Building Psychological Resilience

Innoculating Against Burnout - A Workshop With Roger F. Peters


The phrase "Care of the self", has been the focus of many of my professional presentations in recent years. I coined this phrase, one on which two of my books are based, from Thomas Moore's book "Care of the Soul". I think quite often the word "soul" puts people off, thus I refer to simply the "self", for me at least the two are synonymous. That is when caring for your self, you actually care for your soul. In this way our psychological health, like our physical health are important priorities, but also inter-related. To say for instance to an obese person, you should lose weight, obviously makes sense, but just for a moment think of the reasons. Most of us will come up with "losing weight will reduce the risk of Coronary Heart Disease", but then it will also reduce the risk of diabetes, anything else? What about, if a person loses weight their self esteem improves, they become more socialable, health conscious, then in liking themselves they like others, they have more money, because they are consuming less calories, they can think clearer because they exercise more or, they reduce risk of bowel cancer. You see, once you start a list it is seemingly endless. So it is important that this subject of your own psychological wellbeing is understood to be more than just the right thing to say. Your own welfare becomes critical not only in relation to your quality of life, but also to those around you. In this way, by considering your own psychological wellbeing as a priority there is more than just a selfish imperative. Your own wellbeing significantly influences the wellbeing of others around you, especially your family and your workplace.

Let me further explain this by way of illustration. Some years ago I worked with a 1 st grade Rugby League side for many years as part of a multidisciplinary coaching team, a skills coach. As you might imagine, my primary area was the psychological or affective skills. The coach, who incidentally was previously a teacher, was technically one of the best coaches I have ever worked with. However he had a personal style that was easily affected by his mood and certainly his anxiety. If the team was losing, his anxiety levels would increase, quite normal I hear you think. However the downside to this was that as his anxiety increased, so he projected it more and more onto the team. His answer to poor performance was to train even harder, and to project blame more and more onto the players. This analysis may have had some element of truth, but the reality was that such a neurosis not only caused the players resentment, but increased both anger and anxiety, so that subsequently the team's morale slumped. In turn this was then adversely reflected in the game. This then in turn led to an inevitable depression on the coach's part and let me tell you he was not a good person to be around in times like this! I recall when he was coaching reserve grade, on the last game of the season and all was lost. He just said to the team there is no plan, just go out and have a good time. This they then did and in fact beat a team who was well ahead of them on the competition table. When he became first grade coach, he often mentioned that, but never could see the connection between his own neurosis and the poor performance of his team.

Let me give you a further illustration that pushes this point even further. If you regularly fly you will be more than familiar with the safety instruction. In part you are told something like the following. "In an emergency, if an oxygen mask falls from the locker above you and you are sitting next to a child, ensure you place your mask on first before tending to the needs of the child". This commonsense suggestion is made to emphasise the point that by being fully capable and ready, we can then be more effective in assisting others.


The ultimate end point of not adequately caring for you may well be burnout, a term well understood by most, but incidentally not a condition accepted within the psychiatric nomenclature. The following may assist your understanding of the common features of. Burnout. Maslach (2003) states it has three dimensions, a) exhaustion, b) cynicism and c) a sense of inefficacy. (The later being about self belief or at least lack of it, normally reflected by the words, "I can not do this any more") For more information I refer you to a most recent paper by Christina Maslach, Job Burnout: New Directions in Research and Intervention Current Directions in Psychological Science Vol 12, No 5 2003 p 189-192. I think that the idea of burnout is at least more generally understood, certain professionals are more at risk, especially those that are in a vocation, such as nursing, policing, teaching and so on. Figley 2002 recently referred to this as Compassion Fatigue". However I want to spend most of the relatively short time I have with you looking at ways not just to reduce those stresses that provide us with the warning signs, but rather reduce the impact of them by developing psychological hardiness or improved resilience. In short an inoculation against burnout.

How I plan to discuss the importance of caring better for ourselves and avoiding burnout is by way of three principle strategies or as I will refer to them, templates.

a) "The Matrix of Stress";
b) Coping Resources and;
c) Resilience.

