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Managing crisis fatigue in your organization

More than a year into the pandemic and one can safely say that COVID-19 has taken its toll on our organizations and on humanity in general. The resulting crisis fatigue is a growing problem which operational resilience and business continuity managers need to consider says Chantal Coetzer…

Since the millennium, we have experienced a global financial crisis, mass international refugee movements, violent revolutions in the Middle East, constant terror threats and attacks, and now a succession of epidemics and pandemics; SARS in 2003, bird flu in 2005, swine flu in 2009, MERS in 2012, Ebola in 2014, and, of course, COVID-19.

The country in which I am based, South Africa, has not escaped its own set of crises. Not only the continued political division and its consequences since the 1994 democracy, the exposing, and the level of depth of the ongoing political corruption, but also the Cape Town water shortage crisis in 2018 and ongoing electricity load reductions since 2008. As a nation we have become resilient to these crises, we have physically and mentally fought against the impacts of these far reaching, severe and seemingly open-ended crises, but we have also grown to be a nation of anxiousness and our people are suffering from exhaustion.

The question is, how do we as national and global practitioners keep the momentum going to mature our organization’s resilience in a world that is already fatigued by processes, rules, and regulations? How do we respond to our own fatigue and keep the momentum going?

We know that we are in the COVID-crisis for the long haul, despite the availability of vaccines, government regulations, and containment processes. New variants have been identified, infection ‘waves’ are experienced, seemingly, every three months, and these waves are the root cause of the emotional rollercoaster, impacting our personal resilience over time. If we do not act now and recognize the underlining cause of the difficulties experienced, our resilience capabilities may come under threat.

We started the COVID pandemic with a bit of anxiety, disbelief, and even an adrenaline buzz, especially the operational resilience managers who have been waiting for such a major event for most of their careers. We have all invoked our crisis management plans, implemented our business continuity plans with alternative working arrangements, upscaled our bandwidth, increased cyber security controls, monitored activities, held regular organizational and industry crisis management meetings, reported to executives, regulators, and carried out all the necessary actions that operational resilience managers do. A sense of “we made it”, “we have fulfilled our role”, “our organizations can operate ‘business as usual’ under a severe scenario” may exist.

However, as time progresses, we see that people are taking strain. Earlier in the pandemic, many viewed this event as temporary, short lived, bringing the novelty of working from home, with the advantage of spending more time with family. However, this optimism seemingly changed during the middle of the year. We could see how minds changed; the workday getting longer, needing breaks from family, the growing need to go back to the office, government regulations excessively criticized, was leading to non-compliance, the emergence of increasingly nonsensical conspiracy theories, irrational behaviour, and ignoring, even denying, the existence of the virus and its impacts.

I can only attribute this change to ‘crisis fatigue’.

The Harvard Medical School researchers have identified four stages of crisis fatigue:

  • Heroic Stage: Individuals band together at the onset of a crisis to determine how to survive.
  • Honeymoon Stage: The reaction to initial success that occurs when individuals feel that they are “in the same boat”.
  • Disillusionment Stage: Individuals begin to feel physically and emotionally exhausted. Cue the onset of the allostatic overload. Hypervigilance now turns into irritation, rage, or despair.
  • Fatigue Stage: By design, the human body cannot sustain high levels of cortisol and adrenaline for long periods. This results in burnout, which can cause one to be easily completely withdrawn. It is also the stage when people are more likely to engage in risky behaviours that are detrimental to themselves or others—hence the onslaught of alcohol abuse, drug overdoses, and suicide.

The points made by the Harvard Medical School researchers, have highlighted the following challenges to us as practitioners: People are tired and need a break.

  • The work/life balance has been disrupted, people are working from home and thus the screen time hours are longer;
  • People have a growing need for socialization to combat the loneliness of working from home or being in isolation .

Even in the change in the narrative from a ‘doom and gloom’ message to a message of hope; the rollercoaster effects are showing.

The question is, as practitioners what is our role in managing crisis fatigue and how do we navigate and address the issues?

