Manage the Stress, Then Lead the Crisis Response

Skipped meals, prolonged periods of insufficient sleep, and no down time can snowball to dull decision-making skills and endurance in a crisis.

Stéphanie has led through many crises. Through experience, she learned that her first action had to be ensuring she was successfully handling the stress. It was a hard lesson for Stéphanie to learn because her first instinct was to take charge, to oversee the response, and to ensure her team was tackling their responsibilities. But as long hours ground on, she would drink more coffee, skip meals, go home later and go to work earlier. She could easily handle these changes for a few days. But sometimes a few days of crisis dragged on for weeks and even months. Projects go sideways. Natural disasters strike. A defective product is recalled and the logistics and mechanisms to handle that recall need to be put into place quickly. Other times it’s an external event that leads to profound disruption, the full effects of which are not known for months or years.

Without first taking care of herself, Stéphanie realized she was adding to the crisis. Skipped meals, prolonged periods of insufficient sleep, and no down time all snowballed to dull Stéphanie’s decision-making skills. These factors also reduced Stéphanie’s endurance to handle the crisis. A cough quickly became a cold, so Stéphanie not only had to contend with fatigue, poor nutrition, and the crisis, she also had to fight a cold and expose her coworkers to illness.

Pay Attention to the Team

The second thing Stéphanie learned the hard way was to always pay attention to the stress levels of her team. By showing them that it was OK to take 15 minutes to eat a balanced meal or to walk around the block and clear her mind, Stéphanie was leading by example.

People handle stress differently. Some of her coworkers seemed to thrive on stress. They enthusiastically engaged the situation and seemed to remain positive about resolving the matter. Others don’t respond well to prolonged periods of stress. Their sleep is negatively affected. Their overall health suffers. Their disposition turns negative. They start to look haggard. Stéphanie had to keep the well-being of her team in mind. And as a crisis drags on, she was surprised to learn that the performance of those who seemed to do well in stressful environments can deteriorate over time.

She also noticed that her colleagues were increasingly short tempered the longer the crisis went on. Team members who got on reasonably well no longer did. Small niceties such as holding the elevator stopped. The willingness to chip in and help others with their work stopped.

Stéphanie learned to be mindful of the short-, medium-, and long-term effects of stress on her team. In a crisis, time and resources are often in short supply. Purchasing tickets to sporting events and other group activities was simply not in Stéphanie’s budget. But she was determined to keep team cohesion high, as well as support all team members in stress-relieving activities.

Despite their work crashing around them and the pressures a crisis brings, Stéphanie purposefully made her colleagues engage in stress-relieving activities. She made sure they all took their lunch breaks. Stéphanie encouraged them to take stretch, yoga, Tai Chi, and other restorative practices pauses. She encouraged them to take these short respites, sometimes just 10 minutes, as they help work out kinks in the neck, improve blood flow, reduce postural stress, and clears the mind. If no one volunteered to lead a 10- to 15-minute impromptu session, then Stéphanie found a quick video on the Internet they all could follow.

Stéphanie also made available decks of cards and a few board games from home. Mindful of the time, employees would play a quick game of cards over their lunch or start a board game and play it throughout the week. It was a mental break from their exhausting work during the crisis, as well as a way to keep top of mind that their colleagues were also human beings. Narrowly focusing on their responsibilities in a crisis meant they failed to see each other as human.

Set a Positive Example

Stéphanie’s bosses at first frowned on her efforts, thinking they would distract and divert the organisation’s effectiveness in responding to the crisis. Some of her senior managers still think it’s a waste of time. Other managers were concerned about the costs until Stéphanie pointed out that the team took their legally mandated breaks, they brought their own entertainment (games, cards) from home, and it used no other resources from the organization.

A few senior executives were supportive of her efforts. For Stéphanie, it is important to maintain leadership practices that treat her team as human beings who deserve respect and acknowledgment of their contributions and the toll their contributions takes on them.

When leading in a crisis, keep in mind that you are leading people who feel just as stressed—if not more—as the leader. People take their cues from their leaders. Knowing this, Stéphanie set a positive example of managing her own stress levels. Encouraging team members to take their breaks, to engage in stress-relieving activities, continue to interact as human beings, and to realize there is life outside of the crisis were all critical components that Stéphanie mobilized to help her team successfully manage the stress.

Renée Gendron, MA, founded Vitae Dynamics Inc. to transform workplaces and economic ecosystems into healthier, better adapted to economic conditions, and more respectful environments. Gendron extends tailored and specialized bilingual training on leadership, conflict resolution, and communication. She also provides mediation and research services. Gendron holds a Master’s degree in social sciences and certificates in alternative dispute resolution and conflict resolution. Her research has been presented at many conferences and is published in peer-reviewed academic journals. Gendron can be reached at @vitaedynamics or Her Website is

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