The Matrix of Stress

Many years ago I was involved in some research that was not only being conducted by myself in Newcastle , but also at the same time, but without my knowledge, by another person in Sydney . The research involved an evaluation of occupational stress in bus drivers. This was an interesting project because as it turned out, the principle cause of stress was not in fact the work but more about relationships. Two Machiavellians, one in management, the other in the trade union movement were engaged in a personal and bitter dispute, using as you might imagine the drivers as little more than pawns in their games. While this is an overdetermined analysis, it was far more complex than just that, it nonetheless emphasises the point I made earlier about the affect leaders may have, simply by way of personal style, adding to the stress of those around them. What was remarkable in the two studies was that two psychologists actually agreed on something and without collaboration! This was what I now refer to as the Matrix of Stress.


As you can see it has four components: a) demand; b) control; c) certainty; d) support. Thus in analysing our own stress levels, invariably when they are high we have excessive demand, a sense of a loss of control, an absence of certainty, we feel isolated and feel no one can help. For a moment, think of a time when you were really stressed, just write down those four components in your notebooks and note on a scale of 1-10 how you would rate each. [You obviously have to invert the scale for demand].

My guess is that you had a very poor score out of 40. Now think of a time when you were not stressed, do you see your score is quite different? Thus if we are to reduce stress in our lives we need to acknowledge that each of these components contribute and that at times one or more of these components may not seem to be immediately fixable. Yet with careful consideration you will always be able to vary one or even two. Lets examine this inter-relatedness of these components further, by use of an analogy.

How many people here think that smoking causes lung cancer? As I thought, most of you! Yet Hans Jurgens Eysenk, probably one of the world's greatest living psychologists, says that such a position is over determined. He says for instance that people who smoke and are stressed have a higher incidence of cancer than those who smoke but are not stressed, thus he believes that personality and stress are at least contributing factors. He also cites people who eat the main vegetables and rice, meditate, exercise regularly and probably grow their own tobacco, have a lowered incidence of cancer than those found in the western world. It would be negligent of me to suggest that smoking is not a cause of cancer. I am just suggesting that it's probably a lot more complex than that. For instance, is it one cigarette a day, two, twenty, or sixty that causes cancer? Is it also true that you don't get cancer before 35 years from smoking?

In the matrix of stress, I make the same argument. It is not whether you have excessive demand, many of us in fact thrive on excessive demand. What needs to be factored in is the type of demand, the period of demand and the inter-relationship with the other three factors of control, certainty and support. So like smoking, to simply suggest stress is a modern day killer and the cause of all our ills, is to over simplify what is in fact a complex rubric.

The Matrix is also quite useful as it not only allows for an analysis of stress, but also provides a template for an action plan. In fact I want to give you three action plans today. This is the first. What you can also do using this matrix is assess whether or not you are creative in dealing with stress, or a creator of stress.

To explain, do you see how armed with this matrix you could make someone's life absolutely miserable? Go back to your schools and try it. Firstly pick on someone, especially someone who appears vulnerable, even fragile. Load them up with work, especially difficult classes, make sure they don't get the best students, but the ones with the most behavioural problems. Ensure the classrooms are over crowded and that their timetable clashes really badly, especially placing the classes geographically distant from each other and the staff room. Good, now once that is in place start to spread rumours or hints about the future. How, for instance, due to a cash crisis there will need to be some changes in staffing arrangements next year, in fact anything that will cause uncertainty. Then reduce the sense of control they have, include performance reviews, ensure that their head teacher is a person who can not delegate and needs to over see curriculum development, over supervise staff members as often as possible. The best person for this job is someone who asks a person to do something, then tells them how to do it! Of course a vexatious and malicious allegation by a student is the icing on the top of the cake here, preferably one that will get CMU involved. Finally the absence of support, this is really critical. Place the teacher in a staff room, which is outside their own faculty. Now reduce the availability of teacher aides. If they are a teacher who teaches computing, ensure that the hardware is outdated, outmoded and frequently breaks down. By now they should look pretty frazzled and this is when you strike and question their professionalism, commitment, etc. Finally suggest they go and see the psychologist at the EAP if they cannot cope! Excellent job - and what will the psychologist say "oh no, not a bloody teacher again!"