The future

The world has changed; our role as operational resilience and business continuity practitioners has never before enjoyed so much focus and attention. Will we cope afterwards when we have survived the crisis and it is back to business-as-usual?

The key to what we previously labeled as ‘normal’, has changed forever, there will not be a ‘before COVID’ ever again. There will be a ‘new normal’ and the definition of this will differ from person to person and organization to organization.

Mindsets need to change, and our role as practitioners is to play a part in the ‘culture change’.

Flexible working arrangements will be part of this ‘new normal’; and we would still need to provide assurance of our operational resilience capabilities, with a dispersed and flexible workforce.

Crisis fatigue will need to be addressed if our organizations and our people are to remain resilient.

Some points to note for dealing with organizational fatigue and the role of the practitioner include:

  • Acknowledge and recognize crisis fatigue within the organization. This can be ascertained by listening to people’s opinions of the crisis and where they are, personally, in relation to it. For example, are they longing for the pre-COVID time, or have they changed their mindset to accept a new normal and are they showing willingness to define what that new normal looks like for them?
  • Work closely with Human Resources to assist with the analysis of what the sentiment is in the organization and if there is a problem with motivation, which will impact productivity. Seek to understand the needs of your people and how these can be addressed in a way that is beneficial to both the organization and team members. A simple gift dropped off at a struggling employee’s house could mean the world to that person; the feeling of belonging and value is instilled, leading to increased productivity, referring to the ‘someone cares’ narrative.
  • Communicate, communicate, communicate. Never has there been a truer repetition of wording than now. People want to know what the view of their organization is, what the impact of introduced regulations are - on them and in the workplace - what the expectations are, what activities would be acceptable and what not, the view of the executive which provides the surety to people that their organization is sound. People want reassurance, comfort, and empathy.
  • Adapt the operational resilience workplan to be agile and flexible within the new environment and any new and unpredictable situation that could present itself.
  • Be part of the change, play a role in the culture definition of resilient people, assist with changing the mindset of people who long for the ‘days before COVID’.
  • Instead of the practitioner’s focus being very much on technology failures and the recovery thereof, the focus must shift to the wellbeing of the organization’s people – this will assist in motivating productivity and building resilience in the organization and its people.

These insights could very well be applied to a different scenario, such as the loss of a building or a prolonged systems outage, where the period of dealing with the problem is for an extended period.

In conclusion

 It has become increasingly important that the operational resilience manager understands the impact of crisis fatigue on the sustainability of the plans that have been implemented. This will keep the organization operating as business-as-usual during a very unusual, prolonged crisis; and to apply the insights gained to ensure that continued resilience is maintained.

In short, this pandemic has highlighted the importance of resilience, the ability to be agile and flexible in our approaches, to be able to rethink original plans and adapt and implement them on the fly, to stay focused, taking cognizance not only of the technology components of our work, but also the humanity in it, as there is no stronger connection than that between humans, particularly during times of crisis. It is what makes us resilient.

The future of the resilience practitioner is bright, however the world of theories and methodologies, testing of the recoverability of plans upon plans has changed; forever. It is our contributions, our learnings, and our ability to be resilient that will ensure this bright future. Let us embrace and adopt this new resilient world of change.

The author

Chantal Coetzer has built-up extensive practical experience in all components relating to business continuity management, business resilience, and enterprise risk management, predominantly in the financial industry and has relevant experience in the health and physical security industry. She works with organizations to implement enhance the efficiency and effectiveness of their business resilience and crisis management programmes and teams. She has been pivotal in the design and planning for various scenarios at different organizations as well as planning for protracted outages on the national infrastructure. Specialties are the design, implementation and maintenance of business continuity management, resilience, and enterprise risk management programmes, as well as the designing, developing and facilitating of business continuity management, business resilience, and enterprise risk management training and simulation exercise programmes. She has obtained her BCI MBCI accreditation in 2005 and is currently a Group BCM Manager.

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