Psychological Resilience — the missing golden thread?

Wing Commander Phil Holdcroft, Defence Studies Department MA Student

“Reflecting on 18 years’ service as an officer and helicopter pilot, I don’t believe I’ve ever formally received dedicated psychological resilience training. Furthermore, I don’t think I’m in the minority. I’m not for a moment suggesting that the rigours of aircrew selection, pressures of flying training, and the raw exposure of combat operations haven’t demanded and instilled resilience. However, I question whether the military truly understands what resilience is, and whether it affords resilience the status, focus and visibility it deserves.”

If we look at the hierarchy of attributes within the military, it is qualities such as physical fitness and leadership which are placed on pedestals. These attributes are actively selected and promoted through recruitment, training and intervention. There is also a shared understanding that these attributes are ‘golden threads’, which fundamentally underpin military success. Why is this not the case with resilience? Why don’t we specifically select recruits against their raw resilience, or potential to develop resilience? Why have generations of servicemen and women never been formally trained in resilience? And why is resilience allowed to be merely the by-product of military activity, secondary in importance, and not a primary objective in and of itself? This article will explore whether the British military is failing to fully embrace resilience and unlock its force-multiplying potential.

What is resilience?

The term ‘resilience’ is very much in vogue. It’s become a ubiquitous buzzword used variously to describe aspirational qualities of individuals, teams and organisations. The COVID-19 pandemic has seemingly been a catalyst for raising the profile of resilience even higher. The pandemic has exposed psychological vulnerabilities in the workforce, highlighting the importance of resilience as an attribute which is critical to success and overcoming adversity. But what do we really mean when we talk about resilience? Whilst the proliferation of the term in everyday lexicon implies importance and utility, there is a risk resilience is becoming all things to all people.

The British military has failed to adopt a unifying definition for resilience. By not defining it, how can you know what success looks like? How can you select, train and measure an attribute you can’t even describe? As such, is the military truly harnessing the potential of resilience? Given the ‘must win’ role of the military, where success is outcompeting an adversary or overcoming adversity, the military can ill afford to overlook any performance edge.

Pinning a definition on resilience is not without its challenges. The research community disagrees more than it agrees when it comes to the definitional debate. For example, there is no firm consensus as to whether resilience is a process, trait or outcome. Thankfully, there are broad concepts and themes which consistently anchor definitions. Researchers generally agree resilience is demonstrated through ‘positive adaptation’, the ‘ability to endure’, or ‘cope’, in response to ‘adversity’, ‘risk’, ‘stress’ or ‘trauma’. As such, formulating a basic unifying definition for Defence need not be an impossible task. For example, a study by RAND in support of the US Department of Defence recommends the following definition:

“Resilience is the capacity to adapt successfully in the presence of risk and adversity”

(Jensen and Fraser, 2005)

Adopting a common definition represents an important first step for building and reinforcing measurable resilience programmes across UK Defence. Furthermore, a concrete definition will provide focus and visibility, which in turn will demand prioritisation of effort and resource towards building and sustaining a resilient workforce.

Why is resilience important to the military?

The military environment is unparalleled in respect of the sheer range and intensity of stressors to which its workforce is exposed to. On any given day servicemen and women will be tasked to fly at supersonic speeds, operate covertly behind enemy lines, and exist beneath the ocean for months at a time. Existential threat goes hand-in-hand with military life, with servicemen and women being lumbered with the weighty responsibility of both protecting humanity and being the ultimate instrument of violence and destruction. To endure and moreover, grow and thrive under such pressures, military personnel need the very highest levels of resilience to perform successfully.

Resilience vs performance?

An individual’s level of resilience plays a significant role in how well they respond to adversity, with a more resilient individual experiencing a better performance outcome when facing adversity, trauma or crisis. This is an important concept for an organisation which is fundamentally designed to successfully respond to crisis.

According to Carver, responses to adversity can be crudely lumped into four buckets:

[1] ‘Succumbing’ — damaged, with a terminal downwards trajectory. [2] ‘Survival’ — damaged, with a lower level of performance. [3] ‘Recovery’ — bouncing back to previous baseline of performance. [4] ‘Thriving’ — bouncing up to a higher level of performance.

In their research on resilience in the military, Angela Simmons and Linda Yoder have demonstrated that resilient individuals, who experience growth in response to adversity, are more likely to experience career and personal success. This cohort is also characterised as being less susceptible to mental health symptoms. This desirable outcome is in stark contrast to the cohort which experiences damage in the aftermath of trauma. Damage manifests itself through behavioural problems and common mental health disorders, such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, anger, anxiety, depression, burnout and suicide.

If we consider again the ‘must win’ role of the military, you might expect a laser focus on influencing this outcome. Surely the military is using every available lever to maximise outcomes of thriving, whilst minimising damage? However, Defence Statistics pertaining to medical downgrades and discharges amongst military personnel, suggest this might not be the case.

How big is the problem?

