How L&D can help build staff resilience

by Rossana Espinoza 0

How Learning & Development can help build staff resilience



The higher education workforce is reporting high levels of work-related stress, depression and anxiety… unsurprising given the considerable changes post-compulsory education has undergone in recent years.

Whilst how resilient staff feel right now has a lot to do with these changes, there is no doubt that L&D can play an important role in helping staff learn how to cope. For both organisations and individuals, problems and demands can seem so overwhelming that it can be hard to work out what would really make a difference, but sometimes seismic shifts can be achieved by small changes, and those working in learning and development can play a strong role in helping people understand and drive those changes.

I’ve been working with Universities for a number of years now, training almost 1500 staff members to help them and their teams to feel more resilient. This piece summarises some of the activities and tools that those who have taken part have told me have had the most use that I hope you will find of use. All of these are based on evidence of works and my experience of working in HR, mental health and research & evaluation.

Activities and learning that help build resilience

  1. Build a case

The nature of roles in Universities has shifted, demands for excellence in teaching, pastoral care and entrepreneurialism have increased, and students are arriving with higher expectations than ever. This combined with intense competition between universities for students and an increasingly market-led orientation, and you have a combination of factors pointing to a critical need for a resilient workforce able to meet these challenges, and one which experiences greater:

  • Job satisfaction
  • Self awareness and understanding of others
  • Self management, problem solving, persistence and decision making skills
  • Creativity and innovation
  1. Build an understanding

Resilience is when we:

  • feel in control of emotions, thoughts and behaviours when the pressure if on
  • adapt to adversity
  • deal with uncertainty
  • cope with pressure.

Take a balloon. Imagine each added pressure as a little bit more air going into the balloon…notice what happens when too much goes in…it goes pop. Learning and development can help staff learn how to a) recognise when the air (pressures) going IN the balloon are becoming unmanageable b) know what actions to take air OUT of the balloon.

  1. Know there is no one size fits all

There is no blueprint that everyone can use and “hey presto” become more resilient. Using research to tell us what many others have benefitted from and experimenting with this is the best way of determining which techniques and tools will work best.

  1. Know that not all pressure is bad

Its important to remember that not all stress is bad, as Kelly McGonigal’s work concludes, it helps us perform at our optimal levels, but too much and it effects our ability to think, decide, remember, focus and be a rational supportive member of a team! The Yerkes Dodson Human Performance Curve helps press home this point.

  1. Recognise when moving into strain and panic zones

Encourage staff to reflect on the physical, emotional, cognitive and behavioural clues that this is the case. Exercises I use to develop an awareness of this include teams coming up with as many clues that this is happening as they can in three minutes. This can be a self-reflective activity, or one where I ask them to consider what they observe in others. Making this a timed exercise also allows for reflection on what they were experiencing during the exercise…stress or stretch and the difference between the two.

  1. Understand some basic neuroscience

The brain responds to all threat in the same way and it cannot determine the difference between actual threat…

and psychological threat

The problem with this is that potential stressors such as the Teaching Evaluation Framework, recruitment concerns, organisational change projects can all be telling the brain that we are in danger. This heavily impacts on our ability to make decisions, remember things, focus and plan as our brain is wired to run or fight, not think, which paradoxically, is exactly what we need to be able to do!

  1. Calm the brain

Helping staff work out what techniques will help persuade their brain that it is not in actual danger will help retain control and the ability to work out solutions to challenges rather than overwhelmed by them. Some I get them to experiment with under guidance include:

  • Watching their thoughts with curiosity rather than fear
  • Focusing away from their thoughts by engaging all the senses
  • Breathing exercises…there are many and we often try out several. Simply breathing in for a count of 7 and out for 11 is a good starter
  • Making use of the imagination during a brief guided relaxation exercise

Now I can imagine as you read this that it might feel a little “fluffy” but having led this exercise many many times (I have trained over 6000 people now), I can assure you when delegates understand the science as to why these techniques work they have always been very willing to experiment with them and report high value from doing so.

  1. Get a sense of perspective

There are lots of exercises that help achieve this, but one that staff tell me have been of most use include Steven Covey’s Circles of Control Exercise. If you are not familiar with this it is simply encouraging staff to make a list of all the challenges they are experiencing as an individual or team and then deciding whether these are things that can be controlled, influenced or not controlled at all.

  1. Solutions not problems!

Taking the above exercise and applying a solution, rather than problem focused approach to the challenges that can be controlled or influenced can help gain that sense of control, reduce uncertainty and if conducted as a team, achieve positive and cohesive team working, all of which increase resilience. This will involve either individuals or teams coming up with ideas of how the challenge could be approached. The trainer can encourage them to come up with as many ideas as possible however wild and whacky they might seem. If ideas are in short supply, sometimes getting delegates to imagine they are telling someone they hold in high regard about the challenge and imaging what advice they impart can help. Teams then simply decide which actions they like the best and then when, who and how they are going to implement them.

  1. Self care

For this exercise I draw on the work of Dr Kristen Neff. It is blissfully simple but very powerful. I ask delegates to imagine a friend in another department who has experienced a real challenge, for example a dramatic fall in the numbers of student applicants, and that this person is feeling very vulnerable about the situation. I ask them to consider what they would say to support them. After a pause I then get them to think about what they would say to themselves in the same situation. Feeding back the difference I am always struck by the stark contrast in the different scenarios, with more catastrophic thinking and emotional language used when it is them in difficulty. This exercise can then lead into discussions as to how and why we should be more self compassionate and ways of remembering to notice our self talk, and that of our team members, especially in challenging situations.

So just a few ideas for you to consider that can help develop a highly participative programme that provides down to earth suggestions for individuals and teams to help them address some of the the unique pressures experienced by higher education, enabling them to feel more in control and able to perform at the level needed to address challenges rather than feel crushed or threatened by them.

Today I have been working with the University of Portsmouth’s Employability Team and much of the above was included in this session and have just received lovely feedback from the head of the department “…what a brilliant, thought provoking start to our day. An excellent mix of interactive workshops and theory giving staff the tools to manage change in the future. We all enjoyed it and feel far more resilient”.  So whilst some readers might be thinking this is a bit “out there” there is a real appetite for this knowledge so just give it a go and see for yourselves how much interest there is in this topic.

Please do contact me if you would like any further information.


Michelle Spirit FCIPD, MSc, RMN, Dip(Hyp)Psych
Resilience consultant

Contributor’s corner welcomes articles from Learning and Development specialists working to support the Higher Education sector. With this section, the Staff Development Forum (SDF) would like to foster exchange of ideas and good practice amongst professionals. Please note that the Staff Development Forum (SDF) doesn’t endorse services nor views.