What do we take with us about endurance during a prolonged crisis?

Niclas Wisén is a psychologist, officer, entrepreneur, and guest on the Krisledningspodden #39 (only in Swedish). Here we summarize a few things that we take with us from the conversation.

  • The triggers are not always what you think
  • Provide complete information
  • Don’t just do more of what you usually do – do it right
  • Management is responsible for the recovery
  • First, you get better; then you get worse
  • Make room for the positive
  • Stress can be a bigger culprit than workload

The triggers are not always what you think.

During a crisis, it is not always the most obvious or the expected that triggers stress reactions in people.

Military, firefighters, police and paramedics can deal with situations in their work that the average person would perceive as highly stressful. There is a stigma in saying that you like crises, but people with responsibilities such as “first responder” have applied to those roles for a reason. You can like crises because “This is where I come into my own and can help in the crisis”. For this occupational category, everyday factors and organizational things such as bad leadership or lousy comradeship are more influencing factors than external threats and difficult situations – it is part of the work. The external threat can instead have a cohesive and morale-boosting effect.

Provide complete information

A common cause of stress and uncertainty at special events is a lack of information. The same applies if, for example, the train stops when you are on your way to work. If a voice directly says that it is a gear failure expected to be ready in 30 minutes, you deal with it. But if no one says anything, the 30 minutes can quickly grow in experience to 2 hours. It creates anxiety because you lack control and perception of the situation.

The lack of information means you create scenarios in your head instead. “Now I will sit here for 20 hours”. If, on the other hand, a voice tells you that you will now be sitting here for 20 hours, you also deal with that quite quickly. The increasing control you get from the information is in itself a stress-reducing factor.

The information also needs to be easily accessible. An example from healthcare during the pandemic was that there was other advice regarding whether the protective coats should have long or short sleeves. Someone said long sleeves because it protects better. Someone said cards are because then you can spread your arms. Then it isn’t easy to know how to behave as an employee. A hospital, therefore, created a situational awareness room. A place where those who had the big picture first had to digest the information and then present it in the situational picture room. So the employees could go there and see what was currently relevant. The information may change in 1 hour, but right now, I know this is what applies.

Don’t just do more of what you usually do – do it right

However, it is common to do more of the same thing instead. For example, have a more extended appointment meeting with more information, which results in those attending the meeting perhaps only receiving relevant information for 10 of the 60 minutes. You do more of the same instead of thinking about what you must do differently. You talk a little louder when you meet someone who doesn’t speak Swedish well. It’s not just more that gives more effect; you may have to do things differently and shift the focus.

The principle of adaptivity talks about just that. If we have driven a round block into the round hole, we want to continue doing so even if the gap is suddenly a star. And then it’s about being able to break the old habits and take the time to think about what needs to be changed. However, there is resistance in us humans. We are safe in the old and well-known, so we don’t want to let it go. “I stick to what I know and what I can do”. It’s called the comfort zone for a reason – because it’s comfortable and pleasant to be there.

What are the big lessons from the pandemic? Which interventions have produced the best effect in handling such a protracted crisis?

That the employees genuinely feel that the employer wants them well. We are seeing them and their needs. So a genuinely committed manager doesn’t go through a checklist but has a genuine will. Such a person can still make demands and state that “now we have to bite the bullet”, while it is clear that he genuinely cares about his staff.

Management is responsible for the recovery

Another thing is the need for planned recovery. The strategic planning for recovery should not be left to the individual but must be taken care of by the management. How many staff do I have? What does the future look like? What is the expected load?

We can compare it with running. Some never move, while others are ultrarunners. This means that some will need to rest after 250 meters, and some will not need to rest at all. Then management must trust the weakest link and let it control the amount of recovery. Another way is to have two ropes where one runs with a higher ability and the other runs with a lower power.

The planned recovery should also exist in the event of, for example, IT crises. That you decide in advance that now we take 5-minute breaks from the computer at regular intervals. Nobody wants it, but everybody needs it.

You can also work with task-based rest. Sitting with a cognitively demanding task, you will lose focus after a specific time. Then you can change the task to one that is more physically demanding. It may not always be there, but when it is, it can be an excellent way to maintain focus.

Sometimes someone puts together a crisis team that works and works and works until it crashes. It’s easy to get stuck in 12-18 hour shifts, but much better to set a rule like “We drive for 8 hours, then we break”. Compare this with a truck driver. It’s not a question of how tired you are, but there are rules. After driving this long, you should rest this long. Other businesses should also adopt these types of rules.

First, you get better; then you get worse

There is an outer limit where we start to lose ability. In the first stage of the crisis, we allocate increased capacity, but then we begin to lose both capacity and performance. The problem is not primarily that, but that we don’t understand that we are doing it. Consider, for example, how much resistance many people have to drive in and rest when they get tired while going.

What is the reason for clinging? Well, FOMO, Fear Of Missing Out. A crisis is a crisis because it is a rare event. Imagine going home and resting, and something significant to the event happens while you’re not there. It’s tough to let go, not least for “first responders” – people who have applied to be there when it happens. In addition, it isn’t easy to hand it over to someone else. I’m starting to get control, I’m the one in control, and you can’t come from outside now and take over everything… It can become a considerable conflict many times. I’m responsible and feel in control now, so that I will work this out.

Make room for the positive

There are different types of stress. Positive stress doesn’t have to be fun but things you feel you can handle or influence. “I’ve got so much to do on Friday; if I put in the work, I’ll make it.” Negative stress is beyond our control—situations where we don’t know where the finish line is, things that fall on us. Negative stress has a more significant impact on us than pure strain. The strategy is to reduce the negative stress and accept the positive. Find the factors you can own – and focus on them. But even the positive stress means that you need recovery. “Even in euphoria, you need a break.”

In situations of stress, it is crucial for you as a manager to think about what point is essential in this particular organization, in this scenario, with these individuals. Checklists are good, but somewhere you also need to look at the dynamic factors happening right now and how they can be balanced best.

We all experience daily uplifts and daily hassles. You see that if you have more uplifts in life, you get less harmful output from hassles. So, if you have a lot of positive events, you get better at dealing with the negative ones. And they don’t have to be related to each other. I caught the bus; it’s sunny, I met an old colleague… etc. Daily uplifting impacts the brain and mood more than we think.

One thing to try is to start praising for everything possible and having it as an active agenda. It can feel a little tricky, but it becomes enjoyable over time. A “welfare” for the crisis management team. And by that, we don’t mean cookie chocolate, pizza, after-work, and fruit baskets. Without what hassles can we push away? And which uplifts can we continue with and do more of? This requires a different approach than “they get a massage once a week”, although that is also lovely.

Stress can be a bigger culprit than workload

We often start from the great demands placed on us. We have too much to do and too little time to do it. But when we look at health care and defence, other factors are sometimes not seen and sometimes even created yourself that are behind it. A graph shows that we initially have a peak and reaction and try to make a situational perception. Once it has become a bit of a daily routine (which can take a few seconds up to a couple of hours), it lowers the stress level, even if it is still elevated. Only then do we have room to react emotionally. How many recognize that they become less tolerant and experience more friction in a stressful situation? Often there is no other reason than that we are too stressed, which leads to a negative psychosocial work environment. Therefore, we should not just stare blindly at the workload. Maybe we’re not nice enough. There is a lack of information etc. Then perhaps we should instead establish a situational awareness room. It can be good to come from outside and ask uninitiated stupid questions to remove unnecessary load and change routines according to the situation.