Stress awareness in incident management training

Stress Awareness Month has been held every April since 1992, to raise awareness of the causes and cures for our modern stress epidemic. This years’ theme is Community, largely because of the increased rates of loneliness and isolation that have emerged as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.

In this blog, Evie Whatling from JBA Consulting explores their recent work with the Environment Agency’s Wessex Area Incident team, to incorporate stress management into incident management training and exercising.

A community is much more than just a group of people. It’s about having a sense of belonging and connection to others and feeling supported and accepted by them. This is as true for where we live as it is for where we work. However, the Covid-19 pandemic has made it more challenging to build or sustain these types of communities.

This community and loss of connection is something that is also extending to incident management arrangements. Virtual and hybrid incident management is likely to remain, and already we have identified that the risk of burnout has increased. There is a strong link that these burnout rates have increased because of loneliness and isolation, and burnout is a symptom of stress, and so an interconnected system emerges.

Stress is an inevitable component of incident management, there is no way of avoiding it – but being aware of the signs and adopting coping mechanisms can be very effective in managing stress. We have been working with the Environment Agency’s Wessex Area Incident Teams to work on addressing some of these emerging challenges, as part of our wider Incident Management Training and Exercising Framework.

How does stress management training work?

Stress management training needs to adapt and expand to ensure that we are not only helping to inform incident responders on what stress is and what can be done to help manage it. Stress management training now needs to include how we can try and adjust our virtual incident management operations to minimise these feelings of isolation and loneliness. This in turn extends to how we can mitigate burnout, and support stress from virtual environments. Stress management training can also explore what we can do to build a sense of community, internally and with partners agencies.

Our work with the Wessex Area Incident Teams is addressing some of these emerging challenges and providing tools to help incident responders.

Some key tools we focus on include:

  • Optimising how we communicate virtuallyEstablishing online etiquette to minimise information overload, and having responders consider specifically what output is wanted from information shared.
  • Prioritising breaks. It is easy in virtual arrangements to keep working through, forgetting that breaks now need to be planned for and can’t be ad hoc. Planning breaks and trying our hardest to stick to them is important to allow ourselves to decompress. Alongside this, breaks should be taken away from the ‘incident room’. Visually separating ourselves from where we are responding to the incident allows us to physiologically distance ourselves from the scene.
  • Team support. Have colleagues ready to stand in and enable breaks, as well as establish work rotations in place so we can switch between high stress activities to lower stress functions.
  • Establish buddy systems for mutual aid arrangements. This means establishing communication lines and teaming up someone from a different area with someone from the responding area to mitigate feelings of isolation and loneliness.
  • Stress bucket tool and adapting this to have people identify stressors they can remove; stressors they can’t remove but can control; and finally, any stressors that can’t be controlled or removed, and so learning how to accept these stressors in the incident.
  • Mindapple tool. The premise of the tool is to have ‘1 of your 5 a day’, but this has been adapted to allow responders to: mark 5 things they can do for their wellbeing before the incident (i.e., update calendar, keep commitments to a minimum, have food in the fridge); 5 things that can help during the incident (i.e., take a break, do a grounding exercise); and 5 things to focus on after the incident (i.e., go for a walk, debrief, have a balanced meal).

We have received positive feedback from our training that will hopefully prove valuable during future incidents. Reflections on the training include:

‘I’m not alone in feeling overwhelmed and vulnerable sometimes.’

‘The knowledge in that I won’t be thought less of for taking a break or asking for help as there can always be such a stigma around it when the stakes are high.’

‘The need to connect more with those I am working with despite the difficulties of hybrid working.’

‘Understanding who you are working with and to prioritise what you do.’

Having such training arrangements in place can help incident responders feel seen, understood, and supported.

The Communities Prepared team is currently working with Evie and colleagues at JBA to put together a shared training and exercise offer for communities – more information on this to come in due course. Thanks to JBA and Evie for giving us permission to share their blog here – you can find the original post on the JBA website.

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