Mental Health in a Continuity and Resilience Role

When the Continuity Pro … Can’t Continue

*remarkably within 7 hours of posting this I got people who have never shared a view of anything I’ve written dive in with feedback.

* I am not a mental health professional. This is just my experience of a heavily redacted article

Continuity and resilience professionals are often found at the centre of crisis response and are considered to be the pragmatic, sensible support at all times. But what if they are struggling as well?

“Mental health conditions are increasing worldwide… there has been a 13% rise in mental health conditions and substance use disorders in the last decade (to 2017).”

World Health Organisation

Mental health and wellbeing (even since this stat in 2017) is now more than ever at the forefront of every corporate response to their employees when addressing the recent response to COVID-19. Just to get to this point, most organisations have required an incident response team to navigate through the unknowns and unanticipated challenges of this year multi-year incident.

Shhhhhhh I’m “Okay”

In late 2021, there was a small survey conducted across a number of continuity and resilience professionals that reveals a high degree of mental health issues, such as anxiety. This is the first set of survey results I have seen with this kind of data from our community. I think that in itself paints a concerning culture of not often talking about it.

More often than not, continuity and resilience professionals have found themselves at the centre of their organisation’s response to the pandemic and continue to be so even 18+ months on. As a current member of the Global Board of Directors at the BCI, a number of people have approached me to tell me about their mental health and how it is often not discussed because of the nature of their role.

Any professional having experienced a true business disruption will attest to the fact that incidents can cause stress and trauma to those responding. My question is:

As a professional community, do we do enough to recognise the importance of mental health and wellbeing and the psychological challenge of a live incident? And what happens if the continuity pro can’t continue?

Disclaimer – I had to seriously pull back on the personal content from this article because the people close to me who I shared drafts with (who work in our professional community) told me it would leave me vulnerable and people may use it against me! I think that tells you all you need to know about some of the active folks in our community…

But anyway, it’s not going to stop me sharing the core of the article. Here is the edited version….

Perspectives on Mental Health

I would consider myself a lifelong sympathiser of those struggling with mental health having supported people close to me.

However, I can’t begin to fully understand and appreciate what people are going through. With mental health, you have the person experiencing the issue, which is entirely specific to the individual. No one can ever fully appreciate something so intangible as the thoughts and feelings of another person. But then there’s also parents, partners, siblings, children and friends, who have first-row seats but still don’t fully get it. It’s so unique to the individual and that needs to be appreciated.

It’s not like they have a broken leg with a cast or a virus that has them coughing and sneezing in bed. You can’t see this person’s illness or injury in the same way. This makes it harder to understand and empathise. Some loved ones might be quick to disregard it as being weak or using it as an excuse to not be “getting on with it”.

You can’t always see it and touch it but that doesn’t mean it isn’t there AND don’t begin to think you understand what the person is going through. Just support them.

Therapy – Not so straight forward

I always thought of therapy in that classic scene of someone lying on the couch talking about their childhood to a nodding doctor. I always thought you’d leave having emptied your thoughts and the doctor would give you some pearl of wisdom and you’ll be fixed for the experience. However, when I first experienced therapy, I discovered this is not the case at all.

For starters, COVID has led to everything being so virtual. Soo many people’s sessions are via video conference. For me this presented its own challenges of finding a private space and having good Wi-Fi!

Secondly, therapy is difficult. It is emotionally exhausting to talk a stranger through your thoughts and memories. Before every session I felt a build-up of anxiety as I prepared to pour out more of what was in my mind.

Thirdly, I wasn’t ready for the way I would be spoken to and the questions I would be asked. My therapist was nice and supportive, but they had a way of picking out key points and diving into uncomfortable territory. It isn’t all nice voices telling you everything is alright. If you do this you need to be prepared for some difficult conversations.

Finally, the last thing that struck me about therapy is just how much effort you have to put in yourself to truly get anything out of it. I found it to be hard work but in a worthwhile way, similar to the gym. You can’t just say everything out loud to a stranger and be better for the experience. The process requires commitment and self-investment to get to a point where you may need to make some brave decisions about the future and then see them through.

