Messages for those with a role in recovery

These messages are for those playing a role in supporting communities during recovery from a disaster - shared wisdom, from your global community of those who have been before.

Look after yourself in order to look out for others. This includes pacing yourself. Community need will continue over a prolonged period, so if you are planning to support for the duration, avoid wearing yourself out in the first leg.  Proactively keep your battery topped up. Replenish. Regularly participate in activities which give you energy whatever they may be; music, swimming, dancing, social activities, gardening… Get away. Regularly take time out away from the disaster-affected environment to reconnect with the world outside, regain perspective and to top up the tank.

It is a long battle. Take care of yourself. If you could – rather than be fat and short, be thin and long and pace yourself. It just goes on and on. There is a limit to how much you can do in one go. Being there continuously is a blessing. Even if you feel you cannot do anything – being there is a wonderful thing. Dr Tomoko Osawa – Hyogo Institute for Traumatic Stress, Kobe

Dedicate as much time to your own recovery as you do to others’. Anon – Kinglake Ranges

Balance reasonable expectations and optimism - Have realistic expectations and focus on the possible. Keep hope and focus on the good.

There is a story about Mother Teresa that I think illustrates it nicely. … Given the overwhelming need she faced, they asked her how she bore the sense of responsibility. She said she only felt the responsibility to do what she could with that person in that moment. I just want to help where I can. The mentality of “I realise I can only help to the extent that I can” is so different to people who think they can help until they drop. The latter is a noble strategy, but it is a losing strategy. Dr James Guy – Headington Institute

For some reason we’ve experienced that it is human nature always to go to the negative – what we weren’t able to assist with rather than what we did do. Journal - write down the positive stuff and what you’ve accomplished. Identify successes and accomplishments.  Lisa Orloff – World Cares Center

For me, this means finding the seeds of resilience within the hearts and minds of the affected people, and to carry on my own work with the knowledge of their resilience to support me. I think that the first step in providing support is to believe that people will someday be able to start their lives again. In this sense, I think that having a totally unfounded sense of optimism is a big asset.  Humans have used this to continue to survive since the beginning of time. Kyoko Nakatani - Psychologist, Kobe

Connect - Be courageous and let others support you. Create for yourself a network of positive and supportive people. Know that you are not alone. What you may be feeling and experiencing is a human reaction to a challenging load. Connect and you will find others are feeling the same way and others with previous lived experience who can support you. You are part of a global community of people working in recovery, often feeling isolated, but who face similar challenges and have similar reactions.

If I were doing it again I would gather all my friends for a potluck meal and say this is what I’m embarking on and what I need from you in the next two years… I would get my ducks in the water. If I had relied on them more I would have done better and not experience such depletion at the end of a two or three year journey through disaster. Jill Hofmann – American Red Cross

Don’t stay alone. Stay connected. There can be the tendency to mentally isolate yourself and burden yourself with ‘I have to do this.’ Collect your friends and understand your obstacles. Tineke van Pietersom – Antares Foundation

The elders in my community – they are the old heads with maturity and experience – calm experience. They look after me and support me but aren’t afraid to have a word to me if I step out of line. I listen and respect them. And I encourage others to do this as well. Brad Quilliam – Kinglake Ranges Business Network

Build a bridge - The gulf in understanding between those working locally in recovery and distantly located management, funders or recovery authorities is a stressor, for those working towards recovery from within the community and often also for those assisting from the outside.

It helps to acknowledge that this is more likely to occur than not and proactively consider strategies to address this likelihood.

Those who have come after the fact are damned if they do, damned if they don’t. We think ‘Don’t pretend you know and understand’ and at the same time ‘Show some compassion!’ But we need them. They will help with volunteer fatigue, but we have to work out how to let others help. … We all grapple with accepting help from outside. We’ll close rank. We’ll know best. We want to protect our communities from further damage.  Fiona Leadbeater – Volunteer, Kinglake Ranges

…how much of an outsider you feel. And it is never used in a positive way. It is only ever used against you as a weapon. I cannot speak for everyone who is an outsider - but you are so aware that you don’t get it, that you don’t understand. You are so aware that you are not part of the game, you are so aware of it all the time. And for me that has resulted in me not doing things I probably should have done -being gun shy a lot of the time… You are so aware that your opinion will never have the same level of importance, and you are so aware that you have to be constantly apologetic and constantly cautious and… Not everyone feels like that though I think.  Kate Brady – Australian Red Cross

Sometimes egos, agendas or lack of willingness to gain an appreciation of local realities may make the gulf too difficult to span, and scarce and precious energy might be better placed elsewhere. However, for every person on the other side of the divide who is not willing, there is likely to be one who is genuine and whose contributions or efforts are too readily discounted.

