Psychology of flourishing women in higher education: leveraging well-being and resilience

gender bias resilience the edit issue 5 well-being Dec 02, 2019

By Dr Jummy Okoya

This article is meant to equip all women in higher education with the tools and techniques to help build up their skills of resilience, including raising awareness of their well-being. Research has revealed that our well-being is always the first to suffer when we are going through challenges or adversity. My aim is to challenge you to be proactive and to know the right tool to deploy when dealing with challenges or adversity in any domain of your lives. 

I have attended many workshops where the VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and ambiguity) environment is considered new normal, but I beg to differ because I believe that VUCA has always been a constant in the education sector. Everyday living is fraught with experiences that encapsulate some if not all elements of VUCA. One of the ways to shield ourselves from its impact is by leveraging our well-being and building up our resilience muscles. In order to flourish we ought to be proactive and intentional in building up our well-being toolkit. 

PERMA model 

Flourishing goes beyond being happy and content. For some it is achieving financial success, self-development or growth, to others it might be moving up the career ladder. However, all or some of these contribute to flourishing. The term flourishing comes from Positive Psychology. It is a multi-dimensional construct consisting of many important parts, we can achieve maximum flourishing through experiencing a healthy level of each dimension or component. Flourishing goes beyond simple happiness or well-being; it includes a wide range of positive psychological constructs and offers a more holistic perspective on what it means to thrive. Flourishing can be achieved by paying careful attention to building and maintaining the five aspects of the PERMA model. 

The PERMA model is a model developed by Prof Martin Seligman, which explain what contributes to a sense of flourishing. The five factors in this model are:

  • Positive emotions
  • Engagement
  • Relationships
  • meaning
  • Accomplishments (Seligman, 2011)

 There are several benefits linked to flourishing, some of which are: Individuals are more satisfied with their work leading to fewer missed days. It has also been associated with reducing the feeling of helplessness. Individuals who are flourishing have more clarity around their life goals and higher resilience (Keyes, 2007).

Daily flourishing rituals 

I have struggled in the past to commit to daily rituals, however evidence are everywhere about the power of developing daily routine. One of such routines that has served me well is meditation. This exercise helps me to centre myself, improve my concentration and improved calm demeanour. Setting daily goals first thing in the morning puts me on the front foot and puts my mind in achievement mode before I have set my foot in the office.  My third and probably the ritual I have done for the longest period is Gratitude. I have a mobile app on my phone which prompts me to record three things I am grateful for, so I spend my day actively seeking for things I will record at the end of the day that I am grateful for. My expectation of course creates my experience. I also make sure that I do some form of physical activity first thing in the morning (walk, run or go for a spin class in the gym), this gives me the feel good factor through the release of endorphins.  

Leveraging well-being and resilience

My career in the education sector started in 2001 as an hourly paid lecturer. In the last 18 years I have witnessed the landscape of the sector change many times and have had to reinvent myself (skills set, attitude and mode of operation) to meet the ever changing demands of my role. 

Although employers make efforts to provide resources to support employee well-being and mental health, most of it is utilised in a reactive mode, where individuals get support offered to them when they are already in the throes of poor mental health, they are feeling overwhelmed or they are simply languishing. I am great believer in individuals taking some responsibility for their well-being by being proactive in nurturing their well-being and developing resilience thoughts and actions, because we achieve success when we are happy, not the other way round. 

Resilience is partly gained from our personality and genetic factor but It is also a learnable skill. When you find yourself dealing with several work demands competing for your attention such as; responding to student’s emails, making a start with the marking you have been putting off for days or attending a meeting, teaching, lecture preparation, it can suddenly feel like you are on a treadmill. When work feels too much and there is work life conflict such that work becomes all-consuming, this can have serious implications for our mental health.

I have had to deal with my own constant internal conflict around genuinely wanting to look after my well-being, becoming more resilient in the face of multiple deadlines at work, personal commitments at home and internal yearning to develop my career. However, the reality is there isn’t going to be less pressure at work, instead I decided to identify my own coping mechanisms and develop a multidimensional approach to flourishing. 

I have come to appreciate the role of pressure in developing my resilience but also recognise the impact of excessive pressure on my performance. I pay particular attention to identifying and naming my current position on the pressure and performance continuum. The different stages of pressure are: boredom, comfort, stretch, strain and crisis. It is important to keep in mind the fact that individuals will respond differently to pressure and we all need to recognise this and identify when different colleagues are potentially at risk of boredom or crisis. What one person will find challenging and motivating could potentially be too much for another individual. It also worth mentioning that there are potential serious health implications when individuals are constantly operating in strain, there must be opportunities to get back to comfort to reflect and recalibrate.

