For continuity with the first blog in this series we continue to use the American Psychological Association definition of resilience “The process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress” (Building your Resilience, 2012).
On the surface, ‘what’s not to like’ about resilience and the idea that higher education institutions could focus on supporting students and staff to adapt well in the face of trauma, uncertainty and stress?
From the number of institutions which are taking an interest in this area, the answer would seem to be nothing – and yet there is a long tradition of scholarly critique of the concept and/or practice of resilience, and in particular a questioning of the impact of a prioritisation of resilience as a core element of wellbeing for marginalised communities. Resilience, it is argued, is constrained by power and authority, and the centring of norms of acceptable behaviour, competence and physical and mental ‘ability’. This can lead to practice that reinforces stereotypical biases relating to marginalised groups, denies lived experiences and the right of marginalised people to define their own wellbeing.
We need to understand these challenges to the current orthodoxy of resilience in order to develop an approach to wellbeing that is both useful and inclusive.
Resilience and inclusion: some challenges
- Resilience rather than change
“Put up and shut up” was the succinct response of a colleague on being asked to describe what they thought about increasing references to resilience in institutional wellbeing provisions. This interpretation of resilience as shorthand for accepting the unacceptable without complaint encapsulates one of the risks of a focus on resilience, which is that in supporting students and staff to adapt to situations which cause distress and uncertainty we divert attention from actions to eradicate the situations themselves. Even in situations such as we currently find ourselves, which may feel beyond our control, it is important that we keep our attention on how underlying inequalities may be impacting upon groups and what we can do to tackle them.
For students and staff from marginalised groups this can have particularly serious implications. If we channel resources into self-defence and assertiveness training for women, but fail to ensure that our campuses are well-lit and that there is zero tolerance for sexual harassment then the message that we give is that violence towards women is the norm – something to be avoided rather than eliminated. And if our response to the differential impact of Covid-19 working from home measures on staff with caring responsibilities is to provide advice on time management and relaxation techniques without also being prepared to consider ‘truly’ flexible working, then we normalise the model worker as being without caring responsibilities, and leave staff who do have those responsibilities to manage the stress on their own.
What springs to mind when we think of resilient behaviours? In a time of crisis, is the resilient person the one who ‘gets stuck in’ or the one who strengthens their boundaries to protect their long term health? Is it the person who ‘focuses on the positive’ or their colleague who is ‘mindful and authentic to the full range of their emotions’? While lists of resilient behaviours may include self-knowledge and self-care are these the behaviours that institutions really support when challenged by times such as these we are currently living through?
Encouraging staff and students to develop resilience in order to cope with situations that are unjust, unsafe or marginalising, without also having a robust plan of action to eliminate those situations, will not support their wellbeing or give them confidence that they are a valued part of our community. We need to ensure that we stay true to the compassion that is an essential part of wellbeing (the ability to come closer to/connect with suffering and have the commitment to alleviate it), and vigilant that “put up and shut up” does not creep in under the cover of difficult times.
- Resilient behaviours and bias
Who decides what the behaviours of resilient people are? How much are our definitions of resilience influenced by conscious and unconscious bias and social norms?
Critics of the concept of resilience argue that its definitions reflect a particular world view based on established power and privilege (“are plagued by hegemonic notions of healthy, normal or valued functioning consistent with ‘western’, middle-class, ableist norms”, Hutcheon and Wolbring. The stereotypes and biases that shape the way we see each other also influence our notions of resilience and the attitudes and behaviours that we ascribe to it.
Perceptions of resilient behaviours that are structured around social norms disadvantage marginalised groups. Firstly, because the accepted list of indicators of resilience may not reflect the different responses that those groups may have to trauma and stress. And secondly, because the commonly held understanding of what causes trauma and stress will be shaped by majority group privilege – which may limit the ability to appreciate different minority-held perspectives (for example, the limited understanding amongst the white majority of the impact of racial micro-aggressions can lead to BAME responses of protest being seen as inappropriate and over-sensitive rather than as resilient).
We should be particularly wary if institutions use resilience as a measure of acceptable/expected behaviour. If our definitions of resilience are based on the ’normal’ behaviours of majority groups, then it is likely that the people who are seen to be lacking in resilience will be from minority groups. Just as the term ‘professional’ has been used to describe behaviours traditionally attributed to men (and to judge people of other genders who are seen as not exhibiting these behaviours), there is a risk that the term resilience becomes the acceptable shorthand for judgements about mental health, age and other protected characteristics, that are discriminatory and potentially unlawful.
- Resilient by when and in what form?
Resilience, and its companion term ‘bouncebackability’ feel time limited and weighted, carrying an expectation that an individual will demonstrate the requisite behaviours (or at least express a desire to do so) shortly after experiencing trauma or stress. We should be concerned about this for several reasons.
