Developing Resilience by Managing Staff Wellbeing during Crisis Response and Recovery

ACPAAdmin/ September 13, 2019/ Volume 17

Christina Diggs
Kyle Fassett

Spanning concerns related to mental health, campus safety, and sexual violence, today’s emergency preparedness landscape in student affairs is enmeshed in crisis. When we look at crisis as “a perception or experiencing of an event that exceeds the person’s current resources and coping mechanisms” (James & Gilliland, 2013, p.23), it is clear how both small and large emergencies might evolve to critical status for the students involved. Moreover, by replacing the word “person” with an organizational unit, the definition also helps us to understand the nature of crisis on behalf of a department, division, or institution. Often overlooked in this interplay between student and institutional crisis, however, is how front-line responders in student affairs both experience and are affected by critical campus events.

As the emergency response landscape in student affairs continues to grow, front-line crisis responders might agree that handling critical incidents on behalf of both their students and their institutions, day in and day out, takes a personal toll. In keeping with the aforementioned definition, critical incidents often can be chaotic, challenging to navigate, and overwhelm those responding (James & Gilliland, 2013). Lipsky and Burk (2009) remind us, “It can be humbling to realize how much we have in common with those we attempt to help.  Our pain and strategies for healing may look much the same as theirs” (p. 122). Therefore, as college student educators focus on helping others in the aftermath of a crisis, it is equally important to focus on professionals’ own needs. Following a crisis, it is important to address the resulting effects of trauma exposure, which has the power to transform those responding (Lipsky & Burk, 2009).

This article discusses the imperative for self-care on the part of student affairs responders to help combat the natural anxieties that arise in managing high-risk emergency environments. We believe that self-care not only respects the professional, physical, and psychological needs of student affairs administrators, it also allows practitioners to operate at maximum capacity in instances of crisis. To carry out these goals, we will share three lived experiences related to crisis management in student affairs as illustrations of why personal wellbeing is important in emergency management work. We will then return to the three cases to demonstrate hands-on examples of how wellness can be incorporated into student affairs emergency management. Finally, we will discuss how personal/professional wellness can ultimately lead to developing staff resiliency.

Crisis Realities: Three Lived Crisis Management Experiences

First-hand accounts of emergency management provide a particularly strong window into the complexities involved in campus emergency management. As such, the following three scenarios offer perspective on the challenges student affairs administrators face with respect to self-care as a front-line responder on a college campus. Each follows Amari, a mid-level student affairs administrator in a Dean of Students office at a large, urban institution in the Northeast. The campus is integrated with its surrounding city and enrolls large populations of both on-campus and commuter populations.

Case One: A Nearby Bombing Puts the Campus Community on Alert

After returning from a camping trip with no cell phone service for two days, Amari returned to alerts of an explosion that had occurred a few blocks from the campus. Amari immediately contacted their supervisor, who knew of their plans to be away, to get up to speed on the situation and to see how they could help. Amari’s supervisor shared that the on-campus and on-call staff had responded effectively alongside emergency personnel. More of the story unfolded, revealing that another explosive device had been found nearby. Again, the staff had collaborated with partners across campus to ensure the safety of students and their community. Amari subsequently checked in with the staff responding on campus to see how they and the students were doing following the incident.

While Amari and their supervisor were thankful that no one from the campus community sustained injuries in the incident, they were still keenly aware that the bomb-related events left students, faculty, and staff shaken.  Many raised questions about how the incident unfolded and how the division of student affairs’s response played out. Amari’s staff created opportunities for members of the campus community to speak with administrators, public safety, counselors, and their peers. As the campus reopened and day-to-day activities resumed, the department continued to review emergency response protocols and made recommendations to strengthen emergency response for future incidents of this nature. The incident left staff with concerns and fear about the community around them as they wrestled with how to make sense of an external event reaching so close to home.

Case Two: A Student Suicide Leads to Feelings of Loss and Disengagement

Nearing the final exam period in the spring semester of another academic year, public safety contacted the Dean of Students Office with the information all student affairs administrators dread: a student had committed suicide in a nearby academic building.  Emergency personnel were on their way while public safety secured the area. They requested student affairs staff to join them on the scene.  Two of Amari’s colleagues responded on-site while Amari stayed in the office. Amari’s role involved fielding phone calls and in-person inquiries while preparing for a campus notification.  The staff spent the rest of the day in close contact with one another, readied space for counseling support, coordinated class relocations, and sent external inquiries to the appropriate campus partners.