Finding the Strength to be Weak

I’ve never stopped before COVID. It has always felt better just to get my head down and get on with it. It’s in the nature of what I’ve studied and worked at for years. You work through a crisis. I have personally discovered that in order to be vulnerable, to feel weak, you have to find strength. For example:

  • Strength to acknowledge what could be perceived as weakness in front of family, friends, colleagues and yourself
  • Strength to let go of your responsibilities at work and let the work sweep away (and possibly feel like a failure for doing so)
  • Strength to deal with whatever was happening to you head on and organise you own recovery (including the admin!)
  • Strength to handle difficult thoughts and conversations in therapy to work through any issues

Finally, the strength to eventually go back to working life. However, once you stop the clock to find support, the prospect of getting “back on the horse” of one’s career might seem frightening. Will you ever be as confident? What if this happens again? It must take so must strength to go through this.

Writing a Mental Health Continuity Plan

I’ve spent years helping to write continuity, crisis and incident management plans for organisations. I’ve even been involved in responding to crisis, such as fuel shortages, possible terrorist threats, flu pandemic, mass evacuations, etc. In all of that planning and responding, I’ve never once thought about needing a plan for myself and my mental health. Then I recently thought “what happens if I have an “incident”, like an internal crisis or breakdown? What do I do then?”.

I started to think that maybe I should try to write a mental health continuity plan. I like writing. It’s helps me to remember. It helps me to understand and better explain things to myself.

Plans have structure and direction and give those who use them confidence so why should this be any different? I decided to work through my own a mental health continuity plan.

Another Disclaimer! Everyone’s plan will be different but this was my 3-step approach and the inherent challenges.

Step 1 – Identify the Triggers

Find out exactly what triggers the emotions and behaviours. Use the opportunity to increase your own self-awareness. Get them really clear in your mind. Write them down. You can’t respond to them in a managed way if you aren’t completely clear on what they are and why they are there.

Challenge with Step 1: Let’s Be Clear…

Trying to find a way to clearly express or explain the issue is hard! If you can’t explain it to yourself or someone who might be supporting you, you may come across some challenges. This is easier said than done. One might find it difficult to articulate exactly what they are feeling. People express feelings in different ways.

Step 2 – Develop Strategies

Develop some early warning indicators for the thoughts and behaviours that you associate with the issues and also some coping mechanisms. This might also include relaxation techniques that you can deploy to reduce anxiety to help manage your emotional reaction. For example, one coping mechanism might involve introducing boundaries.

Challenge with Step 2: Setting Boundaries Vs Living a Boundary

Developing strategies for managing an emotion and behaviour on the face of it seems quite straight forward, doesn’t it? For example, emotion A occurs – do this, behaviour B arrives – do this. How hard can it be? Right?…

Setting healthy boundaries is particularly challenging. For example, any boundary set might impact someone or something else. A boundary is often likely to prompt some kind of change against the previous normality. For me, this has meant having difficult conversations, handling reactions to change from both myself and those around me, feelings of guilt etc. Setting a boundary and living a boundary are two very different things and the later takes bravery and commitment. Probably one of the hardest you might ever have to do as part of your ongoing recovery.

Step 3 – Ongoing Self-Care

Look after yourself. You’re useless to anyone, including yourself, if you can’t do that. Find time to decompress, eat well, take on water, exercise and get outside. Make sure to carve out time in your busy life to be kind to yourself and enjoy what is around you and what’s important.

Challenge with Step 3: Self-Care Realities

Being a father of 2 young children alongside both my partner and I working, sometimes self-care boiled down to whether we have the time to do the laundry or make a sandwich. A long way off hydration, meditation, relaxation, etc.

Everyone is busy and stressed out. I’m sure most adults forget to really take care of themselves physically and mentally (I know I often don’t).

I have learned that some of this is achieved by dealing with the step 2 challenge. Positive boundaries/decisions will carve out time and inclination to even begin to look at self-care.

In Summary

I’ve long felt that more could possibly be done in the professional community to discuss mental health. I hope by writing this that others may come forward with their thoughts and provide their advice and tips.

I’d like to conclude by repeating earlier points:

  • Mental health for continuity and resilience practitioners needs more attention.
  • Ideally the professional community should try to share more of these experiences.
  • Whilst planning techniques can assist to working through your experience, it’s definitely not that simple.