The idea that trauma and stress appear as separate incidents does not acknowledge the reality of marginalised groups who experience the compounding impact of sexism, racism, ableism and homo/bi/transphobia (for example) on a daily basis, unrelenting and coming from many angles. ‘Bouncebackability’ suggests that I can shake off the pressures of a particular situation and get back to happier times. What if my reality is always pressured? What if there are no happier times? This is not to discount the agency that we have in our responses to trauma, grief and loss, and the power of hope as a source of strength and healing, rather to recognise the need for voices and experiences from the margins to be heard.
Wellbeing initiatives built upon the idea that a narrow list of resilient behaviours, (problematic in themselves for the reasons noted above), are the only appropriate and healthy response to trauma risk adding additional burdens on people who are already under stress. This, while true for everyone, is likely to have a greater impact on people from marginalised groups. For example, all students and staff are experiencing the anxieties and uncertainties of the current Covid-19 pandemic. BAME students and staff have the additional worries of both greater vulnerabilities to the virus due to pre-existing structural and societal inequalities, and an increase in related hate crime and hostility. Institutional expectations that people should be demonstrating resilience, particularly if this is seen as linked to assessments of performance or job security, adds yet another layer of pressure. And if those systems of assessing performance are already perceived by BAME people to be unfair, levels of anxiety are ratcheted up even higher.
Generally, lists of resilient behaviours include encouragement of positivity. The American Psychological Society lists “embracing healthy thoughts” as an example of resilient behaviour encouraging people to avoid irrational thinking, “such as a tendency to catastrophize difficulties or assume the world is out to get you”. Some approaches to wellbeing do acknowledge that resilient behaviours include the ability to be present and comfortable with irrational thinking, however, it could be argued that for people from marginalised groups such thinking is not irrational. Rather it is a realistic assessment of living in a world that is structured around privilege, exclusion and injustice – and one that has been a source of energy for people to come together, share support and hope, shape collaborative resistance and create different outcomes. An approach to wellbeing that acknowledges this reality, and its place in galvanising change, is more likely to be of use to our diverse students and staff than one that does not.
Ideas for inclusive resilience
So what does this mean in practice for institutional approaches to wellbeing? How can we create structures, systems and culture that support all individuals to navigate these uncertain times whilst avoiding the potential pitfalls outlined above?
Some practical steps that we can take to ensure that our wellbeing strategies are inclusive:
- Make it clear that support to build resilience is not shorthand for an acceptance of inequality and injustice. Regularly reaffirm institutional commitments to equality, diversity and inclusion and invest time, energy and resources in meeting them.
- Partner with students and staff from marginalised groups in the development of wellbeing services so that support for resilience is informed by diverse experiences and perspectives.
- Create an approach to resilience that acknowledges that both positivity and the expression of sorrow and loss are resilient behaviours, and supports individuals to develop the skills for both. Consider incorporating opportunities for ‘grief tending’ and a diverse range of approaches to experiencing grief, loss and trauma, to support staff and students to process their reactions to traumatic events (here, for example).
- Make links between approaches to wellbeing and movements that are organising to tackle inequality and injustice. Recognise protest, activism and allyship as resilient behaviours and work in collaboration to ensure related activities are safe and supported.
- Frame approaches to resilience within the values and purpose of the institution so that the connectivity across stakeholders is clear, and a focus on individuals is understood within the larger context.
While it is important to acknowledge that we all have faced and continue to face enormous challenges and uncertainty, those individuals with formal oversight, management and leadership roles, whether at a team or an organisational level, have a particular and unique responsibility in actively developing a climate and culture of wellbeing so all can thrive. The blogs, webinar and twitter chat that follow as part of this September Advance HE member benefit series on ‘developing sustainable resilience’ will explore these ideas in further detail.
Clare Pavitt, 3 September 2020
Developing Sustainable Resilience in Higher Education – Advance HE, September 2020 Member Benefits theme
The suite of benefits for this theme will consist of:
- A blog series focused on developing sustainable resilience, which began with an introductory piece by Doug Parkin and then four shorter follow-on blogs leading up to the webinar below:
- Inclusion and resilience,(above)
- From ‘being’ to ‘resilience’,
- The art of the resilient teaching team,
- Resilient organisations and higher education.
- Webinar – Thursday, 24th September 2020, from 08.30 to 10.00 BST.
This webinar will explore and discuss developing sustainable resilience with a guest speaker taking each of the three levels (individual, team and organisation) to share experiences, approaches and reflections, particularly related to surviving and thriving in the current pandemic age.
- Twitter chat – Tuesday, 29 September 2020, from 16.30 to 18.30 BST.
A Twitter chat to consolidate upon the webinar and for the community of participants to share their own tools, tips, techniques and experiences for developing sustainable resilience.
Forthcoming Advance HE events and initiatives related to this theme:
- Student Retention and Success Symposium: Examining the role of mental wellbeing in the curriculum and university (16th September 2020),
- Nailing jelly to a wall: Providing wellbeing support in a time of uncertainty - Episode 1 (29th September 2020),
- Nailing jelly to a wall: Providing wellbeing support in a time of uncertainty - Episode 2 (24th November 2020),
- Mental Wellbeing in HE Symposium (17 February 2021).