Meditate. Exercise. Take a break from social media.
For crisis managers struggling to keep their teams motivated and engaged, advice like this (which is mostly what is being meted out right now) feels cliche and remarkably unhelpful. Like your doctor telling you to eat less and exercise more to lose weight.
If it were that simple, Weight Watchers wouldn’t be in the Fortune 1,000, and Amazon wouldn’t be selling five packs of pant expanders for $9.97.
Crisis leaders don’t need more “exercise more, eat less” types of advice or stop-gap pant expander solutions.
They need actionable advice that will help them:
- Understand and mitigate the impacts of protracted crises on their people,
- Reimagine their approach to business continuity and crisis management, and
- Strategically prepare their organizations to cope with crisis fatigue in the new normal.
That’s what we aim to do here.
Beyond crisis fatigue
Crisis fatigue in the pre-pandemic sense is mostly well understood. In response to a crisis, our “fight or flight” response kicks in, flooding our systems with the cortisol and adrenaline that once helped our ancient ancestors stay alert and alive. During a prolonged crisis, these high cortisol levels become unsustainable, leading to anxiety, depression, and burnout. This is what happened during the pandemic on a huge scale.
But now here we are months later, scraping from the last reserves of our social, emotional, and physical capital to simply show up and carry on. Typical coping techniques like breathwork, mindfulness, physical activity, and cognitive reframing don’t quite cut it. Add to that the whiplash of war, political turmoil, energy crises, new COVID variants, and economic upheaval and it’s no wonder that employees, customers, your spouse, and even your kid are spacey, unmotivated, and often on edge.
If being fatigued from crisis fatigue were a thing, that’s where I would say we’re at right now.
Interestingly, much of the guidance on coping with crisis fatigue is directed at recovering from discrete crises, not the months-long chronic stress that has slowly worn down our resilience and sense of optimism.
As one psychologist puts it:
Although psychology offers a plethora of coping skills for anxiety symptoms that emerge with immediacy, the impact and treatment of “slow burn” anxiety is less obvious.
Interventions such as deep breathing, cognitive reframing, mindfulness, meditation, and behavioral activation, all aimed at calming the sympathetic nervous system, are excellent (and empirically supported) treatments for anxiety, but these are much more difficult to employ when our body has habituated to chronic anxiety.
So where do we go from here?
I’m no psychologist, but some of the more practical things that are helping our client organizations support their people include:
- Executive leaders making a point to check in with senior managers and leaders about their personal well-being
- Making resources like telehealth, exercise programs, and mindfulness coaching readily available to all employees
- Creating toolkits to help managers touch base with their teams
- Developing new resources to help educate and raise awareness around mental health and wellbeing
Still, it’s important to acknowledge that everyone is moving through uncharted territory as we learn to cope with and adapt to this new normal of habituated chronic anxiety. There are no perfect or easy solutions, and we are all learning as we go.
Crisis leaders are exhausted, too
If you’re a crisis leader within your organization, it’s important to first acknowledge and address the impacts of leading through a prolonged crisis on your own resilience.
Self-help pundits have long used the “oxygen mask principle”—where airline passengers are instructed to make sure they have oxygen first before trying to help others in the event cabin pressure is lost—to illustrate a simple point; you can’t take care of others if you don’t take care of yourself first.
As a start, it’s important to be transparent with your leadership about what you’re dealing with and how you’re coping. They can’t give you the support you need if they don’t know you’re struggling.
And just because you’re the crisis leader doesn’t mean you’re exempt from taking your own advice (although, admittedly most of us crisis management professionals are really bad at this).
Like remembering to:
- Take care of your body—Are you eating healthy, well-balanced meals, exercising, and getting enough sleep? It doesn’t take long to fall out of the healthy habits that help keep us resilient at a personal level.
- Stay connected—Spending time with family, friends, and colleagues helps us to heal and cope more effectively. Likewise, communicating about shared experiences can help us normalize our feelings and begin to heal from our emotional toll.
- Mind your newsfeed—If you’re like me, you might get anxious about missing out on pieces of information, but more is not always better here. It’s important that you carefully curate your sources of information and set boundaries on when and how you consume your news. This can help you avoid information overload and the anxiety that comes with it.
- Take time for yourself—When the world is burning (sometimes literally) it’s easy to justify working around the clock. I’ve never seen this turn out well. Whether it’s taking time for a family meal or a full-fledged sabbatical, it’s important to take time to enjoy the things that help you recharge.
Finally, I think it’s especially important to be transparent with your team and employees about how you’re walking through your own crisis fatigue journey. This is one of the simplest ways to lead by example and normalize the crisis fatigue experience for your people.
Re-imagining resilience amidst crisis fatigue
I’ve been fortunate enough to stand in for a crisis management leader colleague who has wisely heeded the above advice, and as a result, is taking a well-earned sabbatical. This, together with many other clients we’ve recently helped weather through protracted crises, has given me front-row insight as to how we might re-evaluate our current approach to crisis management.
Here’s what I’ve learned.
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1. We need to reevaluate our assumptions around business continuity and crisis management.
Before the pandemic, a lot of business continuity planning focused on site dependencies, real estate, and contingencies like moving 100 employees to alternate locations within 48 hours.
But the pandemic was the ultimate proof of concept that work from home actually works. This is just one example of how the pandemic and recent world events have changed the crisis management landscape.
As a result, business continuity and crisis managers need to re-evaluate their assumptions and adjust course to better align their programs with current organizational and industry needs.
2. We need to adjust our expectations around business continuity and crisis management.
The pandemic quickly made it clear that a lot of our business continuity and crisis management programs needed a major overhaul or at least some serious tweaking.
But how much change is your team prepared to bite off right now?
Even positive changes create additional work, turmoil, and adjustment. In acknowledging this, some of our clients have made the wise decision to slow roll changes to their business continuity and crisis management programs and stretch them out over time. This might be a good course of action for your own organization, as well.
3. We need to rethink how crisis management activities add value to our people and organizations.
We are at just the beginning of this post-crisis fatigue journey. It’s fair that everyone wants and needs a break, yet future crises inevitably await our response. That’s why business continuity and crisis management activities need to be strategized and designed to add maximum value to resilience efforts in the least taxing way possible.
As one example, we’ve recently worked with one of our clients to simplify the process of updating their business continuity plans. Now, instead of spending 9-10 hours meeting with business leaders, the entire process takes just 2-3 and is more than enough to accomplish their objectives. The simplification has been well received by their leaders and teams and has led to much less friction within the annual business continuity lifecycle.
Similarly, organizations should re-evaluate their training and exercise needs. There’s no substitute for the preparedness gains of a full-scale simulation, but they are resource and time-intensive and can take an emotional and physical toll on your crisis management teams and employees. As an alternative, microsimulations can help you test and practice your continuity plans, providing many of the same benefits as a full-scale exercise in a fraction of the time.
If you’re a crisis management leader struggling to gain traction against the current of crisis fatigue, Brygthpath can help.
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