Strategies for PSP Leadership

Building Resilience During and After a Disaster

Public safety personnel, healthcare employees, and other occupations are required to work during disasters and may be exposed to traumatic situations as a result. Leaders may be wondering how they can best support their front-line staff during the pandemic response. Although some people develop symptoms of anxiety, depression, or posttraumatic stress following a disaster, many people continue to function well and recover naturally. Participating in disaster response or relief efforts may lead to a sense of accomplishment, feeling more connected to the community, a renewed sense of purpose, and feeling more competent at work. Research suggests positive emotional experiences can be optimized during and after a disaster or crisis in three ways:

  1. Confidence in your skills: Workers who feel they are prepared, have skills, and can perform their jobs well will have more positive outcomes than workers who don’t feel well-prepared. Leaders can be helpful by reinforcing existing training and procedures and projecting confidence in the team’s preparation and skills.
  2. Reach out to your social networks: Support from family, friends, co-workers, and managers is associated with more positive mental health outcomes and fewer symptoms of burnout. Leaders can provide opportunities for PSP to engage with one another informally for support and encourage staff to use existing support networks at home.
  3. Use healthy coping strategies: Engage in proactive coping strategies, like taking charge of the situation, being proactive, accepting the situation, and allowing oneself to face any potentially traumatic thoughts. Pushing difficult thoughts or feelings away is an unhealthy way of coping. Leaders can frequently check in to assist with the early identification of any concerns.

Brooks, S., Amlôt, R. Rubin, G. J., & Greenberg, N. (2020). Psychological resilience and post-traumatic growth in disaster-exposed organisations: overview of the literature. BMJ Military Health, 166, 52-56.

Leading Through Crises

Tips for Public Safety Leaders

A crisis is a period of difficulty and uncertainty. During a crisis, response plans need to be dynamic. As a result, leaders in crisis situations need to be flexible in their thinking and behaviour. Below are some suggestions to help leaders cope with the current crisis.

Tip # 1: Make use of teams

Leaders are well-informed, but cannot collect information or make decisions fast enough to respond to a crisis on their own. To better cope with a crisis, leaders can:

  • Set clear priorities for the response.
  • Organize teams to work on problem chunks (e.g., work scheduling, new policy development, colleague outreach, inventory control, external communications, etc.).
  • Empower team members (regardless of status) to find and implement solutions to problems.
  • Foster collaboration across teams. Push information control and decision-making down into the teams rather than centralizing decisions.
  • Promote psychological safety. Encourage people to openly discuss ideas, problems, questions, concerns, etc. Model this by sharing some of your own questions and concerns associated with the crisis.
  • Be open about actual and perceived risks to team members. Lack of openness will lead to rumours and gossip.

Tip # 2: Make use of “Deliberate Calm” and “Bounded optimism”

The people and teams you delegate decisions and actions to will probably make mistakes in this uncertain and changing environment.  They need to be able to learn quickly, make corrections, and move on without overreacting or becoming paralyzed by fear.  You can help by promoting an environment of “deliberate calm” and “bounded optimism”.

  • Promote positive self-talk (e.g., we are professionals who have successfully dealt with emergencies in the past; we have the skills to figure this out).
  • Keep people focused on base rates. While we need to plan for worst case scenarios, the solutions we identify and the actions we take are likely to make the worst case less likely.
  • Communicate confidence that your organization, its teams, and its people will find a way through this difficult situation.
  • Check in on your people personally and frequently during the crisis. If you are unable to do so personally, delegate others in the command structure who can report back you.
  • Where possible, make sure teams are small enough that everyone can speak at least once.
  • Identify common problems and their solutions that can be shared across the organization.

Tip #3 – Psychological Safety and Moral Fatigue

Covid-19 has increased the uncertainty associated with decision-making for all of us. Mundane activities such as grocery shopping now pose a risk to our health and the health of our family. Easy, everyday decisions have become difficult and ethically complex. Making decisions now not only requires additional mental energy but also creates stress for the decision-maker. This is due to the frequency of tough choices needing to be made and the lack of clear choices available. This can result in emotional exhaustion, self-doubt, and burnout. These reactions are amplified for public safety personnel (PSP). Adding to this stress, and the anxiety that builds from it over time, is the fact that we do not currently know whether things will get worse, how much worse they will get, or when the crisis will end. This can result in a condition known as “Moral Fatigue.”

Dealing with moral fatigue will require leaders to focus on creating a more psychologically safe space for their personnel to make decisions. This can be achieved in multiple ways:

  1. Communicate to your subordinates a tolerance for “mistakes.” You and the leaders that work with you need to acknowledge that this is an unprecedented situation for most of us. The decisions that you and your subordinates are required to make every shift are tough and ambiguous, with no obviously correct choices at times.
  2. Help normalize fears and doubts about making decisions. Talk through the decision-making process with your PSP. Apply goal-setting techniques from the Road to Mental Readiness (R2MR) to help PSP visualize the process of making decisions, adjusting to outcomes that weren’t what they were initially working for, trying again, and moving on. The idea is for PSP to make the best decision in the moment – with the confidence that you do not expect them to make the perfect decision.
  3. Acknowledge that the current situation may challenge core beliefs about helping everyone in need, the belief in government’s ability to protect its people, and having clear and straightforward rules to follow.

Tip #4 – Coping with Grief and Anticipatory Anxiety in Organization Change

At present, employees are being forced to adjust to a sudden, extreme change in their work conditions. They have lost access to offices, routines, and work relationships. The nature of what they are doing and their day-to-day activities have radically changed. When facing a sudden organizational change they have not been involved in planning, employees often experience anticipatory grief or anxiety. This leads many to start thinking about worst-case scenarios: “I’m going to fail at new tasks.” “The company won’t succeed!” “We’re all going to lose our jobs now!!” “My children will starve!!!” With contingency planning going on in public safety organizations these worst- case scenarios can loom large in the imagination. This can trigger hypervigilance that focuses the individual on danger and potential loss, aggravating anxiety and anticipatory grief that can increase the likelihood of a fight or flight response. Other people may appear numbed out or not present, responses associated with freezing (e.g., when an animal goes limp in the mouth of predator).

PSP in leadership positions can help PSP to better cope with grief and anxiety associated with organizational change by reducing the uncertainty experienced by PSP. This can be achieved in two ways:

  1. Leadership needs to take the time to develop new short, medium, and long-term visions for the organization. These visions do not need to be extensive, nor do they need to be correct. They do need to help PSP to remain hopeful – to believe that there is a better future and that they are a valuable part in creating that future. What does this better future look like? How are your PSP important for creating that better future?
  2. Taking a page from R2MR and the Big 4+ Coping Skills, help your PSP to refocus when they start engaging in catastrophic thinking that leads to flight/flight/freeze responses. What is important today? What can they control that they should be focusing actions and decision-making on? What actions can they take now? And if that doesn’t get the desired result, what else can they try? What should they be working on for next week? Where should their thinking be focused to accomplish these objectives? Working with our teams, what actions and steps do they need to be focusing on to accomplish these objectives? And why do you think they will ultimately be successful?

Dr. Ron Camp, Ph.D., ICD.D, is an Associate Professor at the Levene Graduate School of Business specializing in leadership and governance. He is also director of Training for the Canadian Institute of Public Safety Research and Treatment, a Co-Academic Director for the ICD/Rotman Directors Education Program, and a certified trainer for the CIPSRT Road to Mental Readiness program for public safety personnel. Ron's current research is focused on the role of leadership in promoting mental health and wellbeing among public safety personnel.