The ABCs of resilience are a simple way to remember three things you can do to improve your own resilience. They are Awareness, Being-well and Coping.

Summary by The World of Work Project


At its core, we can think of our resilience as our ability to bounce back when we’ve been knocked down. At work, “being knocked down” typically means experiencing some stress or strain, or a negative event in the workplace that knocks us off our perch.

Clearly, more detailed definitions exist that reference our ability to use our resources to successfully navigate adverse situations. For our purposes our simpler definition will do.

We know that when we experience psycho-social strains like those described above, that we are not at our best. In the immediate, we usually enter the fight or flight mode and are less able to perform well. If we continue under psycho-social strain for a long time we may develop chronic stress and its associated symptoms.

Under stress our resilience falls
When we’re under stress, we’re not at our best.

We all have different levels of resilience (This Brief Resilience Scale may help you assess yours). The more resilient we are, the less likely we are to be knocked down by a stressor, and the more quickly we are able to get back up. This is obviously a good thing. Quickly returning to our best improves our performance and reduces the risk of us becoming stressed.

Improving Resilience: The ABCs of resilience

The ABCs of resilience split our ability to improve our resilience into three factors: Awareness, Being-well and Coping. It’s possible to improve across all three of these areas and, in doing so, increase our overall resilience as individuals.

A – Awareness

As with many areas of personal development and growth, developing self awareness is important. Learning how we respond to different situations and how different things affect us is a great starting point for growing our resilience.

Knowing what causes stress can help us improve our resilience
Can you spot your stressors?

If we understand the types of things that knock us down, how they knock us down and how we feel throughout the process, we can improve our ability to overcome them. We can improve our ability to preempt stressors, to avoid them, to mitigate them and to rationalize them when we experience them.

Improving Self Awareness

As a starting point to improve our awareness, we should do two things. We should understand our sources of stress and understand how we respond to stress (how it makes us feel).

To understand our sources of stress we should think about situations where we’ve felt knocked off our perch and try to identify what it was that knocked us off. By understanding what these factors are, we can better predict how we’ll respond to situations and take appropriate preventative and mitigating actions. As a starting point, you might want to look at the six main areas of stress at work as identified by the UK’s Health and Safety Executive.

To understand how we respond to stress, how stress impacts us, we should think of situations where we’ve felt stressed and write down how we’ve felt in these situations. We should split this task into four categories and consider how stress has affected:

  • How we think (thoughts and decision making),
  • The way we feel (our emotions),
  • How we are physically (our physical responses to stress), and
  • What we do (what non-typical behaviours do we exhibit)

When our resilience is worn down we might eat more
Do you eat more when you’re under strain?

By writing these indicators and impacts of stress down and being mindful of them, we are better able to notice when we are under stress, and thus better able to know when we should take corrective actions.

If we are lucky in our lives, then we may also be in a position to challenge our stressors and simply remove them from our lives in the longer term (though some level of stress is good for us!).

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B – Being Well

Being well can be thought of as taking actions that reduce the build up of stress that we feel in our lives, and which improve our ability to cope with stressors when we face them. To really boost our resilience, we should develop healthy habits that support our physical and mental health and wellbeing. The more of these habits we have, the easier we will find it to deflect the stressors that life throws at us all.

There are many things we can do to make sure we are being well, and how effective they are varies for each of us. The real trick is to find what works for you. In our opinion, there are three main categories that these habits of being well fall into: Our physical selves, Our activities, Our social selves.

Improving Physical Wellbeing

To support our physical selves we should make sure we manage our diets and what we consume, we should get a moderate level of exercise, we should ensure we get lots of sleep and we should try and spend some time outside, in nature.

Improving Wellbeing increases Resilience
Exercise and time outside improve our wellbeing.

Improving Activities

To improve our wellbeing through our activities we should make sure that we make time for things that we find fully relaxing, that give us a chance to switch off. And we should also make time for activities that actively recharge us and energize us. What these activities are differ for all of us.

Improving Wellbeing Through Social Connections

To improve our wellbeing through social activities two things stand out. Firstly, we should develop and call on a suitable support network. Even just knowing you have a support network is helpful, regardless of whether you use it. Secondly, we should help others. As social beings we derive huge personal benefits from helping others. This could be done in our private capacity or though some voluntary work. Or it could just involve going out of your way to be kind and supportive of others.

C- Coping

Coping relates to our ability to get back on our perch quickly, in moments when everything has become too much. It relates to shorter term fixes, not longer ones. It’s a cure, not a preventative. Coping is helpful, but it’s not addressing the root causes of our stress and strain.

In our view there are three main things to consider to help with coping in the moment. These are: challenging your stressors, managing your thoughts and feelings and getting support.

Challenging Your Stressors

By challenging stressors in the moment you may be able to make them go away. It’s important to challenge not just the stressors that are overwhelming you, but others as well as they all add up. It’s perhaps worth starting this process by challenging any stressors that are self imposed.

Managing Your Thoughts

By managing your thoughts and feelings you can improve your ability to be calm and rational in the moment, which will help you overcome your sense of being overwhelmed. We cover some of the thing you can do in this area in other posts, but developing emotional intelligence and learning to manage your self-talk can be very helpful. As can planning some mitigating actions like breathing deeply, meditating, going for a run, or similar.

Getting Support

Increasing Support Increases Resilience
Asking for support can help us cope.

Lastly, getting support in the moment is helpful not just for the practical things it can bring, but also for the emotional support it can bring. It’s worth having a list of a few people you can call on when you’re overwhelmed.

Using the ABCs of Resilience

Individuals and leaders benefit from understanding and using the ABCs of resilience in work. Individuals can use these tools to improve their own resilience, as can leaders. Leaders though can also use these tools to have conversations with their team members, to change the working environment and to look to improve the overall resilience of their teams.

It’s worth nothing that if we’re in a moment of stress or feeling overwhelmed, it might be worth using the (different) ABC framework for overcoming stressful situations. Similarly, there are a five simple things you can do to improve your own wellbeing.

Learning More

Another interesting way to think about resilience is through the concept of “Stress Buckets”. We’ve recorded an excellent podcast on stress buckets, and how to manage your own stress which you can listen to below.

The World of Work Project View

Resilience is complex and messy, just like people. Everyone is different, everyone has their own tolerances and thresholds. And everyone has their own personal stuff going on in life, their own contexts. This means that everyone will have their own responses to stressors and their own levels of resilience. Regardless of what those levels are, understanding the ABCs can help individuals improve their resilience, and their lives.

That said, resilience is ultimately a response to stressors. And we’re very clear in our minds that organizations have a responsibility to manage the stressors that their employees experience. Improving resilience isn’t always the answer, reducing stressors may well be.

Lastly – it’s unfair to increase someone’s resilience just to place more stressors at their door. While they may cope and function well, this isn’t really a fair exchange or a fair treatment of people.

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This post is based on our experiences from the world of work and the conversations we’ve had with people in our podcasts. It also references the Job Demands Resources Model.

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