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Wellbeing for Heritage Responders

One of the leading researchers on happiness, Sonja Lyubomirsky, defines well-being as an experience of joy and contentment, combined with a sense that one's life is good, meaningful, and worthwhile. When disaster happens, our feelings of happiness and well-being can be disrupted because of the stress and trauma we may face. A disaster can make us feel anxious, scared, sad, or hopeless. We may lose loved ones, homes, jobs, and community ties, leading to grief and sorrow. The upheaval of our normal lives can make us feel unstable and uncertain about the future, and disaster can make us question the meaning and purpose of life. In psychology, these are defined as traumatic events.

However, even seemingly minor disasters or stressful events can provoke emotional reactions and psychological distress. While these alone typically would not be classified as traumatic events in the clinical sense, it is important to note that individual responses to distressing events can vary widely. What may be a minor distressing event for one person could be experienced as traumatic for another, particularly if it triggers intense emotional reactions or provokes existing vulnerabilities or past traumas. Additionally, even minor distressing events can accumulate over time, contribute to our overall stress levels, and impact our well-being. Chronic stress at work or family life or repeated exposure to distressing situations can have adverse effects on mental and physical health, even if the events themselves are not considered traumatic. When we are already in this state and then experience traumatic events, it can exacerbate our stress and worsen the trauma we endure. 

What psychological effects do we experience when we undergo trauma? How can we preserve our team's well-being in such circumstances?

After experiencing a traumatic event, as emergency responders we often undergo a predictable pattern of response. Initially, within the first few days, feelings of confusion, distress, disorientation, or anger may prevail. Over the subsequent months, flashbacks, sleep disturbances, appetite issues, and fatigue can manifest. This period is critical for individuals to grasp and understand their experience and gradually return to their normal lives. While most people recover within a month, some may encounter ongoing difficulties managing daily life, indicating a necessity for professional help. A small percentage may develop Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

PTSD is a severe mental health condition that may emerge after exposure to a traumatic event. Symptoms may encompass distressing memories, avoidance of triggers, diminished interest in usual activities, difficulty sleeping, irritability, and hypervigilance. Seeking medical attention and support from mental health professionals is essential for individuals experiencing these symptoms.


 Managing the Well-being of Your Team

As a manager or team leader, you may find yourself in situations where immediate action is needed to provide psychological support to your team during critical events. While the instinct to act promptly may be strong, it is crucial to recognise that relying on standard responses such as debriefing meetings or sessions may not always be the most effective or beneficial approach to the mental well-being of emergency responders. Numerous studies have questioned the efficacy of these traditional methods of psychological debriefing following traumatic events. Consequently, experts and organisations have shifted towards more flexible and supportive strategies in mental health care. Here are some suggestions for how you can support your team after a disaster:

  1. Provide psychological first aid. This involves offering immediate emotional support, practical assistance, and essential information to help team members cope with the immediate aftermath of a disaster. It is crucial for addressing initial shock and distress


  1. Encourage self-care. Emphasizing the importance of self-care practices like adequate rest, hydration, and engaging in activities that promote relaxation and well-being helps team members replenish their energy and cope with stress


  1. Promote open communication. Creating a safe and non-judgmental environment for team members to express their feelings and share their experiences fosters emotional healing and encourages mutual support. Active listening and empathy are essential components of this approach


  1. Offer peer support. Pairing team members with peers who can provide emotional support, understanding, and empathy creates a sense of solidarity and community within the team, enhancing resilience and coping mechanisms


  1. Provide access to mental health resources. Ensuring that team members have access to mental health resources such as counseling services, hotlines, or support groups allows individuals to seek professional help and additional support if needed


  1. Foster resilience building. Encouraging team members to focus on building resilience by maintaining a positive outlook, seeking social support, and engaging in activities that promote well-being.

Listening, being empathetic, and providing resources based on individual needs are all crucial components of a well-thought-out approach to supporting a team after a traumatic incident. Therefore, it is vital to engage with your team on the ground, in person, and have open conversations after disasters. This is important in understanding the well-being of your team, addressing any concerns or challenges they may be facing, and providing necessary support. By talking to your team regularly, you can observe first-hand how they are coping, identify any signs of distress, and offer assistance where needed. This direct interaction not only allows you to assess the situation more effectively but also shows your team that you are present, caring, and ready to listen. It can help build trust, boost morale, and facilitate a more effective recovery process for everyone involved.

Andor Vince

Collections Care Advisor and

Positive Organisational Psychology Practitioner


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