Hyperbolae is often a useful vehicle to help us to remember and while obviously this illustration is given somewhat tongue in cheek, as my mother would remind me, there is a bit of seriousness in all humour. Thus is straightforward enough, the Matrix of stress is designed to provide a template to reduce stress. It seeks the answer to four questions. Have I too much demand (on my plate)? Have I lost the sense of control I need? Have I support available? Am I certain about the future? At times you will need to be creative as the answer may be both yes and no. For instance, things might be difficult at school and for a while you may feel a lack of regard, poorly supported and that things are slipping away from your control. School is only part of your life. You have, for instance, family, friends, and social groups, where stress does not prevail and there you do have some certainty, support etc. It is in fact the nature of some humans whenever they are stressed to over-generalise, and even catastrophize. For instance, a person is robbed in a bank and becomes house bound. What has happened is that the fear response has become over generalised from a particular occurrence (a robber with a gun), to not just a fear of the teller's area, but banks, even shopping centres and work. This overgeneralisation often happens when we are under considerable stress, that "life doesn't seem worth living". The task at this time is to keep a focus on what is the cause of our stress and not let it permeate every aspect of our life. I will take this up again in Section Three when I discuss resilience.

The importance of having a healthy, well functioning non-work life is self-evident. Nonetheless it is so often the case that a person who "takes their work" and thus stress home with them, can damage the people they love the most. In a study conducted recently by my son, Martin, into police stress, he evaluated the affect of stress on spouses and found a direct correlation with the level of police stress and the stress evident in spouses. This was measured by symptoms of trauma (secondary traumatisation), anxiety, insomnia and social withdrawal. It is suggested that this impact on the police family would be most likely true for other occupations as well. In a weeklong workshop I conduct for war veterans, partners are invited to attend the entire program, (and invariably do). Thus the importance of your own welfare needs to be widened to include everyone under your emotional umbrella. [So at least give your partner a copy of these notes].

Coping Better and Building Resilience

In a course I conduct, called "Care of the Self", I stress that resilience is made up from two components: a) personality, and; b) coping resources. In the third section of this workshop I want to approach resilience from a slightly different perspective, but for now in this second section I specifically want to deal with our coping resources. Before moving on to coping resources I want to just make a comment with regard to the other primary component, personality and the important role it has, especially in how we manage our lives. For years we have tried to define personality, a century or more ago it was assessed by the colour of our bile or phlegm, thus today the phlegmatic type of personality has been retained in our language. More recently personality theorists such as Theodore Millon have tried to categorise them, thus you have the dependent, the anti-social, the obsessive-compulsive, the narcissistic and so on. These may not be personality disorders per se, but rather characteristic ways in which we behave. Generally we are balanced, but at times the weakness or what Millon called a "diathesis" is exposed, invariably when we are under stress.

How many of you have had to deal with a hysterical teacher or parent, who seemed to be over -reacting to the situation? Or, the teacher who wanted to express to you how unique they were and impress you with their limitless talents (narcissistic). How this emerges is that while generally balanced, all of us have some weak point that is exposed when placed under certain types of stress. Thus if there were 16 personality types, then at our schools with a staff of 50, you most likely will have them all. This is where management becomes a key issue, for what will motivate one person, for another will send them into panic.

Like the matrix of stress, this knowledge can be used for malevolent intent. Its knowing what buttons turn people on and what turns them off. I figure that when my wife, who knows all my red buttons and green buttons, presses a red one, she is doing it with intent. I raise this issue of personality because it colours everything we do and shapes in fact how we develop our coping resources. Myers Briggs says that there are no bad personalities, just personalities we use in a creative or destructive way. This is probably true and you might keep that in mind when dealing with staff, not because it's a good thing to do, but to the point of this workshop. By relating better to others, it in fact adds to the betterment of our own welfare.

I want to now specifically focus on coping resources. I have included, as part of my workshop with you today, a Coping Resources Inventory, one that I have modified based on Hamner and Marting's Coping Resources Inventory, (1988). (See attatchment).

Interpreting the scores into action

Irrespective of how you scored on this simple test, there is always room for improvement. The test is somewhat diagnostic, by referring back to each question where you scored less than four, especially those you rated "1", you can, of course, develop an action plan to improve in that particular area. The most important consideration in this questionnaire is not just each category, but rather the total score. More importantly by changing one domain you can also change others.

