Reflection: Surviving the Storm – Personal Wellbeing

By Peter Cottrell CA(SA)

The Covid-19 crisis presents as a storm with poor visibility where the end outcomes are far from known.  It is unusual in that there have been times of rapid change and upheaval, together with radically changed personal circumstances. One of the key themes of surviving a storm is care for the wellbeing of leaders and the teams that they work with.  This reflection will explore some of the challenges we face and will draw on coping strategies from the maritime world.

The responses to the previous instalment on Crisis Preparedness have been encouraging, while also reflecting the practical challenges many businesses face.    A client of ours who is an avid sailor shared this reflection:

“All small craft putting to sea are required to have a grab bag on board.  This “bag” is usually a bright yellow plastic container with bright red screw on lid with watertight seal. Things can happen very quickly at sea so, if nothing else, you should grab the “bag” and abandon ship.  The grab bag has sufficient buoyancy to keep you afloat and its colours will help to aid visibility.

“Inside the bag are essentials:

  • Parachute and hand-held flares and smoke cannisters to attract attention
  • Torch with spare batteries and pen knife
  • Sound signalling device – trumpet
  • Fishing line and hooks for the possible longer stay in the water
  • Space blanket
  • Signalling mirror
  • And any other things that may be considered essential

“When I packed up to leave my offices on 25 March I made no plans and had no ‘grab bag’. When I left I did so in the clear belief that I would be back at the office in three weeks with business as usual. It now looks like it could be months?” 

This offers a real life illustration of the situation that many small business owners face; there has been a time of rapid change where the outcomes were not clear and indeed still remain unclear.  These are times of great uncertainty and frustration.

From a foundation that may be less than ideal, we need to focus on how we get through this storm.  The adverse consequences of the storm often come in waves and just as we have formulated a response plan, there is another round of rapid change that once again requires new decisions, together with pressure and stress.  For many, there is a general buy-in to the need for lockdown and a willingness to accept hardship for the greater good. For some there is an emerging anger and frustration at the way plans are being implemented and some of the arbitrary new regulations.  For others, there is deep anxiety and disappointment.  

A new theme will be our response to the easing of lockdown restrictions. Most will have experienced joy at being able to exercise on the streets. But as we head towards further easing there is scope for considerable anxiety.  Psychologist Prof Dame Til Wykes of King’s College London said the public’s reactions to easing the lockdown were likely to reveal high levels of anxiety: (A)

“It is likely that most people will feel anxious and risk averse. 

“We have been given strict behavioural advice for more than five weeks, and when that is removed people will feel pressured, and individuals who had pre-existing anxiety, particularly about their health, will be worst hit. It will take quite a lot of psychological treatment to get over this.

“Different groups will be more affected than others, in particular the elderly and also parents, who will worry about their children bringing home the virus from schools.”

With a crisis that comes in waves, events do not follow a set rulebook and we may well find ourselves revisiting emotions that we have already dealt with.

It is in this context that care for the wellbeing of leaders and teams is of the utmost importance.  I refer to the statement made in regard to the Costa Concordia about the lack of leadership being a major contributing factor.  Captain Lloyd’s account of the incident cites numerous leadership issues in the lead up to the incident.(B)  It is perhaps the insights into the incident itself that are most telling about the wellbeing of the leaders and crew.  

I will reflect further on the crisis related themes in the next instalment.  For now, we need to pause and reflect on the human element.  For most of us Covid-19 presents a situation the likes of which we have never encountered in our lifetime.  It is worth noting that these conditions of lockdown and economic distress are not unprecedented, having previously occurred during the Spanish Flu Pandemic of 1918.  But we cannot ignore the very harsh realities that these conditions present and the impact on the human beings involved.  Once again, we can learn much from the maritime world and the life of seafarers.

First, we should differentiate between what we can and can’t control.  In the world of a seafarer there is a great deal that they cannot control.  In the present situation with ports around the world under lockdown, seafarers are stuck at outer anchorage with no ability to get to land and, more importantly, no knowledge of how or when they will get home to their families.  Those who have a view of the Durban coastline only need to look out the window to see the number of ships that are in a state of waiting.  For oil-tankers the situation is even less certain.  We all will have noted with disbelief the unprecedented negative oil futures price.  For oil tankers this means that they are transporting product that nobody wants; the seller will pay you to take delivery.  Even two months ago, this was unimaginable.

