Skip to main content

Build Your Resilience by Helping Others

Strengthening your ability to weather adversity often involves others

Flower buds sprout on a branch.
Flower buds emerge from a branch during early spring at the Sarah P. Duke Gardens. Photo courtesy of University Communications.

Working from home during the pandemic hasn’t been easy for Linda Simpson, an extrovert who finds the separation from colleagues tough as she tries to anticipate needs. 

But each day around lunchtime, Simpson sits down with her 25-year-old daughter Kalynn, who is staying with her while working for a software company based in Atlanta. The conversations center on work stress, and Simpson often provides Kalynn a sympathetic ear and plenty of encouragement.

“We have definitely been leaning on each other, and it makes me feel good that I can help her,” said Simpson, a staff assistant with the Sanford School of Public Policy. 

The benefits of these moments go both ways: by being present for her daughter, Simpson helps Kalynn weather challenges, and according to lessons in a recent course on resilience offered by Duke’s Learning & Organization Development (L&OD), that builds up Simpson’s ability to push through difficult times.

Linda Simpson and her daughter Kalynn have leaned on one another during the pandemic. Photo courtesy of Linda Simpson.Simpson was one of roughly two dozen employees who participated in the recent L&OD course  “Resilience: Building Skills to Endure Hardship and Prevent Burnout.” The three-hour online course will be offered on Feb.11 and Nov. 4 in 2021.

“Resilience really is a skill you can learn,” said Marjorie Siegert, L&OD’s senior practitioner who taught the recent session. “With COVID, we’ve all experienced a lot of changes, and we probably haven’t gotten to see all of them yet. So if we can build our resilience now, as those punches keep coming, we’ll be better able to brush them off. We want to help our employees in this current situation by providing a resource they can tap into.”

J. Bryan Sexton of the Duke Center for Healthcare Safety & Quality.J. Bryan Sexton, director of the Duke Center for Healthcare Safety & Quality, which offers a resilience-building toolkit, said building resilience through helping others is part of what’s called Self-Determination Theory. The theory suggests that people’s behavior is guided by the desire to feel autonomous, connected and competent. 

By helping others, you can feel both connected and competent, thus delivering a sense of satisfaction, which helps build resilience. 

“This isn't to say that the way to get out of a hole is to help everyone else, but that in small doses, as a strategy, it can be very reliable,” Sexton said.

Among the ways Siegert suggests strengthening resilience is to help others, even if through small, simple gestures such as checking in with a friend with a phone call or text message, or being willing to listen when a co-worker is dealing with stress.

For Brenda Knox, a course participant who recently joined the staff of the Pratt School of Engineering as an instructional designer, making hand-sewn facemasks has been an activity that’s helped her get through the stress of changing jobs during the pandemic. She distributes the masks to friends and neighbors and said by addressing needs of others, her own concerns seem less overwhelming and easier to face.

Brenda Knox“To me, it’s about getting out of my own head and not being so self-centered,” Knox said. “It takes me from an inward focus to an outward focus and that helps me be optimistic.”

Julia Yao, a research associate with the Duke Global Health Institute’s Clergy Health Initiative who also participated in L&OD’s session on resilience, said that her sense of optimism got a boost when she reached out to a new colleague to set up a virtual coffee break over Zoom.

“Before COVID, I would naturally want to meet a new coworker so I’d ask them to go for a coffee or a lunch,” Yao said. “I want to get to know them, not just as employees, but as a whole person. I don’t think this practice has to stop.”

Yao said the virtual chat in August helped her remember that, while she’s been working remotely, she’s still part of a team with a shared mission.

Julia Yao of the Duke Global Health Institute’s Clergy Health Initiative has set up Zoom coffee breaks with new colleagues. Photo courtesy of Julia Yao.“It helped me with my resilience,” Yao said. “There are times when you feel like you’re stuck in your own problems, so when I turned around and had the capacity and the privilege to help somebody, it helped me. It gave me a sense of satisfaction and joy.”

And for the Sanford School of Public Policy’s Linda Simpson, helping Kalynn through challenges, gives her a chance to reflect on times in her own life when she overcame difficult moments. Siegert of L&OD points out that reminders of hurdles we’ve overcome allows us to face current challenges with more confidence.

“The more you can sit back and think of things that happened that you thought were terrible – but you got through – the more resilient you can get,” Siegert said. “You can say ‘Gosh that was horrible, but I see that I’m better now and if that happens again, I will be ready for it.’”

Got something you would like for us to cover? Send ideas, shout-outs and photographs through our story idea form or write