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5th February, 2020

The Problem with Resilience

Dr Rebekka Kill

I’m fed up with all this talk about resilience. Seriously fed up. Everyone is going on about it! Resilience, mindfulness, authenticy; these are the buzzwords of the 21st Century.  Wherever you are, whatever you do, these words are there…

So how do we become resilient? This magical quality. A quality that is  clearly highly desirable. Well, there’s a course that can give you it, a workshop, an app, some staff development… and once we’ve devoured this, once our employer has “invested” some staff development budget in us, we will be resilient, super-human, unflappable…. unbreakable!
My main purpose in this highly polemical (and short) paper is to unpack this phenomenon. With a particular focus on the space of the university, as that is where the majority of my working life has been. I’m interested in where the concept of resilience came from, what its purpose is, what its effect is, and also what its reception is. I’m also interested in how we might critically analyse this and repurpose resilience as something that can be of more use to us.

The notion of resilience emerged in the 1970s as a way to describe those child survivors of abuse who went on to have relatively normal, and successful lives. It’s subsequent iteration as a desirable quality for adults, and especially employees, is far more recent. During the last ten years we’ve seen, resilience being used as a term in relation to job adverts and person specifications And also resilience has become a significant feature in staff wellbeing, and staff development programs across a broad range of employer environments. This is, however, manifested in very different ways in these different contexts; the spectrum reaches from very benign supportive counselling (or mentoring) type approaches to rather more metric-driven, and slightly terrifying, “resilience quotients” which make up part of psychometric pre employment testing. Employers trying to work out if you’re tough enough to cope with their particularly traumatising workplace. In terms of current research on the efficacy of resilience training and other strategies, the majority currently comes from healthcare academics. In Traynor’s brilliant editorial piece for the Journal of Research in Nursing ‘What’s wrong with Resilience’ he describes resilience as

one of those ‘empty signifiers’ marshalled for all kinds of purposes and causes. In its common usage among healthcare workers at the moment I think it is often a term that supports the status quo. It can leave staff who might be traumatised by organisational failures feeling personally responsible for those failures.

So, the argument here is one of a shift responsibility for stress, anxiety or even trauma from the organisation to the individual. So, how does this translate into the university context? For Gill and Donaghue

There is a deep sense of crisis afflicting universities. Anyone who spends even the briefest time with academics encounters people stretched to breaking point, restructured to death, victims of speeded up change, accelerating and proliferating  demands–seemingly exacerbated rather than aided by information and communication technologies – and a work culture that requires that one is ‘always on’.

This is clearly fertile ground for some staff development. Perfect! What we really need is to be more resilient. And obviously if our employer supports the development of our skills in self care, resilience and mindfulness, and then when we subsequently burnout, breakdown or have mental health problems then it’s not really their fault, is it? They did everything they could to support us, as individuals, to deal with the job that they were paying us to do. For Gill and Donoghue this is a

a profoundly individualist framework that turns away from systemic or collective analyses and politics to offer instead a set of individualised tools by which to ‘cope’ with the strains of working in the neoliberal Academy. These ‘technologies of self’ call forth an enterprising, self managed and ‘responsibilised’ subject who can ‘manage time’,  ‘manage change’, ‘manage stress’, demonstrate resilience, practice mindfulness, etc etc– whilst leaving the power relations and structural contradictions of the neoliberal university untouched and unchallenged.

Gill and Donoghue also point to a gendered axis to this issue. The gender pay gap in universities is remarkable – not only the tiny numbers of female Vice Chancellors and Professors but also the inversely proportional number of female staff on zero hours contracts, fractional or temporary academic posts. This is symptomatic of what Joan Acker (2006) describes as ‘inequality regimes’ in academia. Or alternatively, for Anna Notaro, ‘50 shades of sexism’ in the academy. This combined with a generalised neoliberal tendency to repudiate inequality both intensifies and exacerbates the issue. So, how wide-spread is this in universities? I looked at around twenty universities, across red brick, post 92, and FE/HE institutions and eighteen of them had content about personal resilience on staff or student support pages or both. Note PERSONAL resilience. Some also talked about the resilience of others, but most just about individual. For example one university states

Resilience refers to an individual’s capacity to withstand stressors despite difficult circumstances, thus avoiding stress and mental ill-health.

However, I must stress that the majority of the universities had this worrying personal emphasis. So, how are these, probably (on the surface anyway) “well-meaning” attempts received by university staff? I spoke to both academic staff and those in support roles. The responses ranged from uncritical enthusiasm, to challenging partial acceptance, to damning the whole concept as neoliberal, to shrugging and saying if only I had time for/access to staff development.

You will notice that I haven’t spoken at all about the actual value of resilience. That’s because I don’t doubt it. Self care, attention to one’s own mental health, taking time to consider life/work balance and stressors are obviously a good thing. What is at issue is the rationale for resourcing this from employers and the subsequent shifting of responsibility from the organisation to the individual. Oh, and the rhetoric, the pervasive rhetoric. That’s just annoying. This idea that it’s somehow a cure all or a magic pill. My big question is, who is it for, who benefits, and what is the purpose of resilience?  Furthermore, as one of my research participants said, “Resilience is needed, obviously, but it can also have a subtext of affirming exceptional individualism as a cultural default, which is actually not good for mental health.” she continued, it “can also side step questions of state support and collectivity”.

So what is the solution? I looked at a broad range of sources and narrowed these ideas down to three critical resilience, which focuses on understanding ourselves in relation to our society, organisation or context, collective resilience, which comes from observations of groups after major disasters or traumatic events who are both individually and collectively resilient, and, finally, relational resilience. Relational resilience describes how groups under pressure become brittle and anxiety becomes the organising driver. In a relational system, individual and collective anxiety and emotion (yes, emotion!) are acknowledged and supported in a reflective way. For Barton and Kahn, ‘resilience emerges as group members engage with one another to acknowledge and grapple with anxiety.’ This allows groups, teams organisations, ‘to focus not on what they are doing but on who they are together amid adversity’.



Acker, J. (2006) Inequality Regimes: Gender, Class, and Race in Organizations, Gender and Society, Volume: 20 issue: 4, pp441-464

Barton, M. & Kahn, W., (2019) Group Resilience: The Place and Meaning of Relational Pauses, Organization Studies, Volume: 40 issue: 9, pp1409-1429

Gill, R. and Donaghue, N. (2016). Resilience, apps and reluctant individualism: Technologies of self in the neoliberal academy. Women’s Studies International Forum, 54, pp91-99

Notaro, A., (2015) 50 shades of sexism in the academy (accessed 4.2.20)

Traynor, M., (2018) Guest editorial: What’s wrong with resilience? Journal of Research in Nursing 2018, Vol. 23(1) pp5–8


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