CIPSRT COVID-19 Readiness Resource Project (CRRP)
Leading Through a Crisis: Tips for Public Safety Leaders
A crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic brings a lot of difficulty and uncertainty. As a PSP leader, your response plans need to be dynamic, and you need to be flexible in your thinking and behaviour. You can cope with the current crisis and keep both the public and your staff safe by relying on your team, staying calm and optimistic, building resilience, protecting your team from moral fatigue, and addressing anticipatory grief and anxiety.
Even when you’re well-informed, a crisis can evolve quickly. It’s hard to keep up all on your own. That means you need to empower your team to develop and implement solutions to identified problems. You can help them do that by being clear about priorities and giving different groups specific issues to manage (e.g., work scheduling, new policy development, colleague outreach, inventory control, external communications).
Give people the authority to manage information and make decisions without running everything through you, and encourage them to collaborate and share information openly with other groups. Avoid rumours and gossip by being open about the information you have, including actual and perceived risks to team members.
Your team members need to be able to learn quickly, make corrections, and move on without overreacting or becoming paralyzed by fear. Acknowledge that they may make mistakes in this uncertain environment. If they do, stay calm and model optimism while you work with them to fix the issue. As part of this, you should:
- Let your team members know you support them and “have their backs,” especially in these unprecedented times. Be available to provide support and guidance as much as possible.
- Encourage team confidence by promoting positive self-talk — for example, “We are professionals who have successfully dealt with emergencies in the past, and we have the skills to figure this out.” Emphasize your belief that your organization and its people will find a way through this difficult situation.
- While it is important to plan for worst-case scenarios, emphasize that preventative planning strategies (such as social distancing and hand washing) will make those scenarios less likely to happen. These strategies give the public and your team active, positive actions to take, which helps decrease feelings of fear and helplessness, and provides a vision of hope that things will get better in the future.
- Check in on your people personally and frequently during the crisis. If you are unable to do so yourself, delegate others in the command structure who can report back to you, and tell them to inform your people that you are very interested in hearing how they are doing.
PSPs’ reactions to traumatic situations may range from anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress to little or no difficulty functioning and recovering. For some, participating in disaster response or relief efforts may even give them a renewed sense of purpose and accomplishment, helping them feel more connected to the community and more competent at work.
There are three main ways you can help your team optimize positive emotional experiences during and after a crisis:
- Build people’s confidence in their skills. People who feel they have the skills to do their jobs well tend to have more positive outcomes than those who do not. You can help by reinforcing existing training and procedures, and by projecting confidence in your team’s preparation and skills.
- Encourage team members to reach out to their social networks. Support from family, friends, co-workers, and managers is associated with more positive mental health outcomes and fewer symptoms of burnout. You can provide opportunities for PSPs to support one another informally and encourage staff to lean on their existing support networks at home.
- Recommend healthy coping strategies. Be a realistic and optimistic presence, encouraging your staff to accept the situation, take charge, and be proactive. Reinforce self-care strategies and the importance of taking care of basic needs, including adequate sleep, nutrition, and relaxation time. Promote social support, mentoring, and other forms of teambuilding. And be sure to check in frequently to help your staff identify and address any concerns.
In these uncertain times, PSPs may be asked to make difficult decisions in circumstances where the morally correct choice is not obvious. During a pandemic, this can include everything from life-and-death decisions made on the job to decisions that would, under normal circumstances, be considered mundane (such as whether or not to go grocery shopping). Feelings of emotional exhaustion, self-doubt, or burnout can result from having to make such decisions repeatedly. In the nursing profession, this is known as “moral fatigue” — and PSPs may be at risk of developing it as well because their jobs often involve difficult, ethically complex decisions.
To deal with moral fatigue, focus on creating a psychologically safe space for your staff to make decisions. There are several ways you can do this:
- Communicate to your team a tolerance for mistakes. The decisions you and your team are required to make every shift are tough and ambiguous — and there are often no “right” answers. Let your team know it’s OK if they don’t get it right every time and emphasize that you will continue to support them.
- Normalize fears and doubts about making decisions. Talk through the decision-making process with your team. Apply goal-setting techniques from the Road to Mental Readiness (R2MR) to help them visualize the process of making decisions, adjusting to unintended outcomes, trying again, and moving on. The idea is to help people make the best decision in the moment.
- Acknowledge that the current situation may challenge core beliefs. Some people may be considering for the first time that it might not always be possible to help everyone in need, the government might not always be able to protect its people, and there are not always clear and straightforward rules to follow. Emphasize that the self-examination of our beliefs is normal and talking to others about our beliefs and fears is helpful and healthy.
COVID-19 has forced many people to adjust to sudden, extreme changes in their work conditions. This can cause them to start thinking about worst-case scenarios such as personal failure at new tasks, company failure, job loss, and poverty. In response to this “anticipatory grief” (feeling grief about the possibility of a traumatic loss), some people may become hypervigilant, focusing on the danger and potential loss (the “fight or flight” response). Others may “freeze,” seeming numb or not really present.
You can help your team cope with organizational change by reducing the uncertainty they experience. Develop new short-, medium-, and long-term visions for the organization. These don’t have to be detailed or perfectly correct but should help the team stay optimistic about the future and reassure them they’re a valuable part of creating it.
To prevent flight/fright/freeze reactions to anticipatory grief, help people refocus by asking questions such as:
- What is important today?
- What controllable actions and decisions can we focus on?
- What actions can we take now?
- If those actions don’t get the desired result, what else can we try?
- What should we be working on for next week?
- What actions and steps should we focus on to accomplish our objectives?
Be sure to share why you think they will ultimately be successful.
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. https://doi.org/10.1136/jramc-2017-000876
Taylor, S. (2002). Moral fatigue: a nursing perspective. Bioethics Forum, 18(1–2), 37–43.
- Ron Camp, Ph.D., ICD.D; Associate Professor, Levene Graduate School of Business; Director of Training, Canadian Institute of Public Safety Research and Treatment; Co-Academic Director, ICD/Rotman Directors Education Program
- Alexandra Heber, MD, FRCPC, CCPE; Chair, CIPSRT COVID-19 Task Force; Chief of Psychiatry, Veterans Affairs Canada; Assistant Professor, Department of Psychiatry, University of Ottawa
Dr. Lloyd Hawkeye Robertson, Ph.D.; Lead Psychologist, Collaborative Centre for Justice and Safety, University of Regina