For instance, if you exercise, you may lose weight, with a better attitude to fitness, you may then change your drinking habits, i.e., stop smoking etc. Thus, in feeling physically better you may feel more attractive, even lovable. Then you might find your relationship with your partner improves. You feel more likely to engage in social activities, etc. I realise this all sounds too good to be true, I am however just making the important point as to how easy it is to impact on the total score. As I said, this is a critical issue in developing better overall coping resources.


My purpose in inviting you to participate in this short exercise was two fold. Firstly, as an audit, secondly, as I promised earlier, to also provide you with what can be the basis for an action plan. You will note that not all the maximum scores for each factor are the same and this is a useful reminder to help us understand that our coping resources are not made up from equal components. Rather the sum total of our five coping resources is the critical issue. For instance while spiritual may mean a good deal to me, for others it may mean very little. For another person while social support means a lot, for others, again very little. Likewise if I am person who needs to be told I am loved and regularly at that, emotional resources would be a priority. Do you see how personality could be important here? That is why I suggested earlier that our personalities somewhat dictate the type of coping resources we need. Thus the person who was schizoid (a loner), may have needs quite different than the dependent type.

Collectively these five factors go to make up our coping resources and it is the level of coping resources we have that predict how well we cope with stress.

So the audit now completed, how did you fare? To use this as an action plan is a simple step. Firstly you need to rank each question in terms of its importance to you with "1" being extremely important, "2" average or unsure and "3" not really important. The next stage is to identify questions that you have prioritised as "1" but scored "2" or less on. Write these down and you have now established the basis of an action plan.


Psychologists, especially in recent times, have become more interested in this notion. We have talked for decades about making our lives less stressful, but what if we cannot achieve that? Psychologists have for decades now sold stress management programs, relaxation exercises, all in an attempt to help offset what some regard as an epidemic in the modern world. It has been estimated that now some 20% of all Australians suffer from conditions that would fit some criteria for psychiatric illness. Depression for instance is at an all time high with WHO claiming that by the year 2004 it will be the second most prevalent condition in the Western World. Thus it seems to me that if we try and just pursue what is I think probably not achievable, i.e., a stress free life, we are focussed too much on one side of the equation.

What if the facts were that we are going to have even more demands made upon us, that we are going to encounter more stress and for that matter distress in the immediate future? Some would say that is self-evident. Thus the idea of building up resilience or what others have regarded as psychological hardiness becomes a critical component in improving the welfare of ourselves and that of those we lead. Resilience is that armour we can develop, by maximising our personality, maximising our coping resources and then adding optimism.

Qualities of Resilience 

The following summarises the qualities found in highly resilient people.

A good indicator of exceptional mental health is when a person talking about a rough experience says "I would never willingly go through anything like that again, but it was the one of best things that ever happened to me." Ask "How can I turn this around? Why is it good that this happened? What is the gift?"

Twelve ways to build up resilience

Whether you're satisfied with your present level of resilience or not, the following suggestions for building your ability to bounce back will benefit if not now, then in the future. I have often regarded coping resources and resilience as emotional cash, there when you need it.

1. Take care of your body

Exhaustion, poor health, lack of sleep, poor eating, and harmful addictions, all weaken resilience. Develop a plan to build and maintain your physical strength. Slowly change your diet to include more fruit and less fat. Stop smoking and remove addictions, such as caffeine. With regular exercise you can also get back a regular sleeping routine. Poor sleep is a cause of depression and incidentally depression leads to poor sleep patterns. Stop with the Protestant work ethic and don't feel guilty when you need to take a rest or ask for help. Be obsessive about regular medical check-ups, so much ill health is preventable these days.

2. Check against negative thinking

Pay attention to the messages you send yourself. Do you tell yourself things like, "I'll never get over this," or "Life is so unfair!" ? Being aware of these thoughts and replacing them with new, positive ones ("I can handle this" or "Everyone faces hardship") can result in a whole new perspective. Develop what Martin Seligman refers to as "learned optimism", which replaces what presents at so many clinical practices these days, "Learned Helplessness". Read "Emotional Intelligence" by Daniel Goleman and practice it. In fact never be caught out not reading a book of inspiration.

