Coping in a crisis

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Yvonne Hardiman provides timely advice on how to cope in a crisis.

Summary

  • During a crisis, we grieve the loss of what has been taken away from us, both in the present and in the future.
  • School staff can develop an understanding of how to reduce anxiety, build resilience and recognise grief relating to the crisis.
  • Anxiety during a crisis can be reduced by being selective about what we read, listen to and watch, and by focusing on the facts of the crisis.
  • Focusing on the positives, on things within our control and on facts rather than escalating thoughts, can help keep the mind calm.

Managing in a crisis is tricky, to say the least. People may feel disbelief, worry and helplessness. They are also likely to be anxious about what the future is going to look like in the aftermath.

Here are three of my top tips for helping yourself and your staff to cope in a crisis.

Reduce anxiety

In a crisis, we are exposed to heightened levels of communication from television, radio, social media and a variety of other sources. Much of this is likely to increase our anxiety and make us feel as if everything is out of our control. Key points that I find useful to remember are:

  • our feelings always start with a thought
  • we can choose how we feel
  • feelings affect our behaviour
  • what we communicate to others will affect their thoughts, feelings and behaviour.

Our feelings always start with a thought. We view images of empty supermarket shelves. We feel anxious that we will run out of supplies. We stockpile. We tell others, who then feel anxious and do the same.

Sigal Barsade, a Professor of Management at the University of Pennsylvania, Wharton School (Harvard Business Review (HBR), March 2020) refers to this as emotional contagion. She asserts that emotions are far more contagious than any virus and every person on the planet can catch them. From birth, humans are wired to mimic others. We pick up on emotions from facial expressions, tone of voice and even writing style.

We can reduce our own and others’ anxiety by:

  • being selective about what we read, listen to and watch
  • concentrating on facts from reliable sources
  • limiting time spent on reading, listening to and looking at information related to the crisis
  • making a conscious effort to remain calm and not let our thoughts spiral out of control
  • being aware of what is triggering our thoughts and feelings
  • focusing on positives within our control and being aware of the facts
  • communicating positive messages in a calm way.

Build resilience

Resilience is about choosing to react positively to the good and bad things that happen to us. The senior leadership team (SLT) can build their own resilience while helping staff to do the same. Some ways to do this include the following:

  1. Learn how to react positively to new ideas and situations by recognising the positive outcomes and being grateful for them. For example, working from home or short-time working can add valuable time to our day that can be used doing things we like.
  2. Accept that all emotions have their place, even if they feel uncomfortable. For example, grief is natural and necessary. It isn’t negative. It positively helps us to come to terms, over time, with a horrible event.
  3. Be kind to ourselves and others by accepting that we will not always get it right. Sometimes we will react negatively. We are all on a learning curve.
  4. Build positive relationships. We have so many ways we can interact with people today, even when we can’t do it face to face. We can provide support for each other by being kind and sharing good news stories in a time when there is a lot of bad news around.
  5. Make time for relaxation. We all need to give ourselves a break sometimes and separate our relaxation time from our work time, even in a crisis.
  6. Calm our mind. At the best of times our minds have a tendency to wander. In a crisis, the tendency for our mind to wander increases. We can become obsessed with listening to tragic stories related to the impact of the crisis, even though they have no bearing on our own situation at all. For example, reading that hospitals are overstretched might lead us to spend time searching for related articles, even though neither ourselves, family or friends have any reason to go to hospital. It’s easy to suddenly find our thoughts and feelings spiralling out of control and our resilience diminishing.
  7. Have purpose. It can be easy to lose sight of our purpose at work in a crisis. We may find ourselves having to work at home or on short-time working, resulting in having more time on our hands and not quite knowing what to do with ourselves. We may find ourselves having to work harder, for longer hours, at the coalface of the crisis, leading to fatigue. The SLT can help by talking about their individual and collective purpose.

Understand grief

Grief is a natural reaction to a crisis and in this instance, although there are many similarities, I am referring to the grief caused by the crisis itself rather than the grief that is a result of losing a loved one.

David Kessler, an acclaimed expert on grief, talking to Scott Berinato for an HBR article, ‘That discomfort you’re feeling is grief’, says that during a crisis we grieve the loss of what has been taken away from us, both in the present and in the future.

The five well-documented stages of grief are disbelief, anger, bargaining, sadness and acceptance. Kessler adds a sixth stage: meaning. He says this is about realising appreciation of small things as we move towards acceptance.

School staff can help themselves and others by understanding the process of grief. It provides an insight into behaviour that may otherwise appear unreasonable.

Acceptance and meaning are the final stages when we come to terms with the situation. In a crisis, this means gaining an element of control over the present. In the coronavirus crisis, for example, staying at home, washing our hands and keeping social distance give us some control.

We can also gain control over our anticipatory grief by realising that all the things we imagine might happen are actually just in our mind. They are not real and they have not happened. We can calm our minds by bringing ourselves back to the present and knowing that we are safe in this moment.

In summary, school staff can help themselves by gaining an understanding of how to reduce anxiety, build resilience and recognise grief. None of this is easy, so let’s always remember to be kind and forgiving to ourselves and others.

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About Author

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Yvonne Hardiman, Chartered MCPID, MA (Management) began her management career at BSI, heading up a publishing, printing and warehousing division. In 2005 she joined a law firm as HR Director and Partner. Today Yvonne enjoys running her own HR consultancy, assisting organisations with all aspects of people management. Contact Yvonne at: https://yvonnehardiman.com/

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