How do you help build resilience for university professionals?

Nov 5, 2019

Work related stress is becoming an issue for more and more people in all walks of life. Higher education is no exception, with university staff having to find ways of coping with huge levels of change and the additional demands being made at a time of tight budgets.

Contributing factors include competition for a dwindling number of permanent academic positions, the increasing expectations of students, and the ongoing uncertainty of the grant application process.

Liz Morrish also highlights[1] the growing bureaucracy required to complete regulatory requirements, metrics, audits and the pressure of sector reviews (such as those within the Teaching Excellence Framework and the Research Excellence Framework) This can often reduce job satisfaction and increase frustration and stress for staff.

Universities already have an obligation to provide support for staff members who are experiencing issues around stress or mental health generally and Alistair Jarvis, CEO of Universities UK, was a signatory to an open letter in 2018 calling for legislation to mandate mental health first aid in the workplace.[2]

Some universities have become advocates of resilience training, along with stress management and mindfulness and such an approach was advocated by Anthony Seldon and Alan Martin,[3]

Sometimes solutions such as resilience and mindfulness are rejected by those who see it as individuating or blame-allocating,[4]

“Resilience can sometimes be interpreted as a code for expecting staff to ‘toughen up’”[5]

This misunderstands resilience. Being able to be resilient in challenging circumstances does not mean simply accepting conditions which make such circumstances more prevalent. Rather we should control what we can, and influence what we are prepared and able to. For example there are some strategies which managers are often advised to consider when attempting to mitigate stress, such as avoiding overly long working hours, creating a pleasant workplace environment and ensuring adequate training is provided to enable staff to accomplish tasks. Where possible these should be addressed alongside equipping staff to cope with pressure. It’s within the context of also addressing the structural and organisational issues that cause stress that we can also help staff to be more resilient. However for staff members who are experiencing very high stress or mental health issues, then resilience workshops might not be the best place to start. Rather they should be accessing more focused one to one assistance. This could mean first speaking with a line manager, human resources personnel or occupational health. It is also important that staff members are able to recognise the signs of high stress in their colleagues, and able to point them in the direction of suitable assistance when appropriate.

It is also important to note that being resilient doesn’t necessarily mean you are always calm or feel no stress. It means you are able to manage your emotions to get into a more useful state for the situation in, are able to recover from stressful events well or have a positive mindset for stress.

There are no one-size-fits-all formulas for finding balance and resilience. Instead, there is a mix of tools and techniques that are shown to make a difference. The most effective techniques fall under the banner of cognitive-behavioral therapy. Methods that enhance psychological flexibility, enabling people to accept and deal with unpleasant situations, as opposed to avoiding them, are also shown to be effective.

For stress management programs, the average improvement is around 35%. Results show that individual employees can be taught techniques to reduce their stress levels and alleviate symptoms of strain. Interventions that work encourage people to take charge of negative thoughts and feelings, (and the resulting behaviour) by changing their thoughts and therefore the emotion, as well as identifying and practicing more useful behavioural responses. These Interventions promote the development of proactive as well as reactive responses to stress.[6]

In the same way that physical practice builds our skills for sports and other practical activities, there are mental and somatic (body) exercises that can help us improve our resilience and wellbeing. The more we practice them, the more natural a resilient mindset becomes to us and the quicker we are able to notice we have been knocked off balance.

Resilience workshops should focus on providing practical solutions and techniques to help people better manage mental states and build resilience mindsets alongside wellbeing practices. That way we can help people successfully respond to challenges without being knocked off balance and enable staff to stay in focus and make positive choices even in the midst of ‘too much to do’.



[3] ‘The Positive and Mindful University’, HEPI Occasional Paper 18, September 2017

[4] For example Inger Mewburn advocates that we should all practise care, rather than resilience. Thesis Whisperer, ‘Bring it on gently this time’, January 30th, 2019 https://

[5] Professor Mike Thomas, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan), 2014 to 2018

[6] Journal of Occupational Health Psychology 2008. Effects of Occupational Stress Management Intervention Programs: A Meta-Analysis Katherine M. Richardson and Hannah R. Rothstein Baruch College, City University of New York

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