Bouncing back: is resilience worth the hype?

Posted on October 10, 2018 by Rosie Allister

One of the first challenges when considering resilience is that it has a range of meanings. It’s often described as ‘bouncing back’ after adversity. That requires both exposure to adversity, and adaptation. However there can be a range of other meanings too, including recovery, wellbeing, and happiness.

This lack of a single definition makes research on resilience difficult. There are critiques of resilience which raise further problems for research. Some say that the way resilience is interpreted and applied places too much responsibility with individuals, and comes with a set of normative judgements about the ‘right’ way to respond to adversity, which do not take into account diversity among people. Not taking into account diversity could mean that screening for resilience fails to consider how diversity can affect the judgements people make and the way that they respond. One of the most common critiques of resilience is that it places too much responsibility for wellbeing with the individual, and obscures the context, and the structural factors that may have a bigger influence on wellbeing.

Bouncing back?

This has been particularly evident in medicine where resilience training has sometimes been interpreted as obscuring organisational deficits, and placing responsibility on individuals for problems they alone cannot fix (Balme et al., 2015, Oliver, 2017). Examples of this would be harmful working conditions, or excessive working hours, or inadequate staffing, or workplaces that do not consider psychological safety, which would leave even individuals scoring highly on measures of resilience at risk of stress related illness, burnout, and other problems. Resilience training alone will not fix those structural issues.

And yet, the idea of rapidly bouncing back from adversity is a sought after characteristic in veterinary education and in veterinary workplaces. So, is it too troubled a concept for us to consider, or is there something useful there?

A meta-analysis of studies on resilience training in the workplace found that certain types of resilience training may be beneficial, but that resilience training encompassed a wide range of training types, and that some of the published evidence was not strong enough to include in a meta-analysis (Joyce et al., 2018). Also none of the studies measured response to adversity after the training, instead they looked at scores on resilience scales.

The evidence suggests that some types of resilience training can help, but to address other concerns about resilience, and to enable individuals to be resilient we also need to look beyond the individual at the same time. We need to think about how to create resilient workplaces. That means considering structural, and organisational factors, and aspects of our professional culture – such as fear of litigation and blame - that can affect our mental health, and our ability to bounce back from other adversity.

World Mental Health Day

Today is World Mental Health Day, and mental health in the workplace rightly has a higher profile than ever before. Mental health is a crucial issue for veterinary workplaces to consider. A report from the Mental Health Foundation highlights that people who have, or who have had, mental health conditions contribute £225 billion to the UK economy, 12.1% of GDP. Supporting workplace mental health values this contribution, and looking after employee wellbeing helps workplaces to be more productive.

So how does this fit with resilience, and the realities of veterinary work where we can meet adversity as part of our job? Individual factors play a part in resilience, and certain types of training may help, however also vital is a workplace that has safe and healthy working conditions, where people are supported, and have line managers who are compassionate and effective. People also need to feel psychologically safe at work, that they won’t be unfairly blamed if something goes wrong. And people need access to help and support if they are struggling. The Mental Health Foundation has produced guidance on ways that individuals and workplaces can look after mental health at work.

A report from Business in the Community, launched this week found that 61% of UK employees have experienced mental health issues due to work or where work was a related factor, and one in three UK employees have been diagnosed with a mental health condition at some point. We need to ensure that our industry is able to respond to the demands of modern work on mental health, and create veterinary workplaces where people can thrive.

If you’d like to talk to someone for support, Vetlife Helpline is available 24 hours a day on 0303 040 2551 or email via vetlife.org.

Rosie is speaking on resilience at the BVA Career Development stream at the 2018 London Vet Show. Tickets on sale now.

Rosie Allister

Written by Rosie Allister

Rosie is Vetlife Helpline Manager. She has been researching veterinary wellbeing since 2008 and has particular interest in mental health, workplace wellbeing, supporting vet students during the transition to practice, and veterinary identity. She runs workshops and training, publishes, and regularly speaks in the UK and internationally on veterinary mental health. She is a member of the RCVS Mind Matters Initiative Task Force and has also volunteered with Samaritans for eleven years. She’s owned by a dog who likes running even more than she does.