The campus environment contributed significantly to the type of response Amari’s colleagues provided.  They considered the public nature of where the incident occurred, the quick spread of information to local media outlets, the scarcity of space across campus, and the fast-paced lives of the students at this particular campus. It was a long day, and the staff’s souls were heavy as they left campus. The Dean of Students team had worked well together and had provided support to the community in the ways they could. However, even this sense of accomplishment did not erase strong feelings of loss and disconnectedness that came from the experience.

Case Three: A Crisis-Filled Year Leaves a Sense of Despair

The final case reflects a significant number of crises in fast succession that culminated into a particularly challenging year for Amari and the student affairs department. The fall semester began with a hurricane that caused widespread damage to the surrounding area. The campus where Amari worked was without power for a significant time, and, as a result, closed for a week while also serving as an emergency shelter for the local community. Amari’s team encountered even bigger challenges when the campus reopened. They assumed responsibility for over 500 returning students who were commuter students living in the hardest hit areas. Many of these students had lost everything, and others were part of families and workplaces that faced catastrophic loss following the hurricane. Recognizing an ongoing need for support on many different levels, the Dean of Students Office arranged academic support, financial resources, housing referrals, and counseling services. The stories of each student, the pictures they shared, and the documentation that outlined their circumstances drained the team and left indelible memories of loss. While the reward of providing assistance and connecting students to resources provided some respite, the challenge of comprehending the magnitude of the community’s collective loss was still palpable.

As the year went on and the physical damage repaired, many aspects of Amari’s routine fell back into place, but the wear and tear of crisis on the staff only deepened.  Several students passed away from health-related issues following, but not related to, the hurricane. Again, the staff worked to support the community as the campus dealt with another kind of loss.  Later that year, a student committed suicide off campus, and Amari’s department collaborated with faculty, students, and staff to remember the student’s life and build support for the community affected by this death. Ultimately, the combination of these incidents left the staff with an overwhelming sense of hopelessness. There had been no reprieve to what seemed like an endless stream of crises over an entire academic year.

Understanding Crisis Response and Wellbeing

Although emergency management is incumbent upon all college leaders, the responsibility often weighs heavily upon student affairs administrators. Ensuring the continuity of college life for all constituents is one of our most basic and significant roles on campus requiring immense personal investment in the well-being of others, sometimes at the expense of ourselves. We are bound to such ambitious goals by the profession’s ethical standards (Council for the Advancement of Standards, 2015) and generally ascribe to these directives as a matter of not just professional duty, but personal conviction.

As evidenced by the three lived experiences shared in this article, crisis intervention can have differing levels of impact on student affairs administrators on the front-line. Amari’s experiences with the nearby bombing and the student suicide demonstrate two opposing functions that stress has on emergency responders (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2005). On the one hand, stress drives the adrenaline, motivation, and focus required to act under pressure at maximum capacity. On the other hand, stress that lingers in the wake of a traumatic event can interrupt first responders’ physical, psychological, cognitive, and social patterns. This explains why Amari intuitively excelled at responding in the moment to the nearby bombing crisis. Stress provided the clarity needed to collect information quickly, deliberate potential consequences to both students and the campus community, and anticipate other plausible dangers that could arise from the bomb scare. It also explains Amari’s reflections on the student suicide wherein the incident affected the staff personally, emotionally, and deeply well after their professional obligations had ended.

Related to stress, another concept well-known to first-responders helps us to understand Amari’s reaction to the crisis-filled year. Namely, when student affairs practitioners exert energy for punctuated periods of time to remedy others’ crises without appropriate attention to self-care, the encounters can lead to physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion – often referred to as burnout (Gilliland & James, 2013). In turn, when burnout persists over long periods of time it evolves into compassion fatigue (Gilliland & James, 2013). Professionals who encounter compassion fatigue often deny their own emotions, become overloaded with emotion, or even awaken dormant emotions. In some circumstances, professionals may even begin to mimic or project a crisis onto their own lives.

Strategies for Self-Care: Three Lived Experiences Revisited

While stress, burnout, and compassion fatigue are very real, and often anticipated, outcomes of crisis response, we are left with the question of how to combat such negative outcomes in our daily work. A return to Amari’s lived experiences helps bring possible solutions into focus.

