Supporting Resilience through L&D in HE

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In these complex times in HE, resilience is becoming the key skillset and quality that enables staff in organisations to both survive and thrive. For staff development managers working in HE resilience and wellbeing is currently a priority area, both for staff and students.  The resilience you have innovation, adaptability, improved for successful change management and an ability to tackle or embrace most things that come your way at work.


Changing the meaning

In the last few years, resilience has come to mean something different. Gone are the more traditional views of resilient staff or students battling life on their own in a challenging environment with no support. Or a ‘resistant’ thick-skinned leader who is visionary but does not connect with staff. What’s slowly developing is a more humane understanding of resilience. A resilience that values two qualities, determination and adaptability. All underpinned by a careful attention to wellbeing. But it’s early days in this shift, which has been gathered more exposure as a result of the pressures lockdown, the pandemic and WFH has put on staff. So, what can staff development managers do to support staff to attend to resilience in HE?  Here are three essential approaches:


Turning the lens

Dr.Otto Scharmer (Senior Lecturer) and Dr. Katrin Kaufer (Fellow) from MIT, talk extensively about turning the lens on ourselves as part of a process of co-creating collaborative change and tackling tough challenges. [1] Based on my experience of learning with Dr. Scharmer, I see this as the first place to begin. Resilience-building foundation on the map, is both your own working life as a Staff Development leader and you yourself. By attending to your own resilience, you are also more likely to be in a more able state to enable other staff to learn.

Staff Development managers are under increasing pressure to respond and adapt their service:  online delivery, blended delivery, smaller budgets and WFH practices. Much like an elastic band you can stretch and go back to our original state, again and again, stretching your own capacity for longer hours of work, adapting to change and innovating. As long as you rest, relax, have some downtime, learn in enjoyable ways, have some quieter weeks and have a good workplace environment that is often sustainable. However, if you repeatedly stretch yourself too far over a long period of time you can more easily feel at your limit, experience burnout or experience an inability or unwillingness to adapt. So, it’s important for staff development managers to begin by assessing their own resilience at work.

Take some time and assess your resilience. Ask yourself:

  • How adaptable and flexible, have I been lately? What tells me that?
  • How have I behaved with regard to embracing change and challenge, or pushing that away?
  • How close or far to burnout do I feel am I? What tells me that?
  • How well and how often have I been attending to my wellbeing?
  • How determined have I been lately – in practice?
  • How well have I been able to say no to too much at work?

Your answers can give a picture of how resilient you have been over the last few weeks and months. The answers may point you in the direction of needing to either:

  • Re-prioritise, re-negotiate and to learn to say no around your workload
  • Develop the skills of determination or adaptability in your mindset and actions
  • Attend to your well-being in practical ways on a daily basis – use 5 Ways to Wellbeing – evidence based and global to help yourself. [2]
  • Learn to take resilient solutions focused actions – small steps for change that make a big difference

These skills may lead to you challenging the status quo at work somewhat. But they are often essential and may lead to positive negotiations with your line manager.

As you focus on this area, remember there is a strong link between resilience and well-being, for without attending to your well-being, how do you have the energy to persist or adapt, during times of challenge and change?


A bird’s eye view

Now you can turn your focus on to the resilience of the staff in your organisation. Clearly, although you may be responsible for L&D strategically and many operational areas, there is a shared organisational responsibility for resilience and associated wellbeing. In my experience HE (and FE) educational organisations that are aiming to support staff to be resilient, have many of these key qualities in place:

  • High quality longer-term employment contracts
  • Good equality and diversity practices and safe spaces for all staff and students
  • Excellent health and safety practices
  • Courses, policies, practices and HR support that help staff to build effective, productive workplace and learning relationships
  • Talent Development approaches that both challenge and support staff in their careers
  • Clarity, training and support for managers and leaders to help them support staff resilience and wellbeing

In my experience in HE, some organisations have these in place and others are working towards them. Workplace cultures where the support is lacking, are obviously not offering the balance of challenge and support that builds resilience. Spaces where staff have to cope with ongoing excessive workloads, where staff or students experience discrimination, or are left to somehow develop with little no support, have been deeply criticised by unions in education and sometimes highlighted by universities themselves. [3]

In these tougher situations, there is obviously huge value in offering resilience programmes.  However, be aware that if those wider organisational foundations aren’t there, it takes longer and is harder to achieve the full positive impact you’re seeking at individual and team levels.


Resilience for staff

Resilience programmes can help to cultivate an individual’s ability to build their workplace resilience, and to work with their peers and teams to build their resilience within the framework of the organisation.

Your choice of programmes to offer could range from:

  • One to one resilience coaching
  • Lunchtime resilience and wellbeing café discussions.
  • Resilience online certificated courses e.g. webinars and video based
  • Resilience learning for managers and resilience for staff webinars, workshops and talks
  • Evaluating staff resilience at work in relation to change, workload and innovation
  • Collating a resource bank to signpost staff to support resources such as EAP, wellbeing resources, relevant mentoring schemes and HR business partners
  • Resilience-building learning for specific teams within a department – (ideally done on a non-compulsory basis, otherwise the resistance is too high).

