Stress Hardiness

Multi-colored arrows, representing stress, all aimed at a central point.

“Stress-Hardiness” The Path to Resilience for Judges

By Nancy Stek, Associate Director New Jersey Lawyers Assistance Program


Judges have a special and distinct role in a profession that is highly stressful. Studies indicate those of us in the legal profession have higher rates of depression, anxiety-related disorders and addiction than the general population. Recognizing and building our “resilience” or “stress- hardiness” provides needed protective factors that enhance judicial careers despite high levels of stress and strain. Continually working against deadlines in highly charged, adversarial and competitive settings exacts a very high price, unless a judge ranks high in hardiness traits.


What are the attitudes and skills that comprise hardiness and resilience? More importantly, how can they be acquired? Dr. Martin Seligman, the founding father of Positive Psychology, recently identified a set of human strengths acting as buffers against extreme stress, adversity and psychological illness. According to Seligman, these traits include courage, optimism, interpersonal skill, work ethic, hope, honesty, responsibility and perseverance. His work also identified several buffering traits that protect against stress and adversity. These traits fit well into a framework developed by Dr. Salvatore Maddi known as “Hardiness.” Judges can benefit from Dr. Maddi’s research and work with corporate executives. Over a twelve-year period, Dr. Maddi and his team of researchers worked with 400 employees before, during, and after the greatest divestiture in history: the break up of AT&T. The results of this landmark study showed almost 2/3 of the people had significant health/wellness breakdowns. Problems included heart attacks, strokes, obesity, poor performance, demotions, depression, anxiety states, burnout, substance abuse and divorce. However, one result from the study was remarkable: 1/3 of the employees not only survived the upheaval but thrived in spite of it. This opened the door to 25 years of additional studies about hardiness, continuing to validate the original findings. Those who thrived had three key beliefs in common that helped them to turn adversity to advantage. These beliefs, according to the researchers, “appear to interact together to synergistically motivate coping behaviors that help one to manage change.” These three characteristics came to be described as “Hardiness.” Hundreds of research studies conducted since Dr. Maddi’s original work in the 1980’s consistently confirmed the unique stress buffering nature of the characteristics referred to as “the 3 C’s.”


The first characteristic of people maintaining health in the face of change and high levels of stress has to do with the “challenging” way they approach life. Those looking at life as a challenge tend to welcome new situations as opportunities. They learn, grow, and develop rather than reacting to new prospects as threats. They believe they can grow from positive life experiences as well as negative ones and they readily accept the idea that change is a positive and normal characteristic of life. This optimistic, challenging attitude about self, the world, and the interaction between the two allowed employees in the study to stay motivated. They engaged in peak performance, leadership, and health enhancing thoughts and behaviors. The “glass half-full” as opposed to “half-empty” characterizes this kind of attitudinal shift. This shift also encompasses risk-taking, adapting easily to change, and looking at life and its adversity with a “give it your best shot” attitude. COMMITMENT “Commitment” is the second characteristic that the ‘hardy’group shared. Being committed to finding meaningful purpose in life set these individuals apart from the 2/3 who had wellness breakdowns. People who are high on commitment are fully involved in what they are doing. This sense of commitment allows people to feel important and worthwhile enough to engage fully in work tasks despite stressful changes that may be taking place. They give activities their best, not their perfect, effort and have a curiosity about what they are doing instead of a feeling of detachment or isolation. Involving oneself in experiences in committed, meaningful ways is the second essential anchor in this “hardy” triad. CONTROL “Control” is the third characteristic. Control motivated the thrive group to find ways to influence the outcome of stressful changes, rather than lapse into helplessness and passivity. The element of control has been studied extensively in the field of psychology. Studies look at the extent to which we believe that the outcomes of our actions are contingent on what we do (internal control orientation) or on events outside our personal control (external control orientation). Those who experience unhealthy emotional states and engage in harmful behaviors have an ‘external locus of control’. Individuals with an ‘internal locus of control’ would rate high on this Hardiness element and tend to perceive themselves as ‘in charge’ and ‘responsible’ for the outcomes of their lives. They tend not to be ‘blamers’ and ‘complainers’ and feel in control of their destiny and direction in life. These people develop a strong sense of self-efficacy instead of feelings of powerlessness. They have a realistic perspective on changing the things they can and accepting the things they cannot.


