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COVID Stress Not Just Another Brick In The Wall

The problem with crises is that they don’t just go away – they have lingering, long-lasting impacts on people and those impacts can feel like more bricks being added to the pile you are already carrying, Jolie Wills says.

A cognitive psychologist specialising in disaster recovery, Jolie co-founded Hummingly with Elizabeth McNaughton. They designed easy-to-use resilience tools that people, communities and workplaces could access, based on knowledge gained in real disaster and crisis situations, including witnessing their own disaster team suffer extreme stress and burnout in the wake of the Christchurch earthquakes, and building on feedback from disaster survivors around the world.

Jolie talked to Revolutionaries of Wellbeing (ROW) founder Sarah McGuinness as part of a podcast series that corporate wellbeing company ROW is running for its members and leaders across the business sector to help them build capability and lead effectively through the COVID-19 recovery period. The episode was released this week.

As part of her Winston Churchill Fellowship, Jolie Wills talked to many people around the world who had worked in disaster recovery. She came across many people dealing with cumulative stress, the cumulative nature and the prolonged nature of stress.

One person was Anne Leadbeater, who worked in local government in Kinglake in Victoria, who said that people think it's all about just the event itself but it's actually the prolonged nature of what you're having to deal with. She described it as carrying a set of bricks.

“You've got bricks that are just part of your life anyway. Everyone's carrying bricks that are your responsibilities, maybe it's health stuff, worries about others, your job is seasonal or whatever. You've got these bricks, things that you're just having to anticipate and carry and work your way around."

“And then, a big event happens - something like COVID or bush fires in Anne’s case - and suddenly your routines shift, the way that you normally do things shift, your job becomes more complicated, and so suddenly you end up with all these new bricks.

“But the challenge is, the bricks just keep coming.

“And because you're all collectively overloaded, your normal support structure, you're like, 'I'm going to give Catherine over there a couple of my bricks,' but actually, Catherine's got a whole lot herself. And then Jim over there is having a tough time, and look how capable you are, carrying all this stuff. You can have Jim's bricks too. This just goes on and you just think it's going to go on for certainly a long length of time and it goes on much longer, and you're getting really tired, but there's no one to give these bricks to.

"And then your boss will say to you, 'Hey, Ann. So important, the self-care stuff, really, really important you're looking after yourself. This is so important. But can you do three more things for me by the end of the week?' And give you three more bricks.

“It doesn't matter how capable or clever or intelligent or amazing someone is, there is a cumulative load that is weary to anybody, and it's very normal for people to feel quite tired over time.”

Jolie set up Hummingly with Elizabeth, in order to take all they had learned and create tools that were practical and easy for people to use.

“That is the tool that we created in the end that we really wished we'd had ourselves and then realized, actually, this is really helpful for others as well.”

It’s not about eradicating stress - stress is needed to do well, Jolie says.

She describes a “green sweet spot of stress”.

“There's so much in the world to drawing our attention. You've got to care enough about something, have enough skin in the game, to really put your energy and your attention and your focus into something.”

But if you have too much stress, it accumulates to a critical level, or becomes acute, then there is a problem.

Over time, people run out of reserves, they become tired, and things such as teams fracture.

In Christchurch, people could get a break by visiting somewhere else in the country. With COVID, everyone is in it together.

But, she says, the downside of that is that you often don't have resources to draw on from outside because everybody's caring. You don't have people who have maybe been through it before, but aren't in their space and are in a great space themselves without having to carry bricks.

There are steps that can be taken to reduce the pressure, she says. These are both organisational and individual steps.

For organisations:

  • Eliminate any unnecessary bricks – change the things we can control and influence
  • Set well-being as a priority, right from the top
  • Really prepare people to do stress well
  • Really acknowledging the hardship that people are experiencing and holding the hope at the same time and seeking those opportunities for growth; and
  • Get really intentional about having your own plan in place for your own well-being, you lead others to where you yourself are.

For individuals, particularly those with leadership roles or guiding organisation wellbeing, the first thing is to have your own plan and to lead, Jolie says.

“And so really holding tight as much as you can to whatever boundaries that you need to set and role model for others would be probably the very first thing. The second thing I think about with you organizations is just be as proactive as you can.”

Jolie encourages people to look around to see how others have handled similar situations, research on these situations, what others are doing now – you don’t have to figure it out on your own.

She describes the current situation as NUTS: New, Uncertain Threat to our Sense of status quo and our sense of control. Something like COVID is hitting all four of them, which is why we find it so difficult.

“No-one is finding this easy.”

Sarah says, “The message from Jolie is really clear and I am hearing time and time again that leaders are now hitting that fatigue and burnout stage. It’s critical that organisations take note and are actively ensuring leaders have the support they need.”

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