Case One: Validating Deep-Seeded Feelings through Incident Debriefing

Following the nearby bombing incident, one of the most impactful interventions Amari experienced to promote self-care involved incident debriefing. Incident debriefing takes place in a timely fashion following a response and allows a space for first-responders to explore their personal and professional reactions to the stress encountered during a specific crisis response (Potter, n.d.). In keeping with this practice, Amari called a meeting of the department team on the first workday following the incident to discuss their collective crisis response efforts. Time was allocated to share team members’ personal and emotional reactions to the incident alongside a review of departmental protocol.

As the conversation unfolded, Amari realized that they held remorse over having been away and unreachable as the event unfolded. Amari wrestled with what it meant to have a staff respond directly to a scary and serious incident, but to be a manager who was absent for such a critical experience. Pondering that remorse, Amari wondered how they could take time away and focus on their own wellbeing while campus life continued. Further, they were concerned that stepping away for self-care might result in missing other serious events on campus. Amari’s supervisor pushed back on these thoughts, stressing the importance of self-care and reminding them that the group worked as a team. Because crisis arises in unpredictable times and locations, each person on the team might not always be on-site. Amari was grateful for the support from their supervisor and for the opportunity to share concerns, reflect, and receive feedback.

Recognizing the need to alleviate the physical stress that had built up as a result of the nearby bombing incident, a colleague trained in yoga and meditation practices offered a meditation session for the staff later in the week. This led the team to consider implementing a meditation group on a more regular basis for those interested.  Although these were small ways to focus on the needs of Amari’s staff, the follow-up actions focused attention on healing administrators alongside healing the student community. Ultimately, the combined efforts contributed to an enhanced confidence in the staff’s capacity to continue supporting students and the ability to return to everyday work.

Case Two: Returning a Sense of Control through Exercise

On par with yoga as a strategy for relieving stress induced by crisis response, working purposeful exercise into one’s routine can also be a positive self-care tactic. Exercise has been shown to decrease stress and anxiety for first-responders (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2005). This explains why after returning home after a long day of crisis response activities related to the student suicide, Amari intuitively felt compelled to go for a run, no matter how drained they felt from the day’s events. Amari went to a nearby park and let their physical outlet evolve into an emotional catharsis. Throughout the run, Amari cried, expelled anger, and vented feelings of helplessness. In retrospect, Amari realized just how much tension and anxiety had built up throughout the day.

Taking the time to exercise and to let emotions flow was important to Amari’s overall healing process after the student suicide. Running connected Amari to an activity they enjoyed outside of crisis response. The act of controlling the route, distance, and time of the run returned a sense of personal control after an event that induced feelings of helplessness. Finally, running was an activity that Amari could ultimately work into a regular routine such that self-care could become a priority on a regular basis. Establishing a routine ultimately led to a sense of stability and strength such that Amari could return to work, prepared for future crisis response responsibilities.

Case Study Three: Healing through Storytelling

Sharing stories of crisis encounters helps responders to embark on a path of healing by allowing a space for responders to make meaning of their experiences, come to terms with the outcomes, build communities of support, and share their gained wisdom to help others (Seeger & Sellnow, 2016). Following suit, Amari recounts that sharing their story through diverse outlets has been key to climbing out from the crisis-filled year. Of particular note, Amari found healing in the process of developing a professional conference presentation related to reflections on the intervening year.

As the year in question came to a close, a call for proposals for a regional conference crossed Amari’s desk. At first, Amari saw this as a venue simply for sharing with student affairs colleagues the knowledge accumulated amidst such unrelenting crisis. To that goal, Amari teamed up with a colleague from another institution who studied emergency management. As it turned out, the process of developing the proposal and presentation proved even more valuable than anticipated. Amari took up the challenge to connect these lived experiences with their colleague’s theoretical perspective, deepening their insight into the intersection of theoretical approaches to emergency management and unfolding crisis events. The evolving conversations compelled Amari to reflect on the incidents and acknowledge their contributions to their resolution.  The act of presenting their ideas reminded Amari that universal challenges for crisis responders endure across campuses and in diverse contexts. During the presentation, sharing her experiences with others helped Amari realize that others could be better prepared because of their own work. Once on the verge of burnout and compassion fatigue, Amari was personally and professional revitalized. Amari had found a positive side to having been challenged by the year’s overwhelming sequence of responder trauma.

