Our NHS People

Building Resilience for Senior Leaders

This article focuses on how you can pay attention to your own resilience.  It draws on research and commentary about individual and organisational resilience, identifying what works to support these and reduce the incidence of mental and physical ill-health because of stress and pressure.  

What do we mean by resilience? 

Individual resilience is described by Brimrose and Hearne (2012) as being founded on self-esteem, self-efficacy, subjective wellbeing, self-determination, locus of control and social support systems. Resilience has proved to be critical when our world is so uncertain, complex and ambiguous. Being resilient ideally means we can adapt to difficult situations and not just survive but thrive. In the pandemic it has meant many leaders and their staff have had to concentrate on survival, which is not sustainable. 

In this recent period of persistent adversity for the NHS, leaders have exhibited resilience through experience, resourcefulness, and flexibility. Managing responses to both the emerging and converging challenges of the pandemic. Paradoxically leaders have had to use combinations of contrary abilities such as preparedness and improvisation, direction setting and flexibility. So being both reactive and adaptive – and this potentially continues for Trusts and NHS organisations as leaders and boards try to manage emerging and ongoing demands, assess future risks, while dealing with the impact on the staff and the organisation from this extended period of pressure.  

Business Psychologist Dr Derek Mowbray states, “Organisations must be resilient against external and internal pressures for change and be able to face up to, and overcome, challenges to their survival.” He adds: “The development of organisational resilience is based on generating commitment, trust, social engagement, kinship, motivation and concentration in the workforce and those who lead and manage the organisation.” 

Protecting your own resilience through self-care, building psychological safety and reframing challenges 


We all know about the importance of self-care and you can read our article on caring about your own wellbeing here. Below are some suggestions for you. 

  • Be out in nature whenever you can and benefit from raising your serotonin levels which will help with sleeping, eating and digestion and help stabilize your mood, feelings of wellbeing and happiness. 
  • Listen to music you love; it helps satisfy your dopamine needs for pleasure and motivation.
  • Singing and dancing activates the production of oxytocin, this supports social co-operation, empathy and altruism.
  • Care for your microbiota through your diet and support your gut-brain axis as this also influences mood, digestive health and more.
  • Plan and take time when you are not doing any work, this allows you to know you will have a break to recover which is important during sustained periods of pressure.
  • Have agreed times when you will turn off the radio, TV and social media news protecting yourself from constant reminders of stressors.

Psychological safety 

Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at Harvard Business School Amy Edmonson coined this term and describes psychological safety as ‘the belief that you won’t be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes’. At times of uncertainty and challenge it needs to be explicit that all brains and voices are needed and welcomed. As a senior leader, are you able to create this environment and can you do anything to ensure you yourself are operating in psychological safe space too?

Reframing challenges 

Research shows that people tend to have either a stress-is-enhancing or a stress- is –debilitating mindset. The evidence shows it is possible to change your stress-mindset which will then affect your experience of stress. Imagining a positive outcome was found to be helpful, for example, preparing before a difficult meeting by telling yourself: ‘If this meeting goes the way I want it to go, it will look like (A), I will hear (B) and come away feeling like (C)’. We are talking in more detail about positive reframing in our article here.

Building organisational resilience through shared pandemic experience 

What do we know about building organisational resilience? Research carried through reflection and data gathering after the 2007 SARS outbreak highlighted the benefits of the following actions:  

  • Making the most of the shared experience and lessons learned together building on the values of individuals and teams as well as the whole organisation. This supported individual and organisational resilience. 
  • Creating supportive collaborative interdisciplinary relationships which offered informal and formal support. This enhanced flexibility for the future as well as offering immediate support for shared learning and growth. It also builds relationship ‘reserves’ which could support individual and organisational resilience in the future. 
  • Offering training in psychological (mental health) first aid to all staff not just those with clinical experience of mental ill-health. The research showed it ‘teaches a respectful approach to reducing distress through enhancing safety and comfort, helping survivors of trauma to identify their needs, providing information, and facilitating social connection’. Trainees were also well informed to support their colleagues. 

In addition, time to listen and be heard is one of the top priorities in order to build resilience of any organisation. Participants of the World Economic Forum (WEF) podcast ‘The Resilience Shift’ who are leaders from corporate and public organisations across the globe, described coping with COVID 19 and its effects on their leadership. The overarching message was that they ‘found it profoundly meaningful to have time carved out from a hectic schedule to be heard and to listen to other people’. They had expert listeners who were skilled at facilitating roundtable listening events to manage the process. It gave participants the time to explore their own learning in protected time and space to learn from others by ‘standing in each other’s shoes’. 


Brimrose J and Hearne L (2012) Resilience and Career Adaptability: Qualitative Studies of Adult Counselling. Elsevier Journal of Vocational Behaviour Vol 81. Issue. 3 Dec 2012. Pages 338-344. 

Edmonson A  Building a Psychologically Safe Workplace TedXHGSE talk May 2014 (Accessed Mar 2021) Building a psychologically safe workplace | Amy Edmondson | TEDxHGSE – YouTube 

Ferreri L et al (2019) Dopamine modulates the reward experiences elicited by music. PNAS  116(9)3793-3798. Feb 2019. 

Harvard Health Publishing The gut-brain connection. Published March 2012 Updated Jan 2020. The gut-brain connection – Harvard Health 

Harvey A (2020) Links between the neurobiology of oxytocin and human musicality. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. Frontiers | Links Between the Neurobiology of Oxytocin and Human Musicality | Human Neuroscience (frontiersin.org)  (accessed March 2021) 

Maunder RG et al (2008) Applying the lessons of SARS to pandemic influenza: an evidence-based approach to mitigating the stress experienced by Healthcare Workers. National Library of Medicine Nov-Dec 2008 99(6):486-8.  

Mowbray D (2007) Guide to Organisational Resilience MAS Publishing Ltd. ISBN 978-0-9573835-8-6. July 2007. Corporate resilience (mas.org.uk) 

Sansone R A and Sansone L A (2013) Sunshine, Seratonin, and Skin: A Partial Explanation for Seasonal Patterns in Psychopathology. Innovations in Clinical Neuroscience US NLofM. 10 (7-8) 20-24 Jul-Aug 2013. 

The Oxford Review Researching Briefing The COPE Scale-Assessing Coping Strategies and How to Reduce Stress by Changing Mindsetwww.oxford-review.com (accessed 23.3.2021)