In addition to the three C’s, challenge, commitment, and control, a fourth “C” surfaced in Maddi‘s work. “Connection,” has proven to be a crucial factor in individuals who bounce back and resist stress. Research exploring how and why people get well in therapy points strongly to the connection between the client and therapist. Mutual-aid or self-help groups owe their success, in part, to the power of belonging and connectedness provided by being a member of a community. In the original study, employees who thrived possessed a specific pattern of giving and getting social and personal assistance and encouragement both to and from their work community. According to the research, social support contributes strongly to the strengthening of their attitudes and coping skills. Creating and maintaining a supportive, caring and encouraging environment goes a long way to enhancing and strengthening personal hardiness. Additionally, social support from individuals outside of work is just as important in fostering and building hardiness. Having close family ties, friendships and other avenues for social support (religious/ spiritual, community based clubs/interest groups) is shown in several studies as adding or supplementing what is missing or available in the work community.


In a recent edition of the ABA’s Judge’s Journal, the Honorable James M. Riehl, of the state of Washington writes: “I doubt many judges have not experienced the isolation of taking the bench as a career. I recall, when I took the bench twenty-five years ago, the feeling of isolation when lunches and social occasions became few and far between with my lawyer friends. Suddenly there were awkward moments when we would pass in the hallway, with friends at a loss of how to greet me. Finally, there was the perceived inability to discuss the stress of the job with anyone, including family. The isolation experienced by judges certainly contributes to the personal health issues, and unless we as a legal community address these challenges, we do a great disservice to our colleagues.” The isolation experienced as a result of transitioning from lawyer to judge is but one type of stress. Several states, including New Jersey, have surveyed judges to identify occupational stressors they have encountered. These include: substantial workloads, traumatic cases, long trials, interruptions, intense media exposure, public ignorance of the role of the court as well as their lack of understanding of legal issues. Also, shifting from a position of advocacy to one that is impartial and unbiased, and being expected to make numerous decisions quickly, efficiently and wisely every day are among the stressors cited most often. There are many others. Judging exists in and creates a highly stressful, demanding work environment. The stress and demands are persistent and seemingly endless. There are innumerable and conflicting deadlines, to say nothing of the responsibilities of making complex decisions in highly contentious situations. Often there are individuals in a judge’s personal life who also demand attention, compounding the stress. As a result, judges have less time to spend on their own physical, mental, and emotional needs. Because they are seen as wise and as problem-solvers, it is presumed they have little need of help. Not having the necessary judicial temperament can also be a stressor. The legal system is an adversarial process and therefore is not always a good fit for the personality styles and emotional needs of many dedicated judges. They may discover that they do not have the passion for the work they expected and may find it difficult to reconcile conflicting goals and values. Because judges are expected to handle complex, difficult and painful matters. vicarious trauma or the “cost of caring” as identified by Dr. Charles Figley in Compassion Fatigue, may result. This negatively impacts a judge’s ability to perform and cope. Continually working in such highly charged settings exacts a very high price.


Much learned from the hardiness research can serve judges. The researchers identified a group of traits that can allow judges to thrive under extreme hardship and pressure. Through special training, researchers helped individuals develop key attitudes and resources for transforming challenge to opportunity. Participants decreased in signs of strain such as anxiety, depression, distrust, and blood pressure while increasing in job satisfaction, morale, and Commitment, Control, and Challenge. Applying the 3 Cs to judging while at the same time building social support leads to stress-hardiness: thriving in adversity, seeing the glass half-full and taking an active role in the direction of one’s life as a judge. Building stress-hardiness is the path to resilience—both on and off the bench.

Special thanks to former Associate Justice Helen Hoens, Supreme Court of New Jersey for her considerable support in this endeavor and the on-going work of the Judges’ Assistance Program, and to Superior Court Judge Thomas H. Dilts of Somerset County, NJ, for his invaluable support, counsel and insightful contributions to the writing and editing of this article.