the saddest statistics from the above survey being only 57% of those staff responding would (agree or strongly agree) in NOT recommending their university as a place to work (THE 2016a).

What causes work-related stress in universities? Stress obviously is linked to long hours, work relationships and felling of lack of control, but that is not the full picture. From my own experience, stress derives from not being valued, not fulfilling one’s potential and undertaking mundane tasks. Counting bus tickets to oversee student expenses is one of the most stressful jobs I have ever had.

So much is being written on work hours at the moment. In this THE article about academic work hours there is a huge mis-match between what universities view as ‘productive’ and the work that academic staff feel they need to do to contribute to their student and research communities. Articles like this are unhelpful and do not account for the varying levels of administrative support an academic team might have, different types of programmes offered within universities that may require extra regulation and work. They do not reflect upon the fact that colleagues may seek to work long hours to better their careers to make up for opportunities not provided by their current employer. Comparing us to bankers where there are big cash incentives to do well, is totally unhelpful (Matthews 2016).

The normalisation of resilience?

I worry that resilience has become normalised as a term and is now routinely embedded in our day-to-day language that we’ve ceased to think of the meaning and significance of it. We become desensitised to the underlying stressors. We are familiar with posters around our campuses. We often have a ‘tick-box’ attitude to training and people might think themselves resilient because they have attended a workshop whereas in fact they may be far from it.

Overwork in academia is normalised and each one of us is equally to blame for that. Some people choose to answer emails on Christmas day…..I think it is easy to feel a victim of the system, especially when you are exhausted, and therefore it is easier leave things unchanged. The following comments appeared in the THE article “Workload Survival Guide” with contributions from a number of academics:

“The bottom line in academia is really just a question: how much stress can you tolerate in life?”

Workload Survival Guide Wordle

Creation based on the ‘Workload Survival Guide’ article, THE 2016b.



What about organisational responsibility?

As our work environments are clearly the underlying cause of acute and chronic work stressors, surely they must therefore feature in the solution? The organisation structure and climate are acknowledged sources of stress as delineated by Cooper and Marshall with many factors alongside the over-emphased ‘workload’:

(1)  Intrinsic to the job, including factors such as poor physical working conditions, work overload or time pressures
(2)  role in the organisation, including role ambiguity and role conflict
(3)  career development, including lack of job security and under/over promotion
(4)  relationships at work, including poor relationships with your boss or colleagues, an extreme component of which is bullying in the workplace
(5)  organisational structure and climate, including little involvement in decision-making and office politics.

(Cooper and Marshall 1976).

Rather than focusing on building resilience in individuals, we should be creating more effective organisations in the first place as a remedy against these situations? Ultimately, any organisation will need its own innate resilience to succeed, and amenable working environments and shared values are acknowledged to keep companies going in times of adversity (Coutu 2002).

I am not arguing for one moment that universities have had to undergo huge transformations in recent years and the pressures on and within them are significant. I sometimes think it is the little processes that need attention.

  • How can returning a coursework mark within a virtual learning environment be effective as a 15-click process?
  • Why does the enrolment of a staff colleague onto a virtual learning environment require emails to be sent where the system can be set up for staff to perform the function directly?
  • Why does a module leader have to interact with seven different administration systems (virtual learning environment, timetabling, module administration, curriculum architecture, module feedback and reporting, business information systems, student records). With the training requirements that comes with that.

Bring back the “time and motion” man! When I grew up in a village shop we had an expert visit on an annual basis who observed my parents working and moving around the premises and made recommendations for the most efficient placing of equipment and design of work routines.

Don’t remember him?  (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jtn8oAMsvSE)

Summing up

This has been a lengthy ramble and I’m sure not well argued or articulated in places. This has been the output of a rather exhausted brain lurching through the 2016 Easter holiday through phases of sleep and writing. As we head toward another round of research excellence and imminent teaching excellence measures in the UK, the pressure is going to build up in the system.

We need to do far more groundwork to understand the full complexity of the picture before meaningful interventions can be devised.

What is the responsibility of the organisation as a whole, and who is looking at our structures and cultures?

What do staff think resilience is? Might it be used as a metaphor for not speaking out and challenging poor processes/practices when we see them?



Cooper, CL and Marshall, J (1976). Occupational sources of stress: a review of the literature relating to coronary heart disease and mental ill health. Journal of Occupational Psychology, Vol. 49, pp. 11-28.

Coutu, DL (2002). How resilience works. Harvard Business Reviews. 80(5). Available at: https://hbr.org/2002/05/how-resilience-works

Luthar, SS, Cicchetti, D and Becker, B (2000). The construct of resilience: A critical evaluation and guidelines for future work. Child development, 71(3), pp.543-562. Available via: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1885202/

Management Advisory Service (n.d.). Available at: http://www.mas.org.uk/management-advisory-service/managing-resilience/building-resilience.html

Matthews, D (2016). THE Times Higher Education. How many hours a week should academics work? Available at: https://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/how-many-hours-week-should-academics-work

Rees, CS, Breen, LJ, Cusack, L and Hegney, D (2015). Understanding individual resilience in the workplace: the international collaboration of workforce resilience model. Frontiers in psychology, 6. Available at: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4316693/

THE Times Higher Education (2016a). University workplace survey 2016. Available at: https://www.timeshighereducation.com/features/university-workplace-survey-2016-results-and-analysis

THE Times Higher Education (2016b). Workload survival guide for academics. Available at:https://www.timeshighereducation.com/features/workload-survival-guide-for-academics

UCU University and College Union (2014). Survey of work related stress 2014. Available at: https://www.ucu.org.uk/media/6908/UCU-survey-of-work-related-stress-2014—summary-of-findings-Nov-14/pdf/ucu_stresssurvey14_summary.pdf

7 thoughts on “Emotional resilience. Do you want to talk about it?

  1. Thanks Viv for this thoughtful post. This seems to be a classic case of treating the symptoms rather than the cause. After ‘resilience’ has run its course, no doubt some other buzzword will come along!

    • Thanks Jenny. Sure. I did my ‘resilience’ training which was a powerpoint presentation in a room with dimmed lighting, and I mostly remember talking about vacuum cleaners. 🙂

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  3. This is a really interesting post. As someone who works in the professional support services side of things in a UK HEI, I can definitely understand how stress impacts on organisational culture in terms of the way we communicate across departments. Stressed, overworked academics lead to snarky emails and phone calls and, while we do our best to answer and help as much as we can, staffing shortages and just the sheer volume of (often negative) interactions with others definitely take their toll!

    • Hi Rosie

      Thank you for your comment. Yes, this does impact on all of us as the national surveys suggest, this is ALL staff. I’d love to see more mixing/networking just to understand colleague’s perspectives. I worked in industry where it was so different – in an open plan office you just got to hang out with everyone.

      Happy Monday!

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