Analysing the latest UK Defence Statistics reports, it is immediately apparent that failings in psychological resilience exact a heavy toll across military personnel. The 2020 report indicates that 1 in 8 (12.7%) military personnel were seen by the healthcare service in relation to mental health. For military veterans, whose last deployment was in a combat role, the rate of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder was 17%. Worryingly, the year on year trend data highlights a deteriorating picture. For example, for the first time ever, in 2020 the RAF recorded more medical discharges as a result of mental and behavioural disorders than any other reason. In short, UK Defence has a resilience issue which needs to be addressed.

How can UK Defence tackle the resilience challenge?

Research tells us that there are a number of primary factors which influence how resilient we are. They can be broken down into three broad categories: ‘heritable traits’, ‘human factors’, and ‘social context’. These factors represent opportunities which the military could better exploit to deliver a more resilient workforce.

[1] Heritable traits. Research indicates nature plays a significant role in determining resilience. Heritable trait theory implies that individuals are genetically predisposed to exhibit a certain level of raw resilience, and have a pre-determined level of potential to develop resilience through nurture.

So what for UK Defence? The current model for military recruitment and selection could be overhauled to identify individuals with exceptional inherent resilience, or potential to develop exceptional resilience through training and experience. As challenging as it might seem to pinpoint an abstract attribute like resilience, research has successfully identified markers which accurately predict success amongst candidates for Special Forces selection. Hence this is a credible option for development. However, if we assume individuals ‘could’ be accurately identified for their heritable resilience, would be want to erect an additional barrier to diversity and inclusivity? As such, options which promote resilience within the current workforce might offer a more acceptable solution.

[2] Human factor. This factor relates to the ‘trainable’ aspects of resilience and implies resilience can modified following exposure to stress, adversity, trauma and crisis.

So what for UK Defence? Current training practices could be revolutionised to capture the ‘human factor response’ to adversity. Using the theory of ‘Stress Inoculation Training’, deliberate and controlled exposure to trauma could be leveraged to promote development of resilience. However, noting that response to crisis is particular to the individual subject, stress inoculation training needs to be carefully calibrated to ensure the outcome is positive adaption and growth, and unwanted damage is actively guarded against.

Psychological Resilience — the missing golden thread? | by Cormorants Nest | The Cormorant’s Nest | May, 2021 | Medium

[3] Social context construct. The social component refers to the non-physical environment and social network which influences an individual’s level of resilience.

So what for UK Defence? The military has complete control over how it shapes its culture, defines it priorities, and resources its objectives. As such, the ‘social component’ of resilience represents a huge opportunity for exploitation. Initiatives such as dedicated team and leadership educational training is an obvious first step. Similarly, investment in support resources, such as counselling and coaching, represents another obvious step for promoting and reinforcing resilience across the military.

Psychological Resilience — the missing golden thread? | by Cormorants Nest | The Cormorant’s Nest | May, 2021 | Medium

[3] Social context construct. The social component refers to the non-physical environment and social network which influences an individual’s level of resilience.

So what for UK Defence? The military has complete control over how it shapes its culture, defines it priorities, and resources its objectives. As such, the ‘social component’ of resilience represents a huge opportunity for exploitation. Initiatives such as dedicated team and leadership educational training is an obvious first step. Similarly, investment in support resources, such as counselling and coaching, represents another obvious step for promoting and reinforcing resilience across the military.

So, is the military getting resilience right?

“Having dived into both the status quo and the art of the possible, I believe UK Defence is falling woefully short when it comes to optimising psychological resilience. The sobering statistics for resilience failure across UK Defence are a worrying tell-tale. At the individual level the consequences are devastating whilst at the collective level, the potential repercussions represent an unacceptable risk for the organisation entrusted with national security.

UK Defence needs to take ownership of its resilience problem. Pleasingly, there is enormous scope to reimagine how the military could better promote and exploit resilience through selection, training and intervention initiatives. However, first Defence must address the current profile and status of resilience. Such a critical attribute can’t continue to be such a nebulous and fuzzy concept. Defence needs to pin a definition to resilience, tell us what success looks like, and demonstrate its enduring support and commitment. The competitive advantage of resilience is out there, UK Defence just needs to: Define it — build it — live it!

Wing Commander Phil Holdcroft is a Royal Air Force officer and helicopter pilot with 18 years experience and a professional interest in resilience.

This was originally published in the Cormorants Nest blog as part of an academic study conducted as part of the KCL Master by Research programme on the Advanced Command and Staff Course at the Defence Academy of the United Kingdom. The views expressed are those of the author; they do not constitute the opinion of, or a representation by the Royal Air Force or the Defence Academy of the United Kingdom.

3 thoughts on “Psychological Resilience — the missing golden thread?

  1. Psychological resilience is best derived from trust in your hierarchy and colleagues. It comes from the assurance of their engagement with your best interests. It is in the NHS where 57% doctors say they do not feel supported and 40% say they have been bullied, that the conditions for moral injury (as distinct to mere burnout) exist.

    Like

  2. Enjoyed reading about this important topic. Are you aware of the work of Professor Seligman. The US military have a PERMA program to help them in this area. Thanks
    D Hughes

    Like

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