A Seafarer communicates from Durban Seafarers Mission with his young child at home (pre Covid-19 Lockdown

Add to this the perspective of seafarers being men and women who are separated from their families, with those families facing the very same trials and tribulations that we are facing.  The seafarers will be receiving some communication, but are unable to do anything to change the situation of their family.  There are other seafarers who are stuck at home and are unable to return to their ship, thus being without income.

These circumstances are not new to seafarers and there is much that we can learn from them in coping with stress and anxiety.

Second, we need to be intentional in dealing with the implications of lockdown.   For seafarers, our present conditions of social isolation are their everyday reality.  They spend months at sea in a state of virtual quarantine from the world at large, with the only physical interaction being with their fellow crew members.  They are in a confined space on board a ship.  Seafarers have learnt to manage boredom by connecting with those around them and finding activities on board.  And their time with family is limited to messages and the occasional video chat.  These conditions are all very similar to what we now face in lock-down and once again, we can learn much from the way in which seafarers deal with the situation.

Third, those in leadership need to ensure that they care for themselves and their teams to enable sound decision-making.  In a time of extreme crisis it will not be possible to make the right decisions all the time and all that we can hope to do is to make sufficient right decisions to enable survival.  This is very similar to a wartime strategy.

Returning again to the Costa Concordia, Captain Lloyd provides some fascinating insights into the factors that may have contributed to the mental state of the Captain: (B)

  • ­­It is well know that disasters and catastrophic crises strongly affect human behaviour;
  • People undergoing a crisis are normally well functioning people who are struggling with the disruption and loss caused by the disaster;
  • Reactions can include changes in behaviour, physical well-being, psychological health, thinking patterns and social interactions; 
  • The following reactions are common: disbelief, emotional numbing, nightmares and other sleep disturbances, anger, moodiness, irritability and forgetfulness”.

Another observation is that the captain appears to have succumbed to a normalcy bias, where disbelief and overconfidence obscure realities too horrible to contemplate.  “He wanted to believe things were not as bad as they looked, minimising problems and stalling decisions, while giving or receiving information.  And then the command structure simply collapsed.” (B)

This raises important questions about the wellbeing of leaders and teams during a time of crisis.

In all of this, I encourage that we keep our compassion for others, being aware of the hardship and adversity around us.  Where we are faced with such widespread pain and suffering we need to focus on where we can make a difference.  Some of this may be very practical, including supporting our domestic staff even when they are not able to work.  We also can support community-based organisations that are making a difference.

Lastly, let us not lose hope.  I am constantly amazed at the passion and ingenuity of human beings we cope with this tremendous adversity.  I have been so inspired by people who are willing to go the extra mile and to do extraordinary things, for the survival of their businesses and for the wellbeing of those around them.  I am similarly inspired by some of the creativity that emerges. For example, The Whole Child is a charity involved in the renewal of education and that as part of its work provides food to children in need.  The feeding of these children has been resumed during the lockdown, but with an added twist of including seeds and a pamphlet for how to grow vegetables.  This is truly inspired thinking that empowers communities and families.  This all starts leading us into the third theme of looking beyond the storm.  Before we get there, a further reflection will follow with lessons learned from a sinking ship.

(A) Fearful Britons remain strongly opposed to lifting lockdown, Toby Helm, Robin McKie and Lin Jenkins, The Observer, 2 May 2020
(B) The Sinking of A Ship, Costa Concordia Revisited, Captain Michael Lloyd, RD**, MNM, CMMar, FNI.
(C) How to Lead through Rapid, Unexpected Change (Responding to Covid-19), Carey Nieuwhof
(D) That Discomfort You’re Feeling is Greif, Scott Berinato, Harvard Business Review, March 2020

Peter Cottrell CA(SA)
Email: | Telephone: +27 31 7613400 |

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