Personal resilience can be defined as reducing stress and increasing coping abilities in traumatic situations (Maddi, 2013). It consists of hardy attitudes that contribute to effectively dealing with stressful situations (Maddi, 2013). These attitudes are broken down into challenge, commitment, and control. Challenge refers to continuous learning from past experiences as opposed to feelings of stagnation. Commitment is the ability to stay connected with others as opposed to feelings of alienation. Control is striving to achieve influence over stressful situations as opposed to feelings of powerlessness. A person must have strength in all three hardy attitudes to thrive in difficult situations (Maddi, 2004; Maddi, 2013).
Personal resilience should be an important consideration for Cooperative Extension because some agents have emergency support functions and are involved in hurricane response efforts. Some Extension agents in disaster response roles are also affiliated with their State Agricultural Response Team. As such, they should be prepared to engage in disaster recovery efforts (Eighmy et al., 2012). However, past research showed agents affected by hurricanes and coping with personal losses were not well prepared to deal with job demands or provide client support (Telg et al., 2008). This publication highlights strategies to help Extension professionals increase their personal resilience in disaster response efforts.
Definition of Personal Resilience
Figure 1 further discussed in Ali (2019) describes a researcher-developed framework for determining agents' level of personal resilience.
Overall, the framework shows resilience attributes (hardy attitudes, hardy strategies, and the seven dimensions of resilience) and perceived barriers to personal resilience. While resilience attributes strengthen personal resilience, factors such as mental and physical stress, performance deficits, and perceived lack of motivation and courage to adapt to the situation hinder the process of improving personal resilience. These components are important for effective disaster response as agents act as front-line responders, providing disaster support and assisting in recovery efforts (Kistler, Place, Irani, & Telg, 2006).
Extension agents should be familiar with the seven dimensions of resilience (Resilience Alliance, 2013). Each dimension contributes to coping abilities in stressful events. A resilient individual possesses all seven traits and can apply any dimension of resilience to cope with adverse situations. The seven dimensions of resilience are:
Positive worldview—The ability to effectively recognize opportunities during crises (e.g., I can identify ways to have an optimistic outlook in my disaster response role).
Positive self—The perceived ability and confidence to succeed in stressful circumstances (e.g., I am confident I can meet my clients' needs after a disaster).
Focused—A clear vision of strategies for achieving desired outcomes and an ability to execute those strategies, even when disoriented (e.g., I know what my role is in disaster response and how to engage effectively in that role).
Flexible thought—The ability to produce a range of strategies as a mechanism for responding to change (e.g., I can come up with creative ways to address my clients' needs).
Flexible social—The ability to connect easily with others for support and assistance during change (e.g., I find it easy to connect with others for support during crises).
Organized—The ability to effectively develop and apply systems, processes, and structures when dealing with change (e.g., I am prepared to deal with my clients' needs).
Proactive—The ability to initiate action and engage in calculated risks when facing uncertainty (e.g., I can assess the situation and come up with my own ideas to help my clients).
Research Focusing on Natural Disasters in Florida
This research focused on UF/IFAS Extension agents who were involved in response efforts following Hurricane Irma in 2017. Nine UF/IFAS Extension agents from various counties across Florida were interviewed about how they coped with their disaster responsibilities. Agents showed high levels of continuous learning (challenge), medium levels of control over stressful situations, and medium-high levels of connecting with others (commitment). However, they exhibited low-medium levels of having a clear vision of what to do (focused), suggesting a lack of clarity in roles and expectations when engaged in disaster response. When asked about coping abilities, agents experienced some inability to balance personal and professional demands. They felt fatigued and likely experienced high levels of mental and emotional stress, likely resulting in a perceived inability to meet job requirements. These results likely lowered agents' personal resilience.
Strategies and Practices to Build Personal Resilience
From this study, organizations can use the following strategies to help strengthen the personal resilience of their employees engaged in disaster response.
Ensure essential employees are aware of their disaster responsibilities. Providing clear disaster roles in job descriptions informs individuals of their responsibilities. It is also a documentation piece highlighting expected actions in disaster response situations. This can help new employees cope better when dealing with disaster impacts.
Consider disaster training for disaster response professionals. Knowing how to respond in highly stressful situations can help strengthen overall personal resilience.
Encourage the use of existing services and resources for professionals who need help coping with natural disasters. In some cases, individuals might be unaware of the resources available to them. Having a list of these resources readily available can help disaster response professionals get the support they need. This can help reduce feelings of alienation, stress, and powerlessness, and strengthen personal resilience.
To strengthen the hardy attitudes that influence personal resilience, persons involved in disaster response can follow the steps below.
Challenge: Reflect on their hurricane experiences. This could help disaster response professionals identify past instances where things could have been done differently. As such, they gain insights that aid in continuous learning.
Commitment: Connect with others. Those engaged in disaster response should actively seek to stay connected with friends, family, and co-workers while engaged in hurricane response efforts. This can help prevent alienation and isolation and strengthen social support networks.
Control: Seek advice. Especially for first-time disaster response professionals, engaging in hurricane response efforts can be overwhelming. Seeking advice from experienced colleagues may be helpful in clarifying roles and expectations. If disaster response professionals have some idea of what to expect and how to cope, they may feel more in control of the situation.
Personal resilience is an important consideration for Extension and disaster response professionals. It focuses on reducing stress and increasing coping abilities in difficult situations such as natural disasters. Strategies to improve personal resilience can help individuals involved in response efforts to cope better in disaster situations (e.g., hurricanes), meet clients' needs, balance personal and professional demands, and reduce mental and physical stress.
Ali, A. D. (2019). Personal Resilience of Extension Agents and Communication Behaviors of County Extension Directors Post-Disaster. Doctoral dissertation. Retrieved from University of Florida Digital Collections. https://ufdc.ufl.edu/UFE0054320/00001
Eighmy, M., Hall, T. E., Sahr, E., Gebeke, D., & Hvidsten, M. (2012). The Extension Service and Rural/Frontier Disaster Planning, Response, and Recovery. Journal of Extension, 50(4). https://joe.org/joe/2012august/a10.php
Kistler, M., Place, N., Irani, T., & Telg, R. (2006, January). Front-Line Disaster Responders: Florida Extension Professionals' Personal Needs, Professional Needs, and Communication Efforts. 22 Annual Conference of the Association for International Agricultural and Extension Education. Clearwater, FL. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/237693166_FRONT-LINE_DISASTER_RESPONDERS_FLORIDA_EXTENSION_PROFESSIONAL%27S_PERSONAL_NEEDS_PROFESSIONAL_NEEDS_AND_COMMUNICATION_EFFORTS
Maddi, S. R. (2004). Hardiness: An Operationalization of Existential Courage. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 44(3), 279–298. doi:10.1177/0022167804266101.
Maddi, S. R. (2013). Hardiness: Turning Stressful Circumstances into Resilient Growth. New York: SpringerBriefs in Psychology.
Resilience Alliance. (2013). Personal Resilience Overview. Retrieved from http://resiliencealliance.com/wp-content/uploads/Personal-Resilience-Overview1.pdf
Telg, R., Irani, T., Place, N., DeGroat, A. R., Ladewig, H., Kistler, M., & Barnett, R. (2008). Disaster Preparedness and Professional and Personal Challenges of County Extension Faculty during the 2004 Florida Hurricane Season. Journal of Extension, 46(3). https://joe.org/joe/2008june/a6.php