By Chris Duffy, Infinite Blue:
Frontline healthcare, crisis specialists, and business continuity professionals all rise to the occasion when a disaster strikes. It is their vocation and what they are trained for. Before March of 2020, they had only experienced peaks and valleys – high stress times where they exceled, followed by downtime where they could decompress and prepare for the next event.
Since March, that world has been turned upside down. These professionals now have to deal with continuous disasters related and unrelated to Covid-19. From national countless events of civil unrest and billion-dollar weather events, to most recently, an insurrection on American soil, these workers can’t just leave the disasters at work. They come home to them too.
I spoke with a good friend and business continuity professional from Seattle who works for a very large retailer on the West Coast. We work in the same discipline where we focus on assisting companies to prepare for, react to, and recover from incidents and disasters of all kinds. My friend is the lead of an international team that works through the planning and recovery for this retailer, while I work for the company that provides him with the software and added advisory services to ensure success and resiliency.
In our profession of Business Continuity and Disaster Recovery, we are trained and certified in the entire lifecycle of Organizational Resiliency. Our conversation started with a quick catch up on families and our mutual hobby of restoring old trucks. What struck me throughout the conversation was that his tone was different from how it usually is. He is the quintessential upbeat optimist. In all the years I have known him, his passion, energy, expertise, vision, and overall exuberance has come through in every interaction, even in the face of adversity. But not that day. His tone was subdued and he sounded exhausted.
In listening to him, it quickly became evident what caused the change in his tone. Our job is to get the company through the disaster and back to normal. In the past, this has been either a man-made or natural disaster. Whether it was the terrorist attacks of 9/11, or hurricanes like Katrina, Harvey, and Sandy, there was a beginning and an end for the event. The stress in our jobs used to come from ensuring the safety of our people and leading them to the return of normal business operations. The added stress he is now feeling is from having to commute through the local upheaval and unrest that still exists in Seattle.
There is currently no “off switch.” These professionals are now not only dealing with sporadic high stress times, but they are also dealing with recovery every single day at work and at home.
This all is directly attributable to ‘disaster fatigue.’
“Disaster fatigue is a term used to really describe a collision of many disasters,” said Fresno County Director of Behavioral Health Dawan Utecht. Today we are inundated with a torrent of bad news. The fact that we are ‘plugged in’ via computer and phone, with constant access to breaking news on a 24/7 basis has a direct effect on our health. This is further exacerbated for those professionals whose job it is to deal with these calamities as part of their livelihood.
“People have lost jobs, people have lost experiences in their life, where they couldn’t go to a funeral, or have their wedding, or be present for the birth of a child because of COVID. Many personal impacts that we don’t always think about,” said Utecht.“There’s also the stress over getting sick from the virus and the loss of social relationships during the pandemic.”
This made me wonder: is this disaster fatigue because we are truly globally connected, or because there seems to be an increasing number of disasters? It turns out the answer is yes on both counts.
Across the country in Philadelphia, I spoke with a surgeon and frontline healthcare worker about this. The doctor had the same exhaustion and tone as my Seattle friend. No more peaks and valleys.
“We are just dealing with COVID patients every day, and then having to come home and see the civil unrest in Philly, glued to the television, watching the horror and dismay unfold in our nation’s capital, which is another layer of stress, he said.”
I also spoke with Michael Adornetto LCSW, a psychotherapist who owns Garden State Behavioral Health, where they are treating the effects of Disaster Fatigue.
Their focus has shifted to individuals, children/adolescents, and families dealing with the fallout from the pandemic. I asked what he recommend to people to cope with the bombardment. What do you tell your patients to help them reduce Disaster Fatigue and stress?
The first thing Michael said was, “It’s not just your industry and first responders, although it most likely was initially. It has spread to everyone. Families, teachers, students, retail, service industries, those that work from home, the unemployed, and business owners. It’s everyone.”
Michael has some really great advice on coping with Disaster Fatigue at home.
“First off, change some of your routine,” he said. “Do not start or end your day with the news. It is not positive and can set the tone for work or family interactions. News consumption should also be limited, try no more than an hour. Watching the news is like searching on YouTube. It is a rabbit hole you can go down forever.”
I commented that it sounded a lot like “doom surfing” or “doom scrolling,” not to be confused with the 90s PC game. For those not familiar with the term, even Merriam Webster dictionary has a definition: “Doom surfing is the tendency to continue to surf or scroll through bad news.”
Mike shook his head in agreement. “It’s really easy to go deep with doom surfing and it has a very negative effect on the person at a subconscious level, contributing to their already high stress and potentially impacting all aspects of their life.”
In a quick moment of reflection, I had to agree with him. Since researching my article on predicting a super spreader event with The Sturgis Effect, I would start my morning off with a cup of coffee and the latest update from the John Hopkins COVID resource site, or the very informative Deloitte and Datawheel sites on COVID data analytics.
“Try filtering what you need or want from the news in your allotted time space,” Michael continued. “It keeps you focused and helps to prevent doom scrolling, or even better, just go into airplane mode. Boycott the news, avoid it all together, as it can quickly become addictive or an obsession.”
I felt Michael provided sage advice and I could see where I could make improvements for myself. I asked Michael if he had any last takeaways.
“Absolutely! When you get home, talk positively at dinner as much as possible. Share something good that happened in your day. News and technology should be taboo at the table, as well as around family and friends. Pick up the phone and reach out to someone you have been thinking about. Choose to focus instead on a good book, a hobby, or spending time with family playing a game or just talking together.”
It has been almost a week since I closed the Zoom meeting with Michael, went upstairs, turned the TV off (CNN, of course) and put Michael’s recommendations into play with my own family. I readily admit it was difficult at first and caught myself finding Alice at the bottom of the rabbit hole. But my conversation with Michael made me more aware. Today, I will catch a snippet here or there between meetings, and honestly, I feel better off because of it.
About the Author: Chris Duffy is a Senior Advisory and Account Executive at Infinite Blue.