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Why we need Radical Resilience at work

Elizabeth Cotton, 6 November 2013

Our guest blogger Elizabeth Cotton is founder of the Surviving Work Library. As well as reading its articles and listening to its podcasts, you can contribute to them. For details email

As someone who has never been to a single work’s Christmas party it might seem rather contrary of me to reveal that I’m a big fan of resilience at work.

Resilience means the capacity to cope with and adapt to difficult situations and is going through something of a boom in the recession. The field of resilience can be sourced from different disciplines, from environmental science to infant psychology.

In the clinical hands of psychologists such as Garmezy, Masten and the father of child psychiatry, Michael Rutter, the research question is why some children who have experienced trauma go on to develop and others don’t. This approach is like a psychic calculator, identifying those risks and protective factors that influence our chances of surviving trauma. It involves trying to reduce both the internal and external risks to our mental health.

One reason why I like the term resilience is that, instead of choosing sides on whether you’re mentally ill or not (crazies versus us) or whether mental distress is caused by bad employers and can be eradicated by decent employment relations (gaffers versus us), it is based on the fundamentally humane position that, given sufficient risks and insufficient protections, we are all vulnerable to mental health problems.

Another thing that I like about resilience is that it uses the word ‘trauma’ in its definition. We consistently downplay the brutal goings on at work and how they affect our states of mind. Defensive denial works up to a point, but under strain the veneer of good jobs starts to wear thin.

To make matters worse, if you are unfortunate enough to actually crack up, you’re going to struggle to find good quality mental health services. In the UK, if you are unable to pay you’ll get a short course on psychological wellbeing or a phone call with an over-qualified agency worker in a mental health call centre.
Demand goes up as supply goes down, a traumatic trend.

In this environment I don’t think it makes me Mary Poppins to suggest that we might need to find a way to up our chances of surviving work. The dominant workplace resilience model is based on positive psychology, which focuses on the individual and what they can do by self-regulating and changing pessimistic attitudes in favour of optimistic ones.

The idea behind the Surviving Work Library is what we’re calling Radical Resilience.  We believe that if you want to survive work you need to understand what’s really happening around you, try to be honest about who you really are (not a superhuman, just a super human) and learn how to have the humility and grace to rely on other people. It means building our sense of agency, something like our belief that we are the gaffers of our own lives.

This requires a bit of emancipation, from our external and internal oppressors, who tell us there’s nothing we can do to break our contract with despair. That’s what I mean by Radical Resilience. Resilience here is a model of development that says human beings need other human beings to survive and thrive. My undoubtedly crude and possibly hippy understanding of resilience at work takes as a given that we need each other.

The Surviving Work Library is based on real expertise from people who are actually surviving work (you). We have anonymous podcasts, ranging from top tips to stories about bullying and anger. We do not seek advice from positions of relative security or leaflets telling us to eat fruit. We want to know right now how to actually survive work.  

This means that we need you to become our published authors by sending in your top tips, your stories and ideas to the website. And if you wanted us to come over for tea and a chat and do some recordings with you or the people that you work with then just give us a buzz on

Please tell people about the Surviving Work Library. Send the link to your friends, tell the people you work with about it, put it on your websites and tweet @survivingwk like crazies.


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