Creating a resilient workplace

School leaders need to be able to recover quickly from setbacks and keep going when things get tough. How do we get resilience for ourselves, our workforce and our organisation?

Author details

Nickii Messer was a school business manager for many years in three school phases, including seven years on the SLT. She now works as a consultant and is Anglia Ruskin’s operational lead for their SBM programmes. Nickii is passionate about the...

I talk to many school leaders about personal resilience. Running a half day training event for heads and deputies on creating a more resilient workplace improved my own understanding of the intrinsic link between individual and organisational resilience.

The more I looked, the harder it became to separate the two. If school leaders are to be resilient, they must be surrounded by a resilient workforce. But that workforce, in turn, needs the rigour and safety of a resilient organisation.

The Oxford Dictionary defines resilience as 'the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties’. When the going gets tough, resilient people keep going.

Resilience is like a rubber band...overstretch it too much or too many times and it will snap

Being a school leader, you have to be resilient because a number of people rely on you. But what does resilience look like and how do we get it – for ourselves and our workforce? 

Psychologist Susan Kobasa argued that there are three essential elements to resilience: 

  • commitment
  • challenge
  • control.

Commitment

Kobasa’s research found that resilient people are committed to both their lives and their goals.  When we recruit new colleagues we often question them about their goals, ambitions and career aspirations. But how do we ensure they will also become committed to the school’s goals, while retaining time and energy to commit to their lives?

This dichotomy can be particularly difficult for new teachers, but it is important that they maintain this balance if they are to remain resilient (and stay in the teaching profession). 

Resilient people do not waste energy worrying about those things they have no control over

When are your school, academy or trust's values, goals and development priorities shared and explained? Is it only at the start of the school year, when there is so much other information to absorb (particularly for new staff)?

In working with the group of heads and deputies, we found that those schools which discussed core values and purpose in daily conversation, as opposed to a September ‘Inset fest’, felt more assured of organisational and personal resilience. Recognising that they are contributing to something worthwhile can make a considerable difference to anyone having a tough day.

Having an organisational wellbeing programme in place to encourage staff to commit to life outside of school is equally important. It can be incredibly difficult for young teachers, beset with lesson plans and marking, when their friends are leading active lives outside of work. Many need help in finding quality time for themselves, their families and friends without feeling overwhelmed by work pressures.

Challenge

Kobasa described resilient people as having the capacity to view difficulties as challenges. Schools are constantly facing difficulties, with funding cuts, reduced resources, worsening behaviour (parents as well as pupils!) and the seemingly constant threat of Ofsted inspection.

But those schools who feel able to cope, who say ‘bring it on’ to Ofsted, who welcome challenges as opportunities to grow and develop, not something to grind them down, will be able to maintain a culture of resilience.

A growth mindset, whether at organisational or individual level, means viewing failures as opportunities to learn.

I learned a lot about my own ability to overcome intractable difficulties when preparing for a motorbike test a few years ago. I had fallen off my 750cc motorbike three times in one afternoon trying to carry out a particularly complex manoeuvre (for the uninitiated, a motorbike is heavy enough to hurt when it lands on you). I realised that I was failing to learn, and learning to fail. I saw the difficulty as my nemesis instead of my teacher.

It was only when my tutor explained that it was my self-doubt that made me fail, not my lack of ability, that I finally mastered the manoeuvre and moved on.

Control

Kobasa found that resilient people do not waste energy worrying about those things they have no control over but, instead, focus their efforts where they can make a difference. The ability to recognise what is ahead of you and how you feel about it requires a certain degree of mindfulness.

Recognising you are contributing to something worthwhile can make a considerable difference to anyone having a tough day

For example, resilient schools will understand what their funding situation is likely to be over the next few years, and therefore work to gain a better outcome. Staff will feel comfortable voicing opinions in regular, meaningful consultation.

Change is one of the few constants in schools – and it can be exhausting for staff. When John Fisher considered the impact of change on the individual, he recognised that while we all go through a certain rollercoaster of emotion, the length of time we spend ‘in the trough of depression… depends on certain factors such as ownership and control’.

School leaders who consult with, and consider the impact on, their staff when determining change, will give them the degree of control that is so integral to resilience.

Whole-school resilience

When working with the group of headteachers and deputies, I showed them a list of ‘signs of resilience’. I asked them to prioritise the ones that they, as leaders, felt they could most influence to ensure resilience within their workforce. These included:

  • the ability to bounce back   
  • the capacity to have courage 
  • the motivation to move forward  
  • the power to stay centered  
  • the awareness of knowing themselves 
  • the gift of laughter   
  • the potential of showing promise  
  • the capacity to ask for help 
  • the tenacity to accomplish goals
  • the willingness to share feelings 
  • the capability to connect with others                
  • the inspiration to give back.

The exercise generated a great deal of discussion. Overall, it was agreed that school leaders could influence every one of these factors. 

The list actually comes from the book Raising Our Children to Be Resilient: A Guide to Helping Children Cope with Trauma in Today's World, by Linda Goldman, and they are the 'signs of a resilient child'. 

We agreed that having a list such as this at the very centre of the school, along with the core values and vision, can help everyone, staff and pupils alike, to build and maintain essential resilience.

Next steps

How resilient is your workplace? What could you do to strengthen resilience? Use these questions as a starting point for reflection and exploration. 

  • Do we discuss and share our organisational values on a daily basis?
  • Do we actively support colleagues in balancing work and life outside of school?
  • Do we have a staff wellbeing programme in place? 
  • Do I see challenges as opportunities to grow and develop? How about other school leaders: do they model this attitude?
  • Are staff members consulted on changes that will impact on them?
  • Which 'signs of resilience' can I influence? 

Remember: resilience is like a rubber band. It can stretch, reform and stretch again, but overstretch it too much or too many times and it will snap.

Last Updated: 
06 Nov 2018