Resilience and Social Work


Dr Richard Slade

‘Resilience’ is a popular and arguably overused expression these days. Exploring the pages of the mail online (, a news source that would probably struggle to claim fame for endorsing cutting edge contemporary thinking, sees football teams are praised for being resilient to their fixture demands and schools are mandated with a duty to ensure children are resilient to the dangers of radicalisation. As the term has flourished it has become ubiquitous and transferable. From terrorism to natural disasters to finance ratings to maintaining some personal harmony and sense of equilibrium resilience, the call for no matter how non-specific, is the order of the day. However, there is much less discussion about what resilience really means and how to achieve it. Surely there is a conceptual difference between the resilience demanded of football clubs and that required to prevent radicalisation and promote social cohesion?

From ‘lifestyle’ coaches ( to the financial press ( we are regularly told that we must become resilient to the pressures and uncertainly of everyday life. Yet this narrative opens up damaging possibilities for the distress which may arise through falling in the face of pressure arising from competing demands to be personalised. The cause of feeling consequent acute discomfort or even trauma for struggling to balance pressures is a failure in our capacity for ‘resilience’ rather than being generated by an environment over which we struggle to have influence – ‘your problem is you are not resilient enough’. Perhaps there’s more than a hint of neoliberal toleration of inequalities here. Those endowed with qualities which might make them resilient – for example stamina, confidence, good social skills – will flourish. Those with different strengths and capacities will struggle. So be it.

Social workers, face exacting personal demands generated by high caseloads, competing public expectations of their role, austerity driven requirements to do more with less and the daily interaction with the distress of service users and their carers. They are more than familiar with the territory that exhorts resilience. So how do we, as social workers, get beyond resilience rhetoric to think about what the concept means in a practical way? There seems to be agreement amongst people writing about the subject that resilience is a capacity that we use to address some form of trauma. However, there is also broad congruence that it is far more than just surviving and coping: it involves an inner journey recovery and being different in the future, especially in relation to our environment.

The body of research and conceptual understandings of resilience have developed since the middle of the 20th century when the term was used by child psychologists to understand and assess vulnerability to trauma: why some children and young people might recover from the trauma of child abuse and others did not (McElwee 2007). Winfield (1994) argued the importance of moving from an understanding of resilience solely focused on individual’s capacity for coping and adapting to adverse circumstances towards the equal the relevance of social interaction with the individual’s wider system and the critical relevance of positive or negative interactions. This interaction between the individual and society was explored through the socio-ecological perspective of Ungar (2013) who argued that rather than being an individual construct, resilience is an environmental quality that can nurture growth and resilience to trauma. Harms (2014) has developed the concept on a systems theory basis to understand how people survive, recover and become different as a result of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Overall, resilience can be seen as an individual’s journey from trauma to recovery leading to a different way of living with the world. It does not happen unaided, it is more than just surviving and coping and it is a long way from something that you can be told to do. And it is a relevant lens through which to understand the pressures placed on contemporary students and social workers.

Given this, resilience has made a recent and welcome entry to the world of social work well-being through the work of Grant and Kinman (2011 & 2014). Building on a platform of research and workshops they describe practical steps that students and social workers can take in order to protect themselves from caseload pressures, organisational demands and the constant interaction with the painful circumstances of service users and carers. In isolation factors may not be understood as trauma but accumulatively they can be chronically traumatic. The emphasis Grant and Kinman place on emotional intelligence, reflection and confidence, the kind of inner journey, is balanced by practical steps including time management and relaxation skills. Their work should make those involved in social work education, training and the management of social workers seriously question whether the content of what we teach and how we manage is attuned to 21st century practice demands, if only to improve poor levels of retention that we see across the profession.

As a practical step, we could also be much more active in helping social workers to change those aspects of their environment which might be most relevant. Learning how to bring about change through influencing social policy is absolutely correct. Perhaps social workers should also know how to manage your manager and your organisation in a way which is congruent with ethics and good practice. Or how to ‘whistle- blow’ without being victimised or having a career falter.


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