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Fire Break

Interview of NeuroCapability Founder and CEO Linda Ray about the impact of Australia’s New Year Bushfires on the workplace.

I have cried watching coverage of the New Year’s Bushfires in Australia, even though I don’t know any of these people and don’t have close friends or family impacted. Like millions of other Australians, I have felt it deeply and personally. This event is distressing for everyone in Australia and our hearts go out to the people directly affected and their friends and family. But the flow-on effect is much broader and we have probably underestimated the massive impact this will have on the workplace.

The Christmas/New Year period is, traditionally, a great opportunity to have what I call a “brain break” — a time to recharge and revitalise. But what’s happened this year, with the devastating bushfires in several Australian states, is a lot of people haven’t done the things they would normally do to have a break. Some have been directly impacted. Others have volunteered in a variety of ways. And all of us have been watching the coverage. Because we are constantly seeing footage on the news and on social media, we are constantly having those sad feelings and now that we are returning to work, those feelings are coming with us. The question is what are we, as leaders and colleagues, doing to support each other?

We can’t expect people to come back to work and put on a happy face. But there are tools we can use to try and mitigate the emotional impact on people returning to work who have witnessed this devastating event. A basic toolkit for leaders should consist of:

  • Checking in with others
  • Talking about the issue
  • Labelling emotions
  • Balancing with positives
  • Monitoring without being consumed
  • Donating or offering support

As leaders, we need to give our people the opportunity for us to “check-in” with people in our teams and see how they are going, asking questions like: “Are you OK? Did you have anyone directly affected? How has it made you feel?”  Remember to just let people tell their stories. Don’t interrupt, just listen. Sometimes people just want the opportunity to tell their story and feel heard.

Leaders should be asking themselves:

  • What is my strategy to support my people when they come back to work?
  • How am I going to ensure I am checking in with them?
  • What’s my strategy for supporting those showing signs of distress?

If leaders see their people distressed, they need to ask: “How can I support you or what is the best way to support you?”. They need to avoid the trap of offering advice. We all like to give advice. We are biologically programmed to give advice. But we tend to give advice based on how we would handle the situation. Everyone’s experience is different. We can’t assume everyone wants to be treated the way we would want to be treated.

The best leaders know their people and they know what to do to support them. And if you don’t, just ask them. Sometimes, they might want to be left alone and that’s fine. Others might prefer a chat, a coffee, a hug, or just a lightening of the workload.

We have extended love and support to those directly affected by the bushfires and we need to do that in the workplace as well. We spend so much time in meetings so why not quarantine five or 10 minutes at the start of a meeting to check in with everyone. Sometimes we have to go slow to go fast. We also need to refer people for additional support when necessary.

One of the things we’ve learned from how the brain works is that when we talk about our feelings, it makes us feel better. It’s important to let people talk and to listen. People want you to show you care and that you have empathy for their experience. When we comment on social media or talk with our colleagues about the devastation, we feel like we are showing our support. Some might view it as wasting time or taking away from productivity. But people are not productive when they don’t have the opportunity to share their feelings.

It is important people label their emotions and share how they feel. Those feelings are not limited to sadness and grief. We have seen a lot of anger and some people have felt guilt when their neighbours’ houses are lost but their own house is spared.

It might feel like we have seen nothing except bushfire coverage for weeks, but there is a natural curiosity and tendency to keep monitoring. Even though we don’t want to look at it because we can see it’s having a negative impact on us, we are drawn to it because it’s also a way people are trying to show their support. Leaders need to allow people to continue monitoring but not letting them be consumed by the event.

Another way of showing support is donating and the donations around these bushfires have been staggering. Giving to charity or volunteering actually makes us feel good It elicits a reward response. My daughter showed me Celeste Barber’s Instagram very early on. Celeste had posted a powerful story of helplessness and abandonment message from her mother-in-law and I think that is why people were very touched by her campaign. Celeste has continued to tell the story and gain support in a very genuine way. There are times in her Instagram posts where she is showing anger and when she is showing joy. People tap into that. What’s wonderful is her ability to leverage her celebrity status in a way that is genuine and authentic. I don’t think she in her wildest dreams thought she would generate so much worldwide interest. I have seen comments in Celeste’s social media where people have donated twice. They are showing their support, feeling better about it and, at the same time, feeling part of a community.

One of the most important things we can do to guard against long-term psychological impacts from the bushfires is to be mindful of the memories we are creating related to this event. Every memory we form around this event has the emotions we are experiencing attached to those memories. We don’t want to diminish the tragedy, but we need to look for the positive stories that come out of this experience. Positive stories might include:

  • Impressive stories of courage;
  • Proof that people do care;
  • Donations being made from around the world;
  • Messages of support; and
  • People just wanting to help.

Balancing out the devastation with these positive stories is very important. People relive the story in their head and in the worst-case scenarios, end up with post-traumatic stress disorder. This is especially important for people who are at the front line directly fighting the fires. They would have seen things none of us would ever want to witness. We keep seeing it again and again in the media, so the impact can be quite lasting for people. If the memories we form associated with this event include strong negative emotions such as anger, blame, grief, guilt, hopelessness, then every time we pull that memory up to our conscious attention, we re-experience those emotions.

Try and focus some attention on the good stories, that foster positive emotions such as pride. We all, as Australians, should feel proud of the people who have been responding to the bushfires and the empathy shown by our nation and people around the world. We need to find those positive emotions to counterbalance the negative emotions so that when we remember, we are recalling some good as well as some of the things that are really challenging and traumatic about those events.

Why is it so important to address these issues in the workplace?

Psychological safety is a key component to our experience at work. When people feel psychologically safe, they feel free to speak up and to speak out and are confident when they put their hand up and say “I need help” or “I am not doing so well”. They know they will be listened to and offered appropriate supports. We can’t expect people to be productive when they aren’t feeling psychologically safe and supported. This is especially important, given the number of mental health problems we are experiencing in and out of the workplace. We don’t want to contribute to declines in wellbeing. As leaders, we have a responsibility and an obligation to those people in our care to do no further harm to their wellbeing.

A psychologically safe workplace is a happy and productive workplace and who wouldn’t want that?

NOTE: If you want to make a donation to the fire services, specific funds, support charities, or wildlife organisations, this link covers a wide variety of options and includes links to donate:  

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