Resilience in Life and Work

Resilience, a concept perhaps familiar to many of those in the Human Resources profession, has received growing attention in business and academic arenas over the last two decades, and for good reason.

The benefits to an individual (and organisations which employ such individuals) possessing high levels of this attribute are undeniable, as empirical research continues to demonstrate within psychological, health, and organisational literature. Studies following this approach adhere to strict standards to produce information that is reliable and has practical implication for its readers. In the case of resilience, researchers tend to be quite interested in adding to our understanding of what resilience is; what influences our ability to be resilient; and the likely consequences of its presence, or conversely, its absence.

So what does the research say about resilience?

WHAT IS RESILIENCE? Resilience is perhaps best defined by Fletcher & Sarkar (2013, p. 16), who describe psychological resilience as “the role of mental processes and behaviour in promoting personal assets and protecting an individual from the potential negative effect of stressors”. This view of resilience aligns well with most, including that of The Oxford Dictionary of English which defines resilience as “being able to withstand or recover quickly from difficult conditions” (Soanes & Stevenson, 2006, p. 1498). The latter, rather generic definition of resilience, describes the term aptly across a wide range of fields, from its roots in ecology (Hollings, 1973) to its use in science and mathematics (Geller, Weil,  Blumel, Rappaport, Wagner, & Taylor, 2003), child psychopathology (Luthans, Luthans, & Luthans, 2004), supply chain management, safety engineering and psychology (Bhamra, Dani, & Burnard, 2011). In simple terms, resilience, as we use it in the field of health and business psychology, refers to the capacity of a person to withstand significant pressure, effectively adapt to change and challenging circumstances, and recover from the stress without lasting negative effects.

Earlier conceptualisations of resilience favoured the ‘trait view’ of resilience; you either have it or you don’t. This rigid view of resilience as a fixed characteristic has been overthrown more recently, with much evidence in support of the dynamic nature of resilience as a psychological process. It turns out that resilience is actually something that changes throughout time and context. The implication is that resilience is not necessarily an inherent individual trait, but rather something that can be developed.

WHY THE GROWING FOCUS ON RESILIENCE? The last two decades have witnessed increasing attention on the topic of resilience as viewed through the organisational and economic lens, evident through the growing focus of resilience in organisational practice, mental health and wellbeing, and policy. This trend could be attributed to escalating economic pressures on businesses to operate in an increasingly complex and global environment, where employees are faced with more adversity than ever before (Branicki, Sullivan-Taylor, & Birkett, 2018; Robertson & Cooper, 2013; Robertson, Cooper, Sarkar, & Curran, 2015). Much of the research tend to focus on high risk professions such as first responders, military roles, police officers, firefighters, emergency medical and other healthcare roles.  These jobs are by nature high-stress and fostering resilience for such employees is vital. The reality is, however, that whether its dealing with the ongoing incorporation of technological advancements into our jobs; meeting the differing needs of diverse employees and clients due to our global economy; working within ever tightening fiscal constraints; dealing with changing policy and regulation; or juggling the demands of personal and work life, most modern-day employees are under constant pressure (King, Newman, & Luthans, 2015). What research is demonstrating is how resilience can protect us from the risks associated with these stressors. 

WHAT ARE THE ADVANTAGES OF RESILIENCE? The central role of resilience in equipping us to move successfully through small but ongoing, or one-off but intense stressors of work (and life!), while maintaining our wellbeing and ability to function and be productive, cannot be overstated. Resilience is associated with many desirable outcomes that benefit not only the individual but also the organisation. Some examples are listed below (Robertson et al., 2015):

Mental Health and Wellbeing: Resilience is associated with lower anxiety, depression, stress, negative mood, distress, negative emotion, and resentfulness, and higher self-acceptance, positive affect, psychological wellbeing, self-efficacy, positive outlook, calmness, work-life balance, and quality of life.

Physical, Biological and Psychosocial: Resilience is associated with lower cortisol, fatigue, exhaustion, and illness, and improved interpersonal relationships, mindfulness, acceptance, hope, and optimism.

Performance: Resilience is associated with higher work vigour, mastery, professional growth, autonomy, job satisfaction, goal attainment, productivity and job performance.