Using common values or a shared noble purpose as a guide, consider selectively building bridges. If the approach and effort is sincerely motivated and relates to a genuine need, rather than blocking it at the first attempt, consider finding a way to work together to build understanding and shape the approach to something useful. In our frustration with outsiders who do not understand and show no interest in doing so, we may underestimate our own role in erecting roadblocks to useful alliances and support.[1]

Early on we realised that to support and engage our people a ‘grass roots’ communication strategy would be the most successful  as opposed to our traditional method of Wellington-based and led communications. This created some upset. Understanding the intrinsic need was fundamental to all parties buying into the change. But it was the right thing to do. A couple of years down the track though there is the realisation that any approach comes with pros and cons. At times there are complaints about the lack of understanding of those outside of Christchurch – they just don't get it. But we have to consider the part we have played in this too.  Kaye Taiaroa, IRD, Christchurch

Where a bridge might be built, be open in discussion, guide gently, use the power of stories and concrete examples, capitalise on sensory impact, encourage time spent on the ground amongst the reality. As a radical example, shifting high level meetings from head offices to the damaged or temporary home of one of the team changes the lens through which issues and accomplishments are viewed.

When we are high on stress and low on tolerance, as is usually the case in long term recovery, building these bridges takes deliberate effort, patience and kindness. But never underestimate the power of the collective. It can do wonders to have people alongside you, supporting you, rather than hollering at each other across the chasm!

And these people came from outside and what they wanted to do, I thought it was ridiculous! But they did it, and later I realised it was great. Sometimes the perspective of someone who is a little bit removed, when you are stuck in it, can be helpful. … I would say, allow for the fact that people can see things you cannot and allow space for things to emerge.   Anne Leadbeater – Kinglake Ranges

Collaborate. Avoid re-inventing the wheel, find others with similar interests and consider novel partnerships.

Let the leaders lead and the workers work. Combine skills, intelligence and resources. It makes more sense to work together. It is stupid to be stubborn – leave your ego at the door. Humble yourself to hear a person out if they have knowledge. There might be ten things you may disagree with but two or three useful things that you can adapt. With ants – if you have two different colonies and you put them together they will bind together for the greater good. There are no egos. They can lift a hundred times their body weight and work in perfect unison. If ants had the brains we have they’d be ruling the world. Mike Hoffman – Yellow Boots, Staten Island

Perform an appraisal of your own ‘fitness’ and have strategies in place for stress. Know your signs of stress and your stress triggers – in advance. Have strategies – your personal stress-busters. These may be different for everyone but some form of physical exercise within your strategies was a common suggestion. Humour, laughter – for many, was a very important strategy. Find ways to express tension, frustration and emotion.

Have a good understanding as to what organisational supports are available to you. Ask questions, advocate, and know the limitations so that you can plan and compensate for any shortfalls.

It’s very clear that none of us are very good at self-care. I haven’t found anyone good at self-care – ever! There are all the reasons why – we are care takers, we are busy, we are doing this, we are doing that…  But coming up with a list of short things you can do. Okay so you can’t go to a yoga session but can you pause on your way from your office to the car and notice the colour of the sky? Can you let other people take care of you? (Something a lot of care-takers have trouble with. And a lot of our friends and family want to take care of us but we create this reputation that we do it all). So there have to be simple things that people can build into their days that are not this complicated - I have to go to the gym every night, I have to learn how to meditate. One of the co-facilitators decided she had to learn how to meditate and so had to read every book on the subject and made it this major project and she never did - rather than trying just to be still for a minute! Create a short list of things that you can commit to. Diane Ryan – American Red Cross[2]

Clarify the organisational support systems that are in place, such as briefing, debriefing, leave, time in lieu, R&R… Ask questions of your organisation to support your understanding of what is there and any limitations. Consider also what your own responsibilities for self-care are in this context. Kate Minto – Mandala Foundation

Operate with kindness – both towards yourself and your team. Your team is one of your most powerful resources of support. However, as tiredness increases and tolerance decreases, chronic stress encourages a narrowed focus on our challenges, as a survival mechanism, at the expense of the needs of others. This puts teams under strain and creates an environment in which misunderstandings and conflict can thrive. Rather than being a source of support, the team can then become a source of stress. As team members, a powerful strategy is to make a deliberate effort to operate from a position of kindness. Considering the other’s perspective, defaulting to understanding and kindness when not in agreement, small gestures, tokens of support, words of encouragement... These are not natural responses when overwhelmed yourself, but if team members can use kindness as a guiding philosophy and strategy, stress diminishes and collegial support grows.

Find the fun in your role

The best thing to be able to keep going is to enjoy it yourself – not just I am helping you but also something you can enjoy. Get something out of it. Japanese society views playing around and enjoying yourself as a bad thing – they emphasise diligence and being a good citizen. But if I were doing this again I would be less worried about what people think for bringing the fun factor in. Plug the enjoyment factor. Kyoko Watanabe – Ishinomaki 2.0

Remember the other roles and goals in your life - Know that opting out is a valid option.

At the end of the day, it mightn’t feel like it, but someone else can do your job. But no one else can be your kids’ Mum. No one else can be you in your real life. If the two are conflicting, you can say no. Halfway through you have to know you can back out. Kate Brady – Australian Red Cross

I lost a good chunk of happiness. It is not the price we should pay for caring for others. Don’t sacrifice yourself. Lisa Orloff – World Cares Center


[1]The quote from Kaye Taiaroa (right) originated from a meeting held on 3 April, 2014, prior to this research.

[2]The evidence-based ‘Five Ways to Wellbeing’ are a helpful guide – more details can be found in Appendix E

A New Zealand Red Cross self-care template is included in Appendix K and has been a useful tool for the team in Christchurch

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