Leveraging well-being and resilience in order to flourish requires a structured approach and having several positive routines and behaviours in place. I use the Workplace Resilience and Well-being (WRAW) tool when having conversations with students, colleagues or family. It is a very useful tool which provides a snapshot of your well-being and offer useful tools and techniques to support your flourishing as an ongoing practice. The five pillars are: 

Pillar 1 -  Energy

This is the foundation of physical and mental resilience.  This is about taking personal responsibility for your physical health and energy and doing whatever’s in your power to optimise this. In this pillar, your focus should be to make sure your nourishing your body, hydrating yourself, getting enough sleep and setting boundaries between work and personal life. You may want to keep a record of how much water you are drinking, monitoring the quality and quantity of sleep you are getting and being ruthless with keeping work and life boundaries very clear. 

Pillar 2 – Future Focus

Having a sense of purpose and direction makes it easier to feel resilient. This pillar is about having clarity and sense of certainty about where you want to go and have an idea of how you’re going to get there. Having a planned career pathway defined by you or your organisation contributes to your wellbeing. When you are feeling stuck in the present, you are not likely to feel resilient. Find purpose and meaning in the work you do, accept what is out of your control and channel your energy to those things you can influence. Future focus helps us become unstuck and move forward.

Pillar 3 – Inner Drive

This is the pillar that I think you can never have too much of. This is about your personal internal motivation, perseverance and self-efficacy. Having clarity about our goals is not enough if we don’t have the drive to get ourselves there. Inner drive is about positive mental energy, enjoyment and engagement.  Think how good you feel when you’re really motivated and driven and how easy life feels as a result. Having the belief that you control your destiny and focusing on what is going well for you will create an upward trajectory in your mood. 

Pillar 4 – Flexible Thinking

Being open minded allows us to be alert to multiple perspectives and embrace difference. This pillar helps you think outside the box, think creatively and laterally and hence get unstuck.  Ideas, options, choices = greater resilience.

Pillar 5 – Strong Relationships

Resilient people have great relationships, great rapport and empathy, they are not too proud to share their problems and issues, they’re seen as open, honest and trustworthy and as such they have great support networks both at home and at work.

The five well-being Pillars can stand in isolation but there are obvious links between them and they work together very well.  The great news is that you don’t need to be strong in every pillar. Obviously bolstering each element will help, but the key is to play to your strengths during difficult times. You are advised to take steps to leverage your well-being in a holistic manner by creatively developing and enhancing any particular pillar, which may require development; this can be achieved, by taking the Wraw psychometric test. 

Summary of the workplace resilience and well-being pillars

Physical energy is the foundation stone – it gives you the wherewithal to be resilient.  Future focus is about ensuring that you are not mired in the problems of the present and that you are looking forward with realistic optimism.  Inner drive is about motivation, confidence and self-belief, ensuring you have the positive mental energy to get to where you want to go; flexible thinking enables you to have lots of different options and routes to get you there; whilst strong support networks ensure you have the support you need along the way. 

Tips for flourishing 

  • Manage your pressure level, by being super aware of when you are tipping over to crisis and have action plan in place to reinvigorate yourself.
  • Balance periods of high pressure such as start of new project, academic term with periods of winding down as opportunities to recalibrate
  • Create daily rituals and embed new behaviours to support you flourishing
  • Build time into your day for reflection and challenge your silent internal dialogue dialogue through questioning (Is this reality or my perspective?) 
  • Develop your growth mindset – focus on ‘what now can be created?’
  • Build and leverage your support network, offer and ask for help when needed.



Seligman, M. E. P. (2011). Flourish: A visionary new understanding of happiness and well-being. New York, NY, US: Free Press.

Promoting and Protecting Mental Health as Flourishing, Keyes


Dr Jummy Okoya biography

Senior Lecturer, University of East London (UEL)

Jummy is an international HR Consultant with two decades’ experience in public, private and UK higher education. In addition to her role at UEL, Jummy is visiting lecturer at many excellent institutions both in the UK (Imperial College Business School) & overseas (University for Foreigners of Perugia Italy). She is the chair of UEL Women's Network and the Equality and Diversity lead for her school. Jummy holds a PhD in Human Resource Management and Entrepreneurship, MSc in Positive Psychology and Applied Coaching Psychology; she is a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy, Fellow of Chartered Management Institute and a Chartered academic member of the CIPD. @jummy_okoya