3. Make plans

Give yourself challenging yet achievable goals to work towards. If things don't work out, adjust your plans accordingly - but don't throw in the towel at the first sign of trouble. Take responsibility for your role. When things do go wrong, take a look at what role you played in the situation. Be gentle with yourself, but try to take away valuable lessons so you don't repeat the same mistakes in the future.

4. Fight Isolation

Resilient people lean on others when they need to, and develop meaningful relationships that help pull them through. Although you shouldn't lean 100% on other people to hold you together emotionally, a support network is certainly beneficial. If you don't feel you have people you can turn to, go out and find them. Clubs, classes, support groups, volunteering…the list of ways to reach out and make human connection is endless. Importantly seek help if you can't deal with it. Don't be afraid to get professional help if you just aren't coping. You wouldn't hesitate to see a doctor if you were physically under the weather, would you?

5. Develop your Spirituality

Paying attention to your spiritual nature, whether it means attending church or walking outside to connect with nature, can help calm those feelings of anxiety that can creep up on us unsuspectingly. Take time to figure out what your spirit needs to stay nurtured, and keep tuned in! A good read in this regard is Thomas Moore's book, "Care of the Soul".

6. Perspective

When facing tough times, try to maintain perspective. It may seem like a huge, life-altering event at the time because of your strong emotional reaction, but how does it fit in to the big scheme of things? Think back to challenges you've faced in the past, and how they've made you a stronger person. You can even find a role model, someone who has survived similar hardship to come out on top. If they did it, so can you!

7. Give yourself time

While you should try to take positive action to get back into living after a trying event, you should also allow yourself time to heal. This requires facing the pain, sadness or anger that you feel and finding healthy ways to release it. If you try to skip over actually dealing with your problems, they will re-emerge later, perhaps in some other form.

8. Avoid self-absorption

Many of us tend to dwell on bad situations, analysing them over and over trying to figure out where we went wrong or what we could have done to prevent it. Sometimes called "paralysis by analysis". Balance this introspection with a healthy dose of looking outward - life is still going on around you, and you should try to participate in it.

9. Humour

Although you may not feel like laughing, even in the darkest moments, your sense of humour is still somewhere deep inside. Seek out the things that make you laugh. It was shown some time ago that laughter certainly is the best medicine as it kick starts the immune system and there have been some remarkable recoveries from serious illness because the person changed their attitude.

10. Reward

When you handle a situation well or manage to come out OK from a trying time, give yourself some credit. Treat yourself to a night out and let yourself feel proud. Think back to the times you handled difficulties in a healthy way, and make a list of these triumphs. The next time you feel overwhelmed in a situation, look at the list to remind yourself that you can bounce back.

11. Distract yourself

While you need to face your feelings and shouldn't ignore bigger problems, you can also benefit from learning when to simply distract yourself. Dwelling on troubles, especially the small irritants that you don't have the power to change. Try putting things on the back burner for a while until you're better prepared to deal with it - taking a step back often gives new perspective!

12. Break Routine

Increase your ability to adapt to new situations and people by trying little variations on your life routines; talk to someone you don't normally socialise with at work/school, visit a different part of town, or cook something different. Flexibility will make you more able to adjust to changes that come along in the future.


As I indicated to you at the beginning of this paper, I intended to give you three templates that could be used as an action plan. Obviously the Matrix of Stress provides a simple but effective test of your stress, while the Coping Resources Inventory allows you to isolate specific areas that require work. In the notes on resilience there are 12 areas, which match the number of months in a year. This could be the basis of a yearlong action plan. However its like painting the harbour bridge, once you get to the end its time to start painting from the other end. Complacency and apathy are the psychological cancers that creep into our lives, they undermine us and then leave us vulnerable to psychological difficulties. Thus there is no quick fix for improving resilience, but a continual process of maintenance.

This and other papers like it can be found on my web site I hope you enjoyed this presentation and I also hope that you share some of the ideas with your partner. If you would like to obtain a copy of the Coping Resources Questionnaire, please contact,

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