Understanding Resilience as It Affects the Transition from the UK Armed Forces to Civilian Life

by Kate Cox, Sarah Grand-Clement, Katerina Galai, Richard Flint, Alexandra Hall

This Article

RAND Health Quarterly, 2018; 8(2):8


There has been growing interest among policy officials, charity representatives and academic experts in understanding the transition process of UK Service leavers. While recent evidence suggests that resilience is important for a successful transition, no systematic review has been undertaken on this topic before this study. FiMT commissioned RAND Europe to research whether—and how—resilience can affect individual transition pathways and outcomes for UK Service leavers.

For more information, see RAND RR-2436-FIMT at https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR2436.html

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This Study Examines the Evidence Base Relating to UK Service Leaver Resilience and Transition from Military to Civilian Life

In the years following the release of the UK Ministry of Defence's (MOD) Armed Forces Covenant (UK MOD, 2000) and Strategy for Veterans (UK MOD, 2006), there has been growing interest among policy officials, charity representatives and academic experts in understanding the transition process for Service leavers. While recent evidence suggests that resilience is important to successful transition, no systematic review has been undertaken on the subject of UK Service leaver resilience and transition prior to this study.

To address this research gap, RAND Europe was commissioned by the Forces in Mind Trust (FiMT) to undertake a literature review comprised of a systematic review of academic literature, a Rapid Evidence Assessment (REA) of academic and grey literature, and a scoping review of ongoing research on UK Service leaver resilience and transition. This study aims to improve understanding of whether, and if so how, resilience can affect transition pathways and outcomes for UK Service leavers.

In support of this objective, five research questions (RQs) are addressed:

What is the extent of the literature on resilience and transition from military to civilian life, and what are the main findings?
What Service leaver "types" can be identified, and how can these groups be categorised?
What are the challenges faced by (a) different Service leaver types and (b) comparator groups in other sectors and contexts?
How does our analysis of Service leaver challenges (RQ2–3) inform our wider understanding of resilience and transition (RQ1)?
What areas for future research, policy and programming can be identified?

These research questions are addressed through three complementary literature reviews focused on resilience and transition (RQ1), Service leaver types and challenges (RQ2 and RQ3a), and comparator group challenges (RQ3b). Although these literature reviews have different areas of focus, they draw on a common four-step approach comprised of (i) search strategy development; (ii) study searches and selection; (iii) data extraction; and (iv) synthesis of findings through a workshop and narrative write-up.

Several Common Themes Can Be Identified in the Literature with Regard to "Resilience" and "Transition"

While "resilience" is often not assigned a specific definition in the literature reviewed, a number of common elements of resilience can be identified: hardiness, a positive attitude, coping skills, and the ability to handle challenges. The literature often conceptualises resilience at the individual level, representing personal skills or traits that can be built upon. Nonetheless, there also appears to be an important link between the individual and their wider environment: the resilience of the individual cannot be isolated from the resilience of their family, peers and wider community. Both the academic and grey literature see resilience not only as a characteristic that varies with context, time, age, gender and life circumstances, but also as a continuous process and as an outcome of transition.

In a similar way to "resilience," the literature highlights several common conceptualisations of "transition." In particular, most sources portray transition as a process of adaptation from one identity or culture to another, and indicate that there are multiple components of transition including, for example, employment, mental health and housing. While some papers apply time-based parameters to this adaptation process, others reject this approach in favour of a more "staged" approach focused on the different phases of the transition journey for Service leavers (e.g. the period of preparation for departure, resettlement and re-entry to civilian employment).

"Successful" transitions have been described in relation to a number of indicators. These include the ability to find satisfying work, maintain stable mental health, find suitable housing, and sustain successful family relationships. According to the literature reviewed, in a number of cases successful transition outcomes can also be linked to external policy and service provision. However, there is a need for clearer criteria of transition "success," "ease" and "difficulty" in order to (i) improve consistency and comparability between different academic studies; and (ii) be better able to evaluate transition policies and programmes.

The Role of Resilience in Shaping Transition Experiences and Outcomes Is Not Widely Discussed and Findings Are Mixed in the Papers Reviewed

There appear to be very few studies explicitly discussing the role of resilience in the transition from military to civilian life in the UK (seven studies). When the role of resilience is discussed, studies tend to identify a positive link between resilience and successful transition: resilience can better equip individuals to adapt to change, handle uncertainty, and cope with issues associated with transition. However, several sources instead identify a more negative relationship and find that the "can-do" attitude institutionalised through military Service may, in some cases, act as a barrier to seeking support in civilian life. In relation to the first research question, then, there is a limited evidence base in this area and the literature reviewed presents mixed findings in relation to whether resilience positively or negatively affects transition outcomes for Service leavers. Furthermore, given that "resilience" encompasses a wide range of personal character traits, it becomes more challenging systematically to analyse factors that support transition.

