The catastrophic events of this summer are still unfolding and the strain in organisations across the country is palpable. As with most disasters, there are significant risks that go unnoticed in the madness of immediate survival. While leaders focus on getting the job done under often extreme circumstances, many of the hidden impacts and long-term consequences on the workforce and hence business viability are overlooked.
So what are some of the practical strategies you can put in place right now that will make a difference?
Having a clear focus on and providing mechanisms to contain the distress and anxiety coursing through most organisations at the moment, is important, particularly in an environment where containment hasn’t come from the nation’s leaders in the way we might have expected.
For fire and emergency service organisations on the frontline, it’s been exhausting. The emotional impacts of what employees and volunteers have experienced is likely to come to the surface in the months to come, when the adrenalin settles down and when the immediate tasks of fire management and clean-up approach completion.
Those who supported the front line, have carried and still carry the collective strain of worrying about and trying to do their best by their colleagues. Disability sector workers are still reeling from the announcement that NDIS funding would be diverted to bushfire relief, by a government aiming for surplus. Even in so-called unaffected areas, small business owners are nervously watching their sales figures and bank balances drop, while casual staff are vulnerable. Many feel no right to speak about their own stress.
It is important that organisations put mechanisms in place for those typically regarded as being at high risk and those on the periphery.
All staff need to know that riding an emotional roller-coaster is normal under these extraordinary circumstances. When people are under strain, tempers fray. We can expect spikes in conflict, without clear or apparent cause. Managers need to be alert to heightened or out of character behaviour and to step in to ask: ‘Are you OK’.
Don’t underestimate the healing power of listening. Wherever possible leaders need to make themselves available. It’s equally important that leaders and managers reach out to coaches or trusted advisors to ensure that someone is there to listen to them.
Watch for Vicarious Trauma
Leaders are having to make tough decisions in an environment of uncertainty and panic. Global companies with staff caught up in quarantine and lockdown conditions in China, due to the Coronavirus, are scrambling to put support measures in place. They are managing the fears of stranded employees, their families and their own fears and confusion, as we now find ourselves facing successive crises without respite. Call Centre staff are being asked to deal with traumatised victims of fire, who are desperate for answers they cannot provide.
After almost a decade spent working in the prevention and management of psychological injury in the workplace I understand only too well the impact of vicarious trauma, which can be nipped in the bud through adequate debriefing or peer support when the early signs of irritability, fatigue, confusion and feeling burdened are evident.
And please, don’t forget the scientists and experts who have dedicated their lives to getting the message about climate change out. They have done the research, informed policy decisions, collaborated with other agencies and negotiated across government sectors. While much of the community is just beginning to wake to the risks that confront us, they have held the burden of this knowledge for years. Some mental health practitioners are coining the term eco-trauma to describe the impacts they are seeing on those working in the biodiversity sector. A sense of failure and/or futility engulfs some veterans of the fight for sustainability.
For some individuals, the heartbreak is too much to bear. While some persevere despite their despair, there are others who are leaving, who are giving up. Their grief is too deep and seeing the writing on the wall, they are opting instead to focus on themselves and their families. While Richard Di Natale’s shock resignation highlights the issue, he is not alone. Many valued technical experts, policymakers and leaders who have fought with commitment for so long are now stepping back, heartsick. This is a tremendous social and organisational risk, that may well be unnoticed until it is too late.
Monitor Workloads and Responsibilities
There is a sense of overwhelm that comes, with being faced with an impossible workload. Many workplaces simply haven’t got the capacity to do what now needs to be done. Insurance companies face a backlog of claims on such a scale, that whole fields have been allocated to vehicles that will wait for months before damage can be assessed (and at which point it is likely that wait-period weather damage alone will ensure total write-offs).
I hesitate as I write, should I continue, or have I said enough? My intention is not to overwhelm those in leadership and human resource roles. It is not to add to the sense of fear and panic that is operating in the background, but to prompt a dialogue about how we support our leaders and our people. How do we re-establish a sense of psychological safety for them in a world that seems overnight to have gone mad?
Don't Hide From Complexity
While our traditional psychological and welfare mechanisms offer great advice on preventing and managing trauma, we are in new territory at the moment.
Those individuals and finance personnel who understand the economics recognise that we are facing potential losses and instability at a scale that we have never seen before. It is not simply a question of recovering from one event or a series of events. Whilst facing the immediate challenges, we are simultaneously beginning to realise that we will face these issues again and again, potentially with increasing severity. Employees are absorbing and coming to terms with these understandings, as they grapple to find new paradigms for living and working. Perhaps it is not possible to do both at the same time, perhaps it is essential.
So while we are endeavouring to create a psychologically safe environment for our people, it is important that we don’t endeavor to prematurely get things back on track, lest we plaster over the gravity of what people are dealing with. Simplifying the scale of the disruption comes across as dismissive and adds to the strain. The country has already seen enough of that type of leadership and the scars remain fresh.
The goal rather is to establish a secure and stabilising ‘containing environment’. This is achieved when your staff know you are paying attention and committed to working with them.
We need to look at our response through more than the lens of individual psychology and mental health first aid, though these are important. We need to take a systemic approach to understanding the forces acting on the wider community and members of different industries, divisions and teams. Doing this will help us understand where and how the strain is likely to reveal itself and enable us to provide tailored responses that respect the journey different people and different professional groups are likely to embark upon.
There need to be multiple touchpoints – with corporate leaders, managers and peers, with HR specialists and support staff. Many of the communication strategies used in times of organisational change and transformation are relevant now.
Our approach needs to be multi-faceted, from dealing with immediate fear, grief and trauma, through to building longer-term capability and ways of engaging with uncertainty.
We need to learn how to enter into dialogue rather than retreat or shut down around what we are facing.
Our current focus at CLE is to support these crucial conversations and to build the organisational capability to sensitively and courageously explore what the future looks like for many professionals as we confront the new 'not normal at all'.
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Rho Sandberg is a leadership and organisational development consultant, with a background in neuroscience and psychotherapy. She holds a Masters of Organisational Change and Conflict Facilitation and is experienced working with emergency service and other organisations and communities in contexts of uncertainty and intense conflict.