Module 11.4 – Managing Staff Stress in Insecure Field Environments

As a manager there is much that can be done both to reduce stress in the office environment (chronic stress), and in responding to stress (both chronic and critical incident stress) once it occurs.

Managers have the responsibility to manage their own stress as well as to monitor and deal with the stress of the field team. To do this better, managers need to understand some of the signs and precursors to serious stress situations. The following elements are likely to indicate particular vulnerability to stress on the part of the staff member:

  • Health problems or personal injury.
  • Lack of professional/social support.
  • Lack of self-confidence.
  • Poor atmosphere in the office.
  • Family problems such as concurrent life crisis; divorce, illness, or death of family member.
  • Extreme youth and inexperience.
  • Relationship to or close identification with those being assisted.
  • Distressing work episode involving traumatic exposure.
  • Long task isolated from other workers.
  • Previous life or work-related trauma surfacing with recurrent symptoms.

As a manager, you can do much to improve the situation. Some things that can help are to:

  • Create a supportive climate.
  • Establish healthy routines in the office.
  • Promote the atmosphere of reasonable transparency.
  • Provide the outlets for the staff in terms of exercise and relaxation.
  • Facilitate staff familiarization with the organizational mechanisms for addressing grievances.
  • Monitor the consumption of alcohol and nicotine.
  • Monitor stress.

Checklists can be extremely useful tools for monitoring staff needs as well as performance during the course of a difficult emergency assignment. The following checklist is not an exhaustive listing, and can be modified to better meet the needs of your particular field situation.

Create a Supportive Climate

Social support is a key barrier against the harmful effects of stress. Supervisors can assist their team by creating and maintaining a supportive climate in which to carry out the work of the emergency.

Supervisors and team leaders have a major responsibility to clearly give permission, both to themselves and to their team members, for self-care adequate to sustain energy. It is their responsibility to check that this approach is followed throughout the rescue and relief effort.

This responsibility begins with assembling needed supplies, equipment and space allocation in readiness for 24-hour coverage of the emergency situation.

Establish Routines

Institute shifts with breaks and rotation of workers from higher to lower stress tasks. Have this in place to greet arriving workers.

Provide an example by rotating tasks, eating and resting. Check that members of the team do likewise. Plan the work, giving clear assignments and instructions. Make out a list that includes “hard” tasks requiring efficiency and skill, (example: logging information) and a separate list of “soft” tasks which can be performed by people whose ability has been temporarily impaired by shock, fear and stress, (examples: food preparation, cleaning). Establish a “buddy system” of pairs of workers who agree to exchange information about each other’s stress signals and then keep an eye on each other to mutually remind about self-care. Select a personal buddy yourself.

Monitor Health and Well-being

Assign the task of health monitor to a team member, giving that person authority to oversee food provision, and to enforce rest and refreshment breaks.

Instruct team members to eat, drink fluids and take the periodic breaks recommended. Set an example yourself by agreeing to be reminded about breaks for food, rest and sleep.

Ensure work area has toilet facilities, first aid kit with analgesics, drinking water, appropriate snacks and drinks. Provide a rest area apart from the work with blankets, pillows, and reading material. Encourage no smoking in the work area, but do allow smoking in some designated place.

Attend to Nutrition

Emergency work places great demands on the body.

Certain levels of food and fluid intake are needed when the body is under stress. Overload of caffeine should be avoided. Caffeine raises anxiety and interferes with needed sleep in susceptible people. If team members cannot leave the work area for meals, every effort should be made to have hot food brought in to supplement snacks.

Provide frequent small meals if possible. Snacks containing the kind of non-perishable items on the list below should be prepared in advance and kept on hand:

  • fruit (fresh and/or dried)
  • high protein snacks: cereal bars, nuts etc.
  • decaffeinated tea, coffee, soft drinks
  • fruit juices
  • milk
  • mineral water

Monitor Alcohol Consumption

Provide education on the tendency in emergency operations to drink beyond the initial relaxing effect of a glass of wine and to numb crisis impact with evenings of drinking.

Staff need to know how immoderate alcohol consumption places additional stress on both body and psyche. It affects metabolism, sleeping habits, is in itself a depressant, and causes hangovers— all detrimental to the health and efficiency of the crisis team.

Provide Exercise Opportunities

Workers who are fit and exercise regularly may need exercise sessions during the acute period if their task assignment involves inactivity. Any sort of stretching, movement or exercise, during a break or after a shift.