What matters in all of these is a central message, that staff can build their resilience in small and large ways, within a real framework of team and employee support.


Managers and leaders

In terms of learning and development, when you’re thinking about offering managers and leaders resilience-based programmes, some themes and approaches are worth bearing in mind:

  • Supporting managers to spot the signs of resilience and lack of resilience in their teams at work is a good part of well-being awareness. These include: staff resistance to change,
  • Creating a space, so line managers can talk about how and whether they are role modelling resilience may be useful. Many managers I have coached have initially thought that role modelling resilience is unimportant. However when we begin to explore the fact that they are role modelling resilience unconsciously for their teams, they become aware of how important this is. It’s important in relation to change management, career development, innovation and wellbeing. For example, if a line manager really regularly demonstrates embracing change that’s a fantastic resilience quality.  At the same time if they indicate in their behaviours that they are available at all times of the day night or weekend, to answer emails, that is perhaps less of a positive resilience quality – as there are no boundaries in place).
  • Supporting managers to use resilience-building activities with their teams, by working with problem to solution team coaching models (see below).’ Solutions-Focused helps shift mindsets and helps teams become more effective. It is a deeply evidence-based approach, developed by Insoo Kim Berg and Steve de Shazer.’[4]
  • Encouraging leaders to develop a resilient mindset, by working with managers to explore what a resilient working life looks like. Again, this is part of a Solutions Focused, and is a feature of the Future Perfect approach.  Mindset work is often the first stage for managers building resilience.


Team resilience

Higher education is gradually, and gently re-opening its doors to face to face learning and face to face work for some learners and some staff. The importance of working together and building resilience collectively has never been more vital. Especially where you see staff stretched to the limits, or where there needs to be a stronger sense of a democratic teamwork approach an innovation culture, and a collaborative style of working. Team resilience activities are incredibly useful. You could begin by working with a specific team, who are in need. Either providing some resilience support yourself or commissioning somebody external.  You could offer:

  • Team-coaching sessions initially led by others or yourself if you have a coaching background and the capacity. These sessions can gradually encourage staff to problem-solve through deep listening and open questioning techniques, peer coaching and the use of Solutions Focused questions. [5]
  • ‘Resilience mapping’ where visually teams map out a problem to solution, including resources and next steps.[6]
  • A larger project if you have capacity: Piloting a mentoring scheme at a departmental level to help career resilience. You could offer this to BAME staff and also to women in areas where you need to address equality issues (at one university I worked with we collaborated to do this as a mentoring pilot in one department. It was so successful; it was then scaled up across the entire university).

These are all powerful ways to encourage staff to more collectively work together and they resilience build too. And it’s undoubtable that resilience is created more easily in collaborative approaches.


Next steps

Ultimately, as you build on supporting resilience through learning and development in your organisation, remember to turn the lens and begin with yourself. From there you can take a bird’s eye view. Check in to see whether and where the organisational basics are attended to by other staff and systems. Then encourage individual and team resilience; signpost staff to any organisational support that already exists e.g. EAP that also support their resilience. Then if needed add a little more learning and development in to build on that. Begin with small steps and maybe a pilot project. Scale up from there.

Most of all know that, although resilience comes and goes through our careers and lifetimes, it’s also true that we can individually and collectively learn it.

This blog is based on approaches and elements from the new book that I have written, The Really Resilient Guide by Andry Anastasis McFarlane. It draws on over 10 years of resilience work with staff in organisations, including HE.  Available on Amazon:  For an additional blog on resilience and  collaboration visit:

The Really Resilient Guide is also available as online courses:

A short introductory course:

A longer e-certificated version, for staff in organisations:


References and wider reading

[1] Otto, S .and Katrin K. (2013).Leading from the Emerging Future, Better-Koehler Books, USA. First edition. See also



[4] (One example amongst many): Effectiveness of Solutions-Focused Brief Therapy: A Systematic Qualitative Review of Controlled Outcome Studies.

[5] Meier, D. (2005). Team coaching with a solution circle. Cheltenham: Solutions Publishing.

[6] McFarlane, A. (2020). The Really Resilient Guide. UK: KDP Press. Chapter 5.


About Andry Anastasis McFarlane

Andry is an experienced learning consultant, executive coach, facilitator and speaker, working in HE, FE, the charity and other sectors.  She supports staff and teams to develop resilience, coaching and mentoring, communication, other soft-skills, teamwork, and their work with students.

She is an ex-Senior Lecturer in FE, ex-lecturer of Middlesex University Summer School, ex-assessor in Teaching in Lifelong Learning at Birkbeck College and ex-teacher trainer and Adult Education teacher. She has a PGCE in Adult Learning and is a highly qualified and experienced executive coach and mentor. When she’s not coaching, training or writing, she walks and reads, and does her best not to be the world’s worse mosaic artist.  The Really Resilient Guide is her first book.


Contacting Andry Anastasis McFarlane



Phone: 07984 107728

Linkedin: Andry- Anastasis-Mcfarlane