The Community Resilience project

Exploring the adaptability and resilience of teachers and nurses as frontline workers

The Community Resilience project was supported by Global Challenges in 2019 with the plan to explore the adaptability and resilience of teachers and nurses as frontline workers. When COVID19 hit in early 2020, the team found themselves interviewing Australian frontline workers during the worst pandemic of our generation.

“We spent a bit of time trying to make the interviewees feel comfortable. Sometimes the interviews were longer than anticipated but we really tried to give them a sense that we wanted to hear about them personally, and we wanted them to share whatever they wanted to share about their experience during the early days of COVID.”

The team didn't ask COVID-related questions, but COVID-themed answers inevitably came up.

“It gives me goosebumps thinking back to the interviews with young nurses who’d been in the profession less than five years, what they were experiencing in terms of COVID-19 and how they called upon their own personal resilience and their networks.”

Frontline teachers and nurses reported the need to adapt quickly together and be responsive while being thrown in the deep end. Teachers mentioned the difficulty of having to shift to teaching online and getting rapidly up to speed with all the extra training required to respond to the pandemic. Nurses talked about dealing with cases coming into the wards.

“Nurses who were relatively new to the profession were sent to Intensive Care Units (ICUs), without any ICU experience at all. So, they had to overcome a big learning curve. They had to be pretty resilient and adapt because at the end of the day, people’s lives were in these young nurses hands.”

Dr Sheridan said teachers relied on informal support through informal friendship networks, but not necessarily through their formal workplace support mechanisms. This matched a key difference identified in the project’s scoping review comparing everyday and disaster resilience literature; disaster resilience is more relational, and focussed more on harnessing authentic, grass-roots relations amongst frontline workers to deal immediately with the emergency, rather than on fostering individual resilience skills and traits. While internal reporting was a bit more structured and formal for the nurses, the lack of support became obvious..

“The nurses didn’t seem to be asked things like, ‘how did you feel about this’ or ‘when did you feel anxious about that’ or ‘when was this a problem for you?’ in relation to the pandemic.”

Both nurses and teachers talked about adaptability as a professional requirement that was largely practical, often quite immediate (i.e. focussed on the moment), and something that one did with sometimes uncertain results. Resilience, on the other hand, was described as more of a personal journey, a narrative, and a set of beliefs that they kept enhancing and growing from experience in the longer-term, with a focus on positive outcomes. Dr Sheridan said one of the most worrying things was that many of the younger more recent graduates did not appear to have begun the ‘journey of resilience’ and were reconsidering their profession.

“Sadly, a lot of younger graduates got to the point last year where they thought ‘I can’t do this job anymore, this isn’t the career for me.’”

Literature about past disasters indicates that people on the frontline often do it quite tough, but two years later is when their resilience reached its lowest point.

“The research tells us that after a crisis there is the potential for trauma to re-emerge a few years later for some people, in the form of post-traumatic stress. We need to know what organisations can do now and in the future to support our frontline workers.

“Eighteen months later, we now have a greater understanding of what adaptability and resilience looks like in regard to their ‘everyday’ and ‘crisis’ experiences. We are conscious that the impact of COVID-19 will have immediate, short term, medium and long-term consequences our teachers and nurses.”

Dr Sheridan says the project shifted from trying to understand the day-to-day experiences and meanings of resilience and adaptability for frontline workers, to a focus on emergency and disaster themes. They wanted to understand their support mechanisms for enhancing their resilience and adaptability, to be able to cope with change and extreme challenges.

The interdisciplinary team of investigators initially included Lynn Sheridan, Peter Andersen, Roger Patulny, Jordan McKenzie, Grant Kinghorn, Rebekkah Middleton Natasa Lazarevic. Rebekah Middleton joined the team in 2020, to bring a greater level of practical nursing expertise to the team, and help researchers fully understand what was occurring in ‘real’ time for frontline nurses. 

The team’s research over the past year has found that mentoring, community, and organisational support are essential for resilience in all situations. But teachers do not see formal programs, schemes, workshops as particularly helpful.

“Teachers are cynical and sceptical about top-down resilience building strategies. We’ve found that informal community and friendship support is key, and teachers need the time and space to organically build informal support networks. This needs to feel authentic.

“At universities we can help to recognise the need for people to develop their networks, but organisations need to take this more seriously. It’s not just about paying for counselling, but the kind of structural things you can put in place to make sure these frontline workers are supported and survive."

Dr Sheridan says the team would like to do a collaborative national study to look at a larger groups of frontline professionals, with a focus on examining their resilience and adaptability, and determining what different organisations are currently doing and what could they do better.

“Disaster resilience appears to be relatively more relational than individual, with a stronger focus on harnessing good, authentic, grass-roots relations to deal with the disaster, than on fostering individual resilience skills. Disaster scenarios also seem to require more formal organisational support and resources because of the requirement to provide support beyond just students or patients but to a wider community.”

In terms of next steps, the team is piloting a survey on resilience and adaptability as a proof of concept study. Survey instruments have been developed and distributed to Australian teachers and nurses, focusing specifically on: resilience, adaptability, efficacy, work engagement and emotional management.

The team is in the process of establishing two research groups, one in nursing and another for teaching. The teaching team have established a partnership with University of NSW and is in the process of expanding their data collection into other countries like Philippines, Indonesia, Hong Kong, Vietnam. With the establishment of a UOW nursing research team, the aim is to expand data collection in Australia and internationally.

“We are working on expanding our pool of teacher participants in Australia. This has been very complex with the high workload of teachers, but we plan to expand to other countries like Dubai and the US.

“In the long term, we would like to run some intervention and on the ground studies – because the only way to change what happens in a workplace is for the workplace itself to initiate ‘change’.”


If you’d like to engage or partner with the team contact Dr Lynn Sheridan for more information.