The difference between wellbeing and resilience

And why organisations should focus on resilience

Photo by Tim Gouw on Unsplash

Last week I met a partner at a large consultancy firm.

We were discussing the resilience of her employees as a recent engagement survey revealed that lots of people were feeling very stressed at work, and she wanted to resolve the problem.

During the conversation I noticed she used the words resilience and wellbeing interchangeably as if they were the same thing. At one point she paused to acknowledge this:

I don’t understand the difference between resilience and wellbeing so I end up using both!”

For me, there’s a difference between these two words.

Her comment inspired me to describe my meaning of these two separate yet connected concepts and why I prefer to focus on resilience.

Please note the definitions that follow are my own, based on my view of the world and experiences from working with organisations.

Wellbeing is a snapshot in time of feeling well

Wellbeing is how we are doing. It is a subjective state of how we feel in ourselves and represents a snapshot in time.

The World Health Organisation defines wellbeing as, a state in which every individual realises his or her potential, can cope with normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.

Likewise, the Oxford Dictionary defines it as, the state of being comfortable, healthy or happy.

Both definitions describe it as a particular state which I think can only be achieved for a period of time.

This is because life throws us curve balls.

Our relationship with the world is dynamic as we are constantly reacting to our environment. As a result, I don’t think we can expect to be constantly well. As if we’re robots.

I notice that some wellbeing experts talk about wellbeing as if it’s a permanent state that can be achieved through certain practices e.g. eating well, exercising frequently etc. Their approach assumes we live in a steady state world and we can eliminate or avoid life’s stressors.

Instead, I think the right sort of wellbeing practices increase our likelihood of feeling well and working productively, for longer periods of time and in a wider range of circumstances. Psychiatrist Daniel Siegel describes it as the window of tolerance in which people can function optimally.

Overall I believe a wellbeing approach is most effective in stress free and relaxing situations, and not when the shit hits the fan.

Resilience is about bouncing back

In comparison, resilience is the ability to bounce back.

A resilience approach acknowledges that life (and indeed organisations) are messy and it is therefore focused on the ability to recover from a bad day or setback.

Similarly the Oxford Dictionary defines resilience as the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties, toughness.

This means we can learn to build resilience by developing practices that support our bouncebackability*.

Building resilience is to understand the activities that deplete our energy (the stressors in our life) and activities that help us to bounce back (the things that support recovery in our life). It helps us to expand our window of tolerance and, crucially, be able to identify the signs when we find ourselves out of this zone and do something about it.

Mindset differentiates wellbeing from resilience

I think it is people’s mindset that differentiates wellbeing from resilience, even if many of the practices are the same.

Someone with a wellbeing mindset wants to move away from uncomfortable feelings and assumes that, with the right conditions in place, they can always be well. This can invoke a sense of perfectionism.

Paradoxically, this can lead to feelings of shame, anxiety or a sense of hopelessness when they are unwell or feeling stressed.

In comparison, someone with a resilience mindset assumes that life has ups and downs and they know how to focus on bouncing back with practices that support recovery.

As a result, someone with a resilience mindset is more at ease with uncomfortable feelings, stress and setbacks.

Why we should focus on resilience

Obviously, there is nothing wrong with focusing on wellbeing and striving to be happy and healthy.

However I think it’s more useful for people and organisations to focus on building resilience because it acknowledges that we’re not perfect and can’t always be well.

In comparison, by focusing on resilience we can find the tools to bounce back when we are not well. This is a skill that can be learnt.

It requires a curiosity by asking questions about our physical and psychological state and using the learning and insights to make changes.

Learning to recover quickly can sometimes also help us bounce back stronger too. This means we can grow from the knocks we take in life.

Finally, I think focusing on resilience has broader benefits because developing higher self-awareness to adapt to changing circumstances is a skill that I believe is needed to thrive in today’s organisations.

*This definition of resilience is described in Challenger Spirit: Organisations that Challenge the Status Quo.