Clearly, resilience is not only an end in itself, but can positively impact on a variety of desirable individual and organisational outcomes. Furthermore, it is evident that while being resilient can yield positive outcomes, it’s also key to avoiding adverse outcomes commonly associated with high trauma and high pressure jobs, such as PTSD, depression, anxiety, loss of health, reduced productivity, absenteeism, exhaustion and burnout (Card, 2018; Joyce, Shand, Tighe, Laurent, Bryant, & Harvey, 2018).

HOW DO WE BUILD RESILIENCE? Resilience is a multi-faceted construct that can be achieved through developing the human capital, or personal resources of an individual. These resources are like protective armour that act as a shield in times of stress, allowing individuals to more effectively cope with, and recover from stressors.

Studies exploring this type of resource generally show agreement in what underlies resilience (Bimrose & Hearne, 2012; Ceschi, Fraccaroli, Costantini, & Sartori, 2017; Fletcher & Sarkar, 2013; Pangallo, Zibarras, Lewis, & Flaxman, 2015). Below is listed some of those commonly cited:  

  • Ability to improvise

  • Acceptance of reality

  • Problem-solving

  • A strong belief in the meaningfulness of life

  • Adaptability

  • Purposefulness

  • Self-efficacy

  • Locus of control

  • Self-esteem

  • Positive challenge appraisal

  • Positive coping strategies

  • Metacognitions (knowledge of, and ability to control own thoughts)

Robust strategies also focus on developing external resources such as social support and quality of relationships (Kossek & Perrigino, 2016).

 Organisations may choose to utilise resilience training or resilience intervention programmes to increase employee resilience and consequently  achieve the above outcomes. Training can vary in length, content and delivery. For example, training can be done with individuals or groups, and can take place over a single session or several weeks. Despite the variation across resilience training, most incorporate cognitive behaviour therapy and mindfulness approaches (Joyce et al., 2018; Robertson et al., 2015).

Resilience may seem too ‘soft’ to take seriously, or too abstract to develop, but the evidence is congruent in its support of the value of this attribute.


Bhamra, R., Dani, S., & Burnard, K. (2011). Resilience: the concept, a literature review and future directions. International Journal of Production Research, 49(18), 5375–5393.

Bimrose, J. & Hearne, L. (2012). Resilience and career adaptability: Qualitative studies of adult career counseling. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 81(3), 338–344.

Branicki, L., Sullivan-Taylor, B., & Birkett, H. (2018). Gender and resilience at work. Gender, Work and Organization. 10th Biennial International Interdisciplinary Conference.

Ceschi, A., Fraccaroli, F., Costantini, A., & Sartori, R. (2017). Turning bad into good: how resilience resources protect organizations from demanding work environments. Journal of Workplace Behavioural Health, 32, 267–289.

Fletcher, D. & Sarkar, M. (2013). Psychological resilience: A review and critique of definitions, concepts, and theory. European Psychologist, 18, 12–23.

Geller, E., Weil, J., Blumel, D., Rappaport, A., Wagner, C., & Taylor, R. (2003). McGraw- Hill dictionary of engineering (2nd Ed.). London: McGraw-Hill.

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Joyce, S., Shand, F., Tighe, J., Laurent, S., Bryant, R., & Harvey, S. (2018). Road to resilience: a systematicreview and meta-analysis of resilience training programmes and interventions. BMJ Open.

King, D., Newman, A., & Luthans, F. (2015). Not if, but when we need resilience in the workplace. Journal of Organizational Behaviour, 37(5), 782-786.

Kossek, E.E. & Perrigino, M.B. (2016). Resilience: A review using a grounded integrated occupational approach. The Academy of Management Annals, 10(1): 729-797.

Lazarus, R. S. (1993). From psychological stress to emotions: A history of changing outlooks. Annual Review of Psychology, 44, 1-21.

Luthans, F., Luthans, K., & Luthans, B. (2004). Positive psychological capital: Beyond human and social capital. Management Department Faculty Publications, 145.

Pangallo, A., Zibarras, L. D., Lewis, R. & Flaxman, P. (2015). Resilience Through the Lens of Interactionism: A Systematic Review. Psychological Assessment, 27(1), pp. 1-20.

Robertson, I. & Cooper, C. L. (2013). Resilience. Stress and Health, 29, 175-176.

Robertson, I., Cooper, C. L., Sarkar, M., & Curran, T. (2015). Resilience training in the workplace from 2003–2014: A systematic review. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, 88, 533–562.

Soanes, C. & Stevenson, A. (2006). Oxford dictionary of English (2nd Ed). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.