What is resilience?

Resilience is a word that has been increasingly used in healthcare and education. We regularly hear that we need to be more resilient and that organisations need to be more resilient. There are an increasing number of courses being developed specifically for healthcare professionals offering resilient training.

There is no clear cut definition – the literature defines it in many ways, often simply as “the ability to bounce back“.

Until recently, I really disliked the word. It seemed to imply to me that the reason I was struggling was because I simply was not “resilient” enough. Perhaps I needed remedial “resilience training”. But, if the definition is “to bounce back” then I have done that and more.

So, I clearly am resilient, but perhaps just not resilient enough to cope with the changing face of modern day general practice.  Or perhaps too long in the tooth to have the energy to do so. However, it does seem that I am not alone, which makes me think that resilience is clearly beyond just the responsibility of the individual. It is also the responsibility of organisations.

Exploring resilience further

An article in the NY times by Parul Sehgal, “The profound emptiness of resilience”  suggests that resilience is ” a word that is somehow so conveniently vacant that it manages to be profound and profoundly hollow.” This recognition, really resonated with me – resilience as a word and concept seemed to be everywhere – and fuelled my interest in exploring what it really means.

Maria Konnikova’s article in the New Yorker states “research shows that resilience is, ultimately, a set of skills that can be taught”. She acknowledges it overuse when saying “in recent years, we’ve taken to using the term sloppily” but counters it by saying that “our sloppy usage doesn’t mean that it hasn’t been usefully and precisely defined. It’s time we invest the time and energy to understand what “resilience” really means.”

The idea that resilience is something that can be taught rather than an inherent character trait is very encouraging and is expanded upon in Jill Flint-Taylor’s article “What is resilience & why should we care”.

Dr Alys Cole-King, reassures me in her article, that resilience:

“is not about asking doctors to ‘grin and bear it’ and to handle intolerable organisational pressures or excessive workloads. Neither is it about the naming and shaming of ‘weak’ doctors for not being tough enough to cope with the pressures placed upon them. Quite the opposite, in fact.” 

She describes emotional resilience as being:

“about adaptive coping skills, understanding and managing one’s emotions and seeking social support to enable the ability to ‘bounce back’ or even experience post-adversity growth following a stressful event. It is not only the ability to cope with stress but being able to thrive and flourish even in difficult circumstances.

To survive and even thrive – why we need to be resilient

In his paper “Top tips: Improving your resilience at work“, Dr Chris Johnston, founder of Resilience for Doctors.com, uses the analogy of life being:

“similar to rowing in a boat.” He describes “health (or other) problems” as being “similar to crashing into a rock.” and that as well as  focussing attention on the rocks, we should also focus on the water level, which “represents our background level of resilience and wellbeing.’  

So, in order to survive and even thrive at work in the modern day NHS, it seems that we need to learn to become more resilient both on a personal and an organisational level.

To enable this, the healthcare system and its leaders need to create an environment that empowers its workforce to become more resilient. It can facilitate this by freeing up time and resources to promote a more supportive & collaborative culture, which includes having zero-tolerance on bullying / undermining behaviour.

We need to look at our social networks and the way we work. Over the years that I have been in practice, teams have become more and more fragmented and disempowered. I want to explore this further in future blogs.

So, the beauty of the word “resilience” is that it does encompass so much. This allows it to used flexibly, but we must be careful not to allow it to become “profoundly hollow”, otherwise, it will lose all meaning and people will switch off. It becomes yet another thing we need to improve and be good at.

My next blog will look at how we can build our resilience.

I am interested to know:  what are your thoughts about resilience, what does it mean to you? Is it vacuous and overused? Should we all be taking “resilience training”?


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