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Jump Ahead of the Curve

Access Continuum’s COVID response toolkit for leaders, teams and organizations

Continuum Consulting Services LLC

We have rolled into the sixth month of the pandemic and all that brings with it.

For many in front line care or leadership positions, the past few months have been especially challenging, and there’s no end in sight. We talk about defining a new normal, but what that might look like keeps shifting on us. After all the adaptations, uncertainty, and losses of innumerable varieties, we’re hearing that people are hitting walls of deep fatigue.

Crisis Fatigue

The 5-phase COVID Leadership Model, designed by Continuum to assist organizations in identifying where they are in the unfolding disruptions, defines this time as Phase Three, or “Wait! There’s More?!?”  When it feels like things should be leveling out, more unwelcome surprises pop up. In the United States, there are school closings, furloughed jobs, Atlantic storms, Pacific fires, civil unrest, and a looming nation-splitting election. 

We’re tired, and that adrenalin-laced fatigue is debilitating over time: It makes us less productive, less hopeful and less forgiving of ourselves and others. It can also wreak havoc with our physical health. The feeling is common enough to have a name—crisis fatigue. A recent article in Psychology Today defined it as a “human response to unrelenting stress that can cause a person to feel physically numb or tired.”  Sound familiar?

Some of us have found ourselves in work situations akin to war conditions. I’ve been reading Erik Larson’s fascinating historical work, The Splendid and the Vile, which recounts the first year of England’s war with Nazi Germany in 1940-41. The British sustained blow after blow before the US and others joined forces with them in what became World War II. The leadership load that Prime Minister Winston Churchill carried in that first dark year brought me to tears as I read, even though I knew that, ultimately, the Allied forces prevailed. Churchill surrounded himself with a huge team, kept his family close, plotted strategy until the wee hours over brandy, and personally drove innovation and preparedness for war at a pace that was unparalleled at that time. There was no real time off.

He dealt with wildly inaccurate estimates of supply availability, fake news about the cities’ bomb shelters, continual air attacks on London during an unusually cold winter, personal illness, and a vacillating American Congress. Somehow, he found time to write speeches that we still quote today.

At a christening celebration for his grandson, the family called for a toast from Churchill, and he stood up. “As he spoke, his voice shook, and tears streamed. ‘In these days,’ he said, ‘I often think of Our Lord.’  He could say no more. He sat down and looked at no one—the great orator made speechless by the weight of the day.”  [Larson, p.301]

That’s crisis fatigue. Churchill had good reason to feel it, and so do we.

Buckets of Stress

Most of us are good at managing tough situations for a while, but with time, they wear us down. Over the years, the metaphor of a ‘stress bucket’ has been useful to people dealing with constant stress. I incorporated it long ago when coaching executives who had lost their positions, and later when working with people who had lived through Hurricane Andrew in Miami [Category Five: 1992] and were still waiting for permanent housing six months later. Take a look at this article and worksheet for how to use your own stress bucket. The ideas may interest you, even if you’re a person of great personal resilience, as Churchill was.

Imagine that we all carry a bucket with us everywhere we go. Stressors flow into the bucket throughout the day and often stream back out, helped along by little faucets created by activities that mitigate the stress: exercise, favorite activities, a good night’s sleep. When what we have to deal with overwhelms us, our stress buckets overflow, and we feel aching fatigue and, perhaps, a pervading sense of sadness or anger.

Every crisis is, ultimately, a personal one. We have to recalibrate toward balance wherever we find ourselves. Humans are actually good at this when pushed. I’m sure you can think of many examples from history and from your own life that demonstrate this. Even though we didn’t personally cause these crisis-invoking events, we do have to deal with them and ourselves. We can find the opportunity it brings.

Sallie Lee is a consultant with Continuum. She has served as a thinking partner, facilitator, coach, and strategist for a global client base.