UK Service Leavers Are Categorised by the Academic and Policy Communities in Several Ways, But Existing Approaches Lack Granularity

In relation to the second research question, Service leavers undergoing transition tend to be classified by "type" in three different ways in the literature reviewed. The first (and most common) approach categorises Service leavers by discharge type, which relates to the circumstances of their discharge. According to the UK Joint Service Publication (JSP) 534 (Issue 17, September 2017), for example, the following categorisations are used across all three Services to determine the level of resettlement to which different Service leavers are entitled: Early Service Leavers (ESLs), "normal discharge" Service leavers, and "medically discharged" Service leavers. Second, the literature groups Service leavers according to their physical and mental characteristics, which relate to the physical health, mental health and/or behavioural state of an individual upon departure (e.g. substance abuse, pregnancy). A final approach to categorising Service leavers in the literature reviewed relates to Service leaver identity, which refers to a Service leaver's sense of self, military belonging and personal identity.

However, it is clear that these categorisation approaches often lack granularity in their discussion of Service leavers' demographic backgrounds, the circumstances under which they leave, their level of resilience, and their vulnerability at (and beyond) the point of departure. This means that there is a shortage of existing research on how these factors can affect the "success" of transition experiences, and that there is a consequent need for capturing additional variables and characteristics when conducting research on Service leavers' experiences of transition.

We Present an Indicative "Service Leavers Data Capture Template" That Offers a Foundation for More Targeted Research

In light of these data gaps, we present an indicative template that is designed to enable the more detailed examination of transition experience among different Service leaver populations through the generation of more comparable and generalisable data (see Figure 1). The template could be used by the MOD, the wider community of service providers and the research community in order to capture data at source. With the data obtained using this template, researchers would be better equipped to conduct primary research in order to identify areas of "low resilience" and vulnerability among specific "types" of Service leavers. This would, in turn, equip policy leads and military charity representatives with the data to develop more targeted support tailored to the transition challenges that specific types of Service leavers face.

Figure 1. Service Leavers Data Capture Template

Service Leavers Data Capture Template

As the "leaver type" column indicates, this template draws on the MOD's categorisation of Service leavers: Early Service Leavers, "normal discharge" Service leavers, and "medical discharge" Service leavers, given that this is the most commonly used classification approach in the literature reviewed. When using this type of template, we suggest that researchers not only capture Service leavers' discharge type and circumstances of leave (as presented in the red columns), but also consider a wider set of contextual factors that may affect individual transition experiences, such as age, gender, deployment experience or socio-economic background. This may help template users produce more rigorous research, and gather the data required to better understand areas of challenge for specific cohorts of Service leaver, with a view to improving evidence-based policy and support provision in this area.

While Many Service Leavers Undergo Successful Transitions, Others Can Face Challenges Relating to Ill Health, Unemployment and Homelessness

Many Service leavers integrate into civilian life without being adversely affected by the challenges of transition. However, some Service leavers either face more significant challenges or are less able to overcome challenges. The third research question explored transition challenges, which can include difficulties in adapting to a new civilian identity and building new relationships outside the Armed Forces. Other challenges relate to the more practical aspects of transition, such as finding new accommodation, dealing with financial independence, and navigating (re-)entry to civilian employment. Health issues can also create challenges, whether in relation to physical health, mental health (e.g. post-traumatic stress disorder—PTSD) or substance abuse. The literature reviewed indicates that many of these challenges are interlinked, with several studies identifying a strong causal relationship between the physical and mental health of Service leavers.

According to several papers, demographic factors such as age (youth) or a disadvantaged socio-economic background can intensify transition challenges for Service leavers. Moreover, the literature reviewed indicates that certain Service leaver "types" are more vulnerable to transition challenges than others. These include:

  • Some ESLs, reportedly vulnerable to mental health issues, employment difficulties, homelessness, and substance abuse; and lacking access to the full suite of UK resettlement support.
  • Some individuals who have been involuntary discharged, exposed to feelings of rejection, to homelessness and to mental health issues.
  • Some Service leavers with deployment and/or combat experience, given that this experience can expose individuals to traumatic events and can in some cases be linked to increased rates of violent offending, physical and mental issues, homelessness and premature mortality.

While these high-level trends are presented in the literature reviewed, it is nonetheless important to recognise the diversity of Service leavers, which reflects the variety of roles performed in the Armed Forces, the different circumstances affecting Service leavers upon departure, and the range of reasons for leaving the military. As such, not all Service leavers within these categorises will face the same challenges or experience transition in the same way.

Challenges Affecting Civilian Comparator Groups Are Often Similar to Those Faced by Service Leavers and Offer Applicable Lessons

As part of the third research question, the literature review also identified challenges affecting comparator groups in the civilian sector, i.e. bereaved individuals, divorcees, skilled migrants, former prisoners, individuals experiencing involuntary job loss, individuals leaving a strong professional culture, foster care leavers, and university starters. These challenges relate to:

  • Mental and emotional challenges, e.g. emotional issues, depression, PTSD.
  • Physical health, e.g. blood pressure, risk of morbidity, substance abuse.
  • Relationships with others, e.g. challenges in maintaining existing relationships in the context of transition, challenges in forming new relationships with others.
  • Relocation, i.e. challenges associated with a physical change in location.
  • Rehousing, i.e. challenges in finding stable accommodation.
  • Identity change, i.e. challenges relating to self-perception and self-definition.
  • Independent living, e.g. managing personal finances, registering for healthcare services.
  • Challenges of employment, i.e. challenges in finding and maintaining employment.

