Resilience in the world of work is the ability to remain at your best when things get difficult and to bounce back up when you’ve been emotionally knocked down. It’s a skill that’s closely related to emotional intelligence and which can be improved with practice.

Summary by The World of Work Project


Resilience in the World of Work

Resilience (AKA personal or psychological resilience) is the process of adapting or responding well to difficult or stressful situations. It can be thought of as the ability to remain at your best in difficult situations, or the ability to “bounce back” to being at your best if something has knocked you off kilter. The phrase resilience has become increasingly popular in the world of work in recent years.

The Factors of Resilience

In a work context, resilience fundamentally relates to the ability of an individual to remain emotionally balanced, at their best and able to work well. There are several different factors at play when we think about resilience like this.

Firstly, there are potential events that could impact an individual and cause them to not be at their best. These events are often known as “activating events” or “triggers”. They include things like arguments, receiving feedback, stressful levels of demand, conflicting priorities, difficult colleagues or having made a mistake.

Secondly, there is the individual’s personal reserve of emotional energy. The more emotional reserves we have, the less likely we are to be negatively impacted by events around us. Individuals with large emotional reserves can absorb more or larger activating events without feeling knocked off kilter.

Thirdly, there is the individual’s ability to manage the emotional impacts of activating events and return to their best if they are knocked off kilter by something around them. This factor can be thought of as an individual’s ability to emotionally get back up if they are knocked down. It’s their ”bounce back ability”.

If we think about these factors together then we have three areas to consider:

  • Negative events that threaten an individual’s ability to be their best,
  • Reserves that help an individual absorb these negative events without being disrupted, and
  • Skills that individuals develop which can help them bounce back to being their best if something has disrupted them.

Many people focus primarily on the third of these factors when looking to improve their resilience. In our view, though, all three of them are important.

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Improving Resilience

It’s possible to improve an individual’s resilience and ability to remain at their best in two main ways. These are: reducing the likelihood of triggering events, or by improving ability to deal with triggering events when they occur.

Reducing the Likelihood of a Triggering Event Occurring

Reducing the likelihood of triggering events is a great way to improve an individual’s ability to remain at their best. It’s not always possible, but where it is it’s very effective. Prevention, after all, is often much better than cure.

Two flow diagrams showing responses to stressful situations under different levels of resilience in the world of work

From a personal perspective, it’s worth learning about the types of situations that may lead to events that trigger you. Developing self-awareness helps with this. If you know the types of situations that trigger you, then you can try to change those situations.

For example, it could be that you’re triggered when you present a piece of work that you’ve rushed and that you’re not proud of. If that’s the case, try and prevent that by setting aside time to do the work to the level required to make your proud, or to have someone else review it before you submit it. This is just an example, but the principle holds.

Reducing the Likelihood that a Triggering Event Disrupts

While it’s possible to prevent some triggering events occurring, we can never eliminate them altogether. We can, however, get better at dealing with them when they do occur. Just because a triggering event takes place, doesn’t mean we automatically need to stop being at our best.

When an individual experiences a triggering event they either absorb the event with their emotional reserves and carry on at their best, or they are overwhelmed by the event, their reserves are exhausted and they stop being at their best.

A set of bar charts showing ways to improve resilience in the world of work

An individual can improve their ability to carry on at their best despite negative triggering events by either increasing their overall level of emotional reserves, so that they can just absorb more negativity without being emotionally exhausted, or they can improve their ability to manage negative, triggering events so that each event costs them less of their emotional reserves to deal with.

The best way to improve emotional reserves is by focusing on wellbeing. You can improve your well being by doing things like improving sleep levels, exercise and diet. Increasing levels of social support and making time to recover through energizing activities also helps.

The best way to improve trigger management is through personal psychological practices. These could include focusing on helpful self-talk and challenging negative assumptions, beliefs and ways of working. The ABC Model helps to explain this further.

Increasing the Ability to Bounce Back when Disrupted

Everyone will be disrupted by triggering events and cease to be at their best from time to time.  An individual’s ability to bounce back from these disruptions and return to being at their best is an important skill that contributes to their overall resilience.

A bouncy castle representing bouncing back, which is evidence of resilience in the world of work
Just how bouncy are you?

With practice and training, individuals can improve this aspect of their resilience and get faster at returning to their best. This process of an individual returning to their best can be accelerated by support from others. It can also be self managed to some extent. It’s possible for individuals to use some self-coaching tools, like the ETC model, to help them return to their best quickly when they have been disrupted.

Who is Responsible for an Employee Being at their Best?

Both individuals and organizations are responsible for helping to ensure that employees are at their best as often as possible. While individuals have an obligation to maintain their own personal emotional reserves, to look after themselves and present themselves to work in a good state, organizations also have an obligation to provide psychologically safe working environments, to request reasonable volumes of work and to try to reduce the occurrence of potential negative triggering or activating events.

The Weaponization of Resilience

A recent negative trend with regard to the area of resilience in the world of work is the increased effort of organizations to shift accountability to individuals. Many organizations are to some extent abdicating their own responsibilities for providing working environments and roles that are reasonable. Instead they great unhealthy workplaces and simply say that their employees simply need to be more resilient.

a toy gun representing the weaponization of resilience in the world of work
Is resilience actually a weapon that’s destroying employee wellbeing?

Many organizations now provide ‘resilience training’ and then blame their employees for not being resilient enough. Instead, they should look at the volumes of work they request, and the working environments they create. These are almost certainly the root cause of their employees not being at their best. This trend, which is some times referred to as the “weaponization of resilience” is a race to the bottom that is unsustainable.

Stress and Resilience

Ultimately, if people experience too many negative triggering events, or are unable to overcome the challenges they face and return to being at their best, they will become stressed. As many people know, stress is a hugely important issue in the modern workplace. It has a material impact on not just the individuals who experience it. It also affects their family, friends, communities, employers and even the countries they live in.

Measuring Resilience

How should we measure resilience?

Measuring resilience in the world of work, or elsewhere, isn’t a terribly easy thing to do in an objective way. The majority of efforts to do so involve self assessment. Many larger organizations have resilience assessment or stress assessment tools which they use internally. An example of a simple resilience assessment tool that individuals or organizations could consider using is the “brief resilience scale”.

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Learning More

Resilience, which is related to emotional intelligence, is an important skill in the world of work. The ABCs of resilience are a helpful way to think about it, and the brief resilience scale is a simple way to measure it. As well as improving our own resilience, there are things we can do to help improve the resilience of others. This interesting, if repugnant, experiments on rat resilience also sheds light on the subject.

Similarly, learning about healthy workplaces might be helpful as well. You can do that in our podcast on the subject, below:

The World of Work Project View

Resilience is a very helpful skill in the world of work. The ability to stop yourself from getting into emotionally challenging situations is a skill, the ability to deal with these situations without being knocked off kilter is a skill and the ability to pick yourself up when you’ve been emotionally knocked down is a skill.

We think that these skills are all things that individuals benefit from improving. Not only does improving them lead to increased productivity an performance in a working context, but it also often leads to improved contentedness in a personal context.

While we very much believe that individuals should invest in their own wellbeing and resilience, we are also strongly of the view that leaders and organizations have an obligation to provide reasonable working conditions and requirements that reduce the need for their employees to be highly resilient.

Increasing the emotional demands on employees while saying that they simply need to increase their resilience is not sustainable in the long run. It’s a short-sighted arms race that leads to negative outcomes for many people and, in the longer term, will do so for organizations and countries too.

In many instances it’s far more sensible for organizations to help their employees remain at their best by getting out of their way, reducing stress factors and providing great working cultures and environments.

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