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Resilience

Why Quick-Fix Resilience Doesn’t Work 

Our obsession with solving resilience may be driving the wrong solutions.

Key points

  • Some peer-reviewed studies show that the most commonly offered type of resilience training doesn't appear to work.
  • By offering these courses to pupils and employees, leaders may be creating false hope.
  • A body of research suggests that true resilience is the strength that people draw from each other.

Sometimes our desire to achieve something is so intense that we’re willing to overlook the fact that the products we buy to fulfill our desires don’t work. No matter how much anti-aging cream someone uses, sadly, their face will still age. In business, nothing occupies this space as resolutely as resilience training. The idea of a resilience deficit has exploded in popular use since the start of the millennium. Resilience—our capacity to re-energise and bounce back from adversity—holds a special place in our imagination, but there’s a consensus that it’s in short supply.

Resilience Training

In the workplace, faced with soaring levels of burnout and a workforce that some interpret as being unable to cope with the rigours of the job as breezily as their forebears might have, many leaders reach for the R-word. The growing demand that "we need some resilience training" has led to a surge in the number of well-being organisations offering it.

But, as I spent two years writing a book on resilience, I was struck by the number of times people told me that the resilience course they were sent on did nothing for them. They’re not alone. There appears to be a dirty little secret that follows these courses around: They don’t seem to work. And we can say this because after seeing peer-reviewed papers analysing the results of these interventions, some of their advocates have been forced to concede that they don’t achieve what they set out to do. "If you mention resilience 'round here you’ll get thumped," a doctor at a busy public hospital in North London told me. The team had been offered a course of coping instead of more resources, and they’d seen right through it.

But the demand for resilience courses keeps coming, and not just from office-based employers; two of the biggest customers are schools and the military. Much of the training that has risen to serve these demands comes from what I term the “Resilience Orthodoxy” and is based on the work of psychologist and bestselling author Martin Seligman.

In the noughties, while creating a resilience program for schools, U.S. Army leaders approached Seligman about his work. They had read his books, and wanted to know what he would suggest for the Army. Military chiefs then commissioned him to create a program to deal with the sorry state of postservice lives—retirements poisoned by catastrophic rates of addiction, depression, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and suicide. Science writer Jesse Singal estimates that the budget for the implementation has been in excess of $500 million. If your workplace has implemented resilience training, it is almost certainly based on Seligman’s programs originally developed for schools or the armed forces.

The only problem is that these programs may not work. Reviewing the published results, commentators in the American Psychological Association journal observed:

Comprehensive Soldier Fitness is not a panacea for anything....The program will not bring about an end to low base rate behavioural problems, such as suicide and violent crime within the Army. It will not cure PTSD. It will not solve the Army’s alarmingly high number of soldiers who are prescribed psychotropic medication for behavioural health problems. It will not cure addiction of any kind....It will not prevent a divorce from happening or make a soldier a great parent.

The word-of-mouth reputation of the training was no better; an analysis completed by six senior military leaders and published in Military Psychology in 2013 reported that when the Comprehensive Soldier Fitness course was made voluntary, no one signed up to attend.

Some meta-analysis results for Seligman’s school-based Penn Resiliency Program conclude that "data show no evidence that PRP is superior to active control conditions.” One study of nine trials across Australia, the Netherlands, and the United States found “no evidence of PRP in reducing depression or anxiety….The large-scale roll-out of PRP cannot be recommended.”

Is it any wonder that my discussions about resilience training elicited eyerolls? But the strange paradox of this training, commissioned to satisfy insistent demands from teachers, employers, and military chiefs, is that it misses the origin of resilience that sits right before our eyes. As training programs seek to invigorate a trait of individual resilience in weary workers, we might look at the people of Ukraine and be dazzled by their humble access of their own strength. These everyday heroes took off their suits and overalls on Friday to don combat fatigues on Monday. We find ourselves asking, how might such fortitude come about?

A Feeling of Togetherness

The answer lies in the words of psychologist Alex Haslam: “Resilience is something that when you look at it in the world, it isn’t a manifestation of individuals as individuals. Resilience is something that only occurs in and to groups.” This is such a pennydrop realisation, backed by endless empirical evidence, that we might wonder why we ignore it. True resilience lies in a feeling of togetherness, that we’re united with those around us in a shared endeavour. When we see ourselves and our identities reflected in those around us, it is emboldening and enhancing for us.

Our desire for quick-fix resilience is hiding the true origin of the strength. In a moment when we’re all reflecting on the unforeseen consequences of working apart from each other, the loss of a sense of togetherness on our resilience might be the biggest impact of all.

References

Lester, P. B., McBride, S., & Cornum, R. L. (2013). Comprehensive Soldier Fitness: Underscoring the facts, dismantling the fiction. In R. R. Sinclair & T. W. Britt (Eds.), Building psychological resilience in military personnel: Theory and practice (pp. 267-309). Washington, DC: APA Press.

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