BLOG: What I learned about staff support #3

The PS Centre has asked long-time roster member Gordy Dodge, Ph.D., LP to share his reflections, observations and recommendations from 25 years of experience in domestic and international disaster work with the readers of the PS Centre’s website.

In the third blog post in our series about care for staff and volunteers, Gordy Dodge reflects on the how critical incidents affect staff in various contexts and how important it is to offer support according to their needs.

Critical incident, cumulative and organizational stressors

“I was enjoying walking down the street in a small town near my home in the U.S. on a warm sunny summer day, when a young woman came out of a balloon shop with a cluster of Mylar balloons, and I teared up and felt angry, but not knowing why. It then struck me that two weeks earlier, when I was on assignment in Guam following the Korean Airlines crash, one of my duties was to accompany family members when they burned incense and prayed in front of photos of those killed in the crash. On that day in Guam, I accompanied grandparents on the second birthday of their grandson while they prayed and attached balloons to his photo; he had died along with his parents in the crash just three weeks prior to his birthday. One can never know oneself well enough.”
– Excerpt from Gordy Dodge’s KAL Flight 801 journal, 1997

Regardless of personality strengths and extraordinary experiences, sooner or later staff become vulnerable to the effects of critical incidents. I base this conclusion not only on my work with humanitarian and disaster workers but also with law enforcement, firefighters and emergency medical services personnel. It is not within the parameters of this article to discuss the characteristics of or ways to alleviate critical incident effects, but it is important for individual staff and supervisors to know what could help prevent and ameliorate the serious effects of critical incidents.

Awareness, self-care, peer support, discussion and administrative recognition are all constructive, but the availability of professional psychological debriefing is at times also warranted. Understanding cross-cultural dynamics and that critical incidents vary is essential to effective international staff-care work.

Stress accumulates; thus we need regular and diverse stress management methods. In identifying one’s stressors, the responsibility primarily focuses on self-awareness and implementation, as well as implementing and maintaining management methods accordingly.

People are stressed for different reasons, so ways in which to reduce stress levels can differ. Peers, supervisors and organizational policy need to respect individual differences, within reasonable personnel standards. For instance, while some prefer to go for a long run or socialize over a meal to manage their stress, I need to be able to take a few minutes a day to go for a walk by myself and read something enjoyable before I fall asleep; only then am I able to work effectively for many long days on end.

I don’t know how many times I’ve heard staff say, “I don’t mind working with our clients – even hearing about their horrendous experiences. It’s our organization, its internal bickering and its bureaucracy that gets to me.” Of course we tend to blame our frustrations, regardless of the cause, on the powers that be around us, whether or not they are at fault. This tendency, not withstanding, behooves an organization to do whatever it can to maintain good staff morale, esprit de core and a common sense of purpose if it wishes to minimize stress stemming from organizational dynamics.

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