Collider Talks #7 | Aftershocks & Resilience, the science behind your stressed staff

It’s been over three weeks since the 7.8M quake that rocked Wellington and it’s clear that Wellington business workers have been most affected by the aftermath.

Some of you will still be displaced, and some of you will still be experiencing stress and anxiety when entering your CBD office. There is no set time frame to expect you and your staff to "get-over" a quake as everyone's resilience levels differ. The best thing to do is to understand what your company is experiencing and work through it as a team. 

Wellington Regional Economic Development Agency (WREDA), understood the need to provide support mentally to those most touched by the quake’s effects and last week they organised an earthquake resilience workshop at BizDojo. This workshop was targeted to leaders and managers who were concerned about how their teams were reacting to the effects of the quake.

Jacqui Wall, Director of Umbrella and registered Clinical Psychologist ran the resilience workshop, to help us understand the science behind earthquake-induced stress and what signs to look for in staff who might be struggling to get back to the job at hand. 

Behind the scenes:

When the quake struck just after midnight on the 16th of November, the majority of our brains kicked into ‘Fight or Flight’ mode. This mode is a fundamental physiologic response and is our body's primitive, automatic, inborn response that prepares the body to "fight" or "flee" from a threat to our survival.

This response is great for the immediate quake, but this human reaction can actually prove counter-productive when needing to move on from the experience.

Your amygdala is responsible for engaging the fight or flight response as it initiates a sequence of nerve cell firing and chemical release so you can effectively react during an earthquake.

Strongly linked to your amygdala, is your hippocampus which is responsible for sucking up information while in fight or flight mode. You may notice some people who were highly stressed during the quake can remember fine details of the event, and will often relay their experience to others. Essentially, they can’t stop thinking and talking about it.

Your amygdala in turn stores these emotional memories and without giving it much thought a pattern is developed of approaching many situations (such as returning to an office affected by the quake) as threats that require you to be in a state of fight or flight disproportionately.

Add into the mix aftershocks, staff reciting the event, GeoNet updates, office disruptions and sensationalised news articles about “The Big One”, and it’s quite easy for a member of your team to simmer in and out of fight or flight. This can cause someone to feel a bit panicky and shaky in response to very benign situations, like a big gust of Wellington wind!

Human beings will do anything to avoid the discomfort of fight or flight, it’s how evolution happened, it’s how we survived. You may notice staff wanting to control their environment by avoiding time in the office and increasing their days working at home, where they feel safer.

You may well ask where our ability to reason logically and evaluate has gone? Unfortunately, that is thanks to our pre-frontal cortex exiting stage left. Once the amygdala has been activated our pre-frontal cortex becomes impaired and working memory, regulation of attention, reasoning and logic also becomes impaired as well.

Signs to look out for in your staff:
  • Decreased productivity
  • Increased error rate
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Withdrawal and avoidance of work and social situations
What you can do:

Managers and leaders need to understand how to best support themselves and their staff in order to reinstate normality in the workplace. As we all know the key to getting through an earthquake is being prepared, however this doesn’t only refer to physical items. You can prepare your staff mentally as well.

  • Check in with your staff and notice changes in mood and actions.
  • Keep up great communication with your team and have an open conversation about how everyone is feeling.
  • Get your team’s Pre-frontal cortex working again through the practice of mindfulness, (which you can watch via the video above).
