Leaders' Self-Care in Traumatic Times of Change

Leaders' Self-Care in Traumatic Times of Change

Tamara Hawkins
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-7016-6.ch005
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This chapter will embody a day in the life of a licensed therapist and four individuals (who are leaders from various professional backgrounds) with a universal trauma response to the COVID-19 pandemic. On any given day, their jobs are not for the faint of heart; they are accustomed to seeing people at their nadir. However, this pandemic has made them question their resiliency, tapped into their reserves, and exhausted their previous effective coping mechanisms. In an effort to seek refuge and respite, their answers lie in their last resort: self-care (something none of them make time for, but something all of them require). Through their collaborative work with a therapist, these leaders were able to prioritize safety within their organizations, facilitate accountability among staff, and encourage social support within their departments.
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What keeps a person up at night? Is it the extra caffeine they have been running on to make it through the day? Is it mindlessly surfing the web? Is it emotional eating? Is it constant worry? This question gives rise to problem-focused thinking. It is externally driven and it has a negative impact on a person’s mood and motivation. This author implores the reader to instead ask the question: What gets a person up in the morning? This approach is more solution-focused; it allows someone to discover opportunities about things that could go right instead of ruminating about problems or what could go wrong. Everyone is in this era of rapid, unprecedented change and how they move forward will dramatically depend upon the state of their human psyches. As a licensed therapist, this author is not immune to the problems faced in the everyday lives of others. However, this clinician does ponder the notion that a change in one’s perspective is empowering self-determination. The helplessness one feels when problems arise, places a risk to the efficacy of human organisms and organizations. Therefore, the work of true leadership is to foster an environment where employees can tap into their greatest potential. However, the work of a good leader is the ability to foster credibility and maximize their impact among subordinates.

This chapter describes a day in the life of a licensed therapist and four individuals who are leaders from various professional backgrounds. These professionals are a police chief, clergyperson, therapist and healthcare worker. Each of the four individuals has experienced a universal trauma response to the COVID-19 pandemic. These case studies illuminate how those in positions of authority now find themselves powerless to tragic encounters for which they simply cannot prepare. All four individuals who presented to therapy are authorities in their own respective fields, but who do they turn to when the world turns to them for answers? The world, in general, seeks solace in knowing that in the event of a medical emergency, the doctors, nurses, paramedics and other health care workers will use the latest technology to diagnose and treat their ailments. In the event of psychiatric deterioration, it is opined that a mental health clinician would foster an environment conducive to psychological health and well-being. Further, civilians trust that their local law enforcement will protect, serve and defend an individual’s life and liberty. In sum, they are the authority figures that society consulted up until this present time. These professions had most or many of the answers to the questions humans sought. Now, everything that these leaders have learned or experienced in life, no longer makes sense to them. How do they now make it make sense to others?

The therapist who has performed countless suicide risk assessments and safety plans with her patients is now contemplating ending her own life. The Police Chief, so disgusted with how his profession handles his own race, struggles with the notion of early retirement. Healthcare workers are experiencing panic attacks and vomiting in the parking lots before starting their shifts because they do not know if they will lose another coworker, patient or succumb to the virus themselves. In addition, they have isolated themselves from their families as a precaution, who previously served as their primary support system. In an effort to get a grip or handle on the shaking of their foundations, they wander down the halls of the hospital corridors and find themselves in the office of the hospital’s clinical social worker; a licensed therapist whose job has completely changed to primarily informing families of deceased loved ones (due to COVID-19 precautions, families were restricted from patient visits) and assisting patients and employees with Living Wills/Advanced Directives in the event they contract the virus. By happenstance, this Social Worker receives surprise visits and walk-ins from all walks of life, looking for relief and reprieve from the world crashing-in around them. The therapist now undergoes her own psychotherapy due to the vicarious trauma she has experienced from the collective trauma of the people who enter her office.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Leadership: The act of modeling a desired behavior to achieve a collective goal.

Vicarious Traumatization: A form of countertransference triggered by repeated exposure to traumatic events from persons requiring care.

Mental Health: Cognitive, behavioral, and emotional preparedness as evidenced by one’s ability to cope with various stressors and/or the insight to seek support if warranted.

Essential Workers: Individuals who provide a myriad of services to maintain critical infrastructure operations.

Coronavirus: A respiratory illness first identified in December 2019. It is spread through droplets and virus particles.

Pandemic: An infectious disease affecting a substantial number of people globally.

Self-Care: Any human regulatory function designed for the purpose of maintaining health management and overall wellness.

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