Developing Resiliency out of Stress and Self-Care

Through the lens of Amari’s lived experiences as a front-line emergency responder in student affairs, we gain deeper insight into both the impact crisis can have on professionals in that role and strategies for combatting resulting stress, burnout, and compassion fatigue. The question we are left with, then, is how student affairs administrators might strengthen their capacity to return to this task time and again without sacrificing their own personal and professional well-being. The answer lies in a connection between leadership and resiliency.

Leadership is a key competency required of student affairs administrators by our professional values (ACPA & NASPA, 2015) and a necessity for managing the complex terrain of crisis management (Wooten & James, 2008). Good leaders demonstrate skills in communication, time management, organization, planning, and judgment. Good leaders also evidence the quality of resiliency, or an “understanding [of] ways in which one can bounce back or recover after a setback” (Seemiller, 2013, p. 133). Ultimately, resiliency is achieved through exercising good habits of stress-resistance. Stress resistant leaders display personal control. They pursue personally meaningful tasks, make healthy lifestyle choices, and know when to seek support from their social networks (van der Kolk, 1987).

One tool for bouncing back after a crisis is reflection, or using lived experiences as a tool for learning. Brown, Roediger, & McDaniel (2014) posit that the more difficult the learning experience, the stronger the resulting knowledge. Moreover, the more nuanced the reflection, the more prepared an administrator will be for similar situations in the future. Another tool for bouncing back after a crisis is introspection, or the capacity to recognize and analyze one’s own personal reactions, emotions, and needs in light of events that have transpired (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2005). A third tool for bouncing back after crisis is self-care. As discussed throughout the paper, finding ways to work through the impacts of physical and psychological stress in the wake of handling crisis renews one’s resolve for persevering as a first-responder in student affairs. A final, and often overlooked, tool for bouncing back after crisis is an optimistic outlook. An optimistic outlook helps student affairs administrators keep adversity in perspective. It helps leaders recognize that they can work through adversity and that the lessons learned through crisis response can be used, in turn, to successfully face future challenges (DuBrin, 2013; Duckworth, 2016).

In order to procure these tools, student affairs administrators must be encouraged to do so in an environment that supports open and free reflection, introspection, and self-care on the part of emergency responders (Gilliland & James, 2013). Each of us may have different keys to unlocking our own wellbeing, but identifying those strategies and acting on them will build resilience over time.  This is critical in being able to manage staff wellbeing through crises. Practitioners in supervisory and leadership capacities should model this behavior for others and provide opportunities for staff to develop skills, support one another, and reflect and grow following crises they encounter.

Conclusion

The need to develop strategies around wellbeing is clear when considering the current challenges across our campuses alongside the expectations of today’s student affairs professionals.  The trajectory of our careers will be marked by our ability to respond to crisis in the moment as well as our ability rebound and serve as effective leaders over the long term.

When developing policies and protocols in preparation for emergencies, we must build in wellness mechanisms and a holistic approach to support not only those directly connected to incidents, but also our teams. It is important to consider that each person has different needs and a variety of strategies that will work best to support them in the short and long terms. In evaluating the resources offered in literature, professional competencies, and best practices, a wide range of strategies and outcomes emerge. Administrators must learn to evaluate his or her own needs in the wake of crisis response and feel empowered to pursue the strategies that fill those unique needs best address those needs. Personal reflection is critical for mobilizing self-care and for compelling strengthened professional resiliency. By taking steps toward personal wellbeing before, during, and after crises, student affairs practitioners will be able to more astutely persevere in managing student concerns and build a career of successful emergency management.

Discussion Questions

  • When the focus of our profession is on caring for others, how and where do you develop tools for self-care?
  • How can you frame crisis incidents as learning opportunities for students and for yourself?
  • What additional strategies can you employ to promote an environment of increased wellbeing for your team, office, and/or department?

About the Authors

Christina Diggs received her Bachelor of Arts degree in political science and religion studies from Lehigh University.  She completed her Master of Education degree in educational leadership in 2008, also at Lehigh.  Chris has worked in the field since then in the areas of career development, residence life, student conduct, and crisis intervention.  She currently works at the Fashion Institute of Technology as the Director of Residential Life.

Kyle Fassett received his Bachelor of Arts in Theatre Design from the State University of New York at New Paltz. He completed his Master of Arts in College Student Personnel from Bowling Green State University in 2014, and began a career in Residence Life & Housing at the University of Delaware. In Fall 2017, Kyle began as a Ph.D. student at Indiana University-Bloomington with an assistantship in the Center for Postsecondary Research.

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