Why “quick fix resilience” doesn’t work

Leaders’ obsession with resilience training is driving the wrong solutions.

by Bruce Daisley
Last Updated: 17 Aug 2022
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Sometimes our desire to achieve something is so intense that we’re willing to overlook the fact that the products we buy to fulfil our desires don’t work. For example, no matter how much anti-ageing cream someone uses, 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 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.

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 wellbeing 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’s a dirty little secret that follows these courses around - they don’t work. And we can say this with certainty because in peer-reviewed papers analysing the results of these interventions, the creators of them 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 NHS hospital in north London told me. The team had been offered a course on 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 come from what I term the “Resilience Orthodoxy” and is based on the work of psychologist Martin Seligman.

Seligman was in the right place at the right time to serve this surge in demand. In the noughties, while creating a resilience programme for schools, he was approached by bosses of the US Army, who were dazzled by his status as a bestselling author. “We have read your books, and we want to know what you suggest for the army,” they told him.

Military chiefs commissioned him, without a pitch, to create a programme to deal with the sorry state of post-service lives - retirements poisoned by catastrophic rates of addiction, depression, PTSD and suicide.

Science writer Jesse Singal estimates that the budget for the implementation has been in excess of $500m. If your workplace has implemented resilience training it is almost certainly based on Seligman’s programs for schools or the armed forces.

The only problem is that these programmes don’t work. Reviewing the published results, commentators in the American Psychological Association journal observed that "Comprehensive Soldier Fitness is not a panacea for anything. The programme 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.

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”. A study of nine trials across Australia, the Netherlands and the US 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 demand from teachers, employers and military chiefs is that it misses the origin of resilience that sits right before our eyes.

As training programmes seek to invigorate a trait of individual resilience in weary workers, we might look at the people of Ukraine and be dazzled by their own humbleness and strength. Everyday heroes who took off their suits and overalls on Friday, to don combat fatigues on a Monday. We find ourselves asking, how might such fortitude come about?

The answer lies in the words of respected 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 a such a penny drop realisation, backed up repeatedly by endless empirical evidence that we might wonder why we ignore it staring us in the face.

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.

Bruce Daisley is a workplace culture consultant. His new book, Fortitude, about how we think about resilience incorrectly is out now.

Image credit: tzahiV via Getty Images