According to the literature reviewed, individuals in each comparator group experience a combination of the challenges listed above during the transition process. Most of the challenges listed are relevant to most of the comparator groups, albeit in varying ways and to different degrees. Challenges associated with mental health, for example, are common across all comparator groups but feature particularly strongly in the literature on divorce and bereavement, and less so in the literature on the experiences of young people starting university. In a similar way to the experience of a number of Service leavers, a number of challenges may be present for individuals in the comparator groups during transition.

Similarly to the challenges affecting some Service leavers, comparator group challenges can reinforce each other to create a particularly difficult transition experience. In the case of prison release, for example, challenges associated with mental health and substance abuse are connected closely to challenges of relocation and employment, with individuals who experience mental health difficulties or substance abuse often finding it more difficult to find a stable job and appropriate housing. Challenges of transition should therefore not be considered in isolation, as this would overlook the interplay between these different issue areas.

Despite Limited Discussion on How Resilience Affects Transition for Service Leavers, the "Comparator Group" Literature Provides Valuable Insights

As described in earlier sections, there is limited discussion of the relationship between resilience and transition outcomes in the literature on Service leavers. Papers reviewed instead tend to focus on a number of factors related to resilience that can assist the success of a transition. Among the most frequently mentioned factors contributing to successful transitions are support groups and peer networks that address challenges associated with Service leavers' feelings of isolation. Other studies also identify fulfilling employment, effective communication, good mental health and positive approaches to handling challenges as drivers of successful transition.

In summary, this study finds that there is not sufficient UK evidence either to substantiate or challenge the claim that resilience plays an important role in supporting transition from military to civilian life. What can be said is that there is an (albeit limited) body of evidence linking employment, communication, personal relationships, financial issues, mental health and other factors to transition pathways and outcomes. In relation to the comparator group analysis, however, resilience is found to play a role in equipping individuals to handle transition challenges more effectively. This body of literature across comparator groups may therefore offer a rich source of evidence, building on a more limited existing understanding of resilience in the Service leaver context.

This Study Presents Recommendations for Research, Policy and Support Provision

Building on the findings presented, Table 1 outlines a set of recommendations for: (i) research funders and researchers; and (ii) policymakers and relevant bodies engaged in support provision for UK Service leavers.

Table 1. Overview of Recommendations for Research, Policy and Service Provision

Recommendation (R) Supporting Evidence
Recommendations for research funders and researchers
R1: Primary research should be undertaken to improve understanding of the relationship between Service leaver resilience and transition experiences. A core finding of the study is that the role of resilience in shaping transition is not widely discussed in the secondary literature; primary research is therefore needed to enhance understanding of this area.
R2: Qualitative primary research should be undertaken to enhance understanding of "what works," for whom and why in transition to civilian life. Expert Workshop discussions highlighted that research on Service leavers has tended to focus on challenges faced, rather than positive transition experiences—a finding that reflects the content of literature reviewed.
R3: "Deeper dive" research into the support provided for one or more comparator groups could offer lessons for the Service leaver context. While the literature on resilience and transition is relatively sparse in the military context, the comparator group literature may offer a richer base of evidence.
R4: More funding for longitudinal research should be allocated to support an enhanced understanding of transition experiences over time. Our literature review identified a shortage of longitudinal research in relation to Service leaver resilience; reviewed studies noted the benefits of this type of research to tracking longer-term transition experiences.
Recommendations for policymakers and support providers
R5: Data collection on Service leaver resilience and transition should be systematised, and information sharing practices improved. There is no commonly used existing typology of UK Service leavers. The need for more granular data capture is clear both from the data gaps in the literature reviewed and from Expert Workshop discussions.
R6: Policymakers and service providers should continue to develop support mechanisms designed to prepare personnel for transition before as well as at and after the point of departure. While the literature notes an important connection between individual preparedness for transition and transition "success," Expert Workshop participants stated that there could be more pre-discharge support offered to build resilience in order to prepare personnel for departure.
R7: Integrated support should be offered to UK Service leavers in recognition of the links between challenges associated with transition. Our analysis of challenges faced by Service leavers and comparator groups found that these challenges are often interlinked and that there is merit in signposting support offered across "challenge areas."


UK Joint Service Publication 534, other, The Tri-Service Resettlement and Employment Support Manual, JSP 534(1), September 2017.

UK Ministry of Defence, other, Armed Forces Covenant, 2000. As of April 27, 2018:

UK Ministry of Defence, other, Strategy for Veterans, 2006. As of April 27, 2018:

The research described in this article was commissioned by the Forces in Mind Trust (FiMT) and conducted by RAND Europe.

RAND Health Quarterly is produced by the RAND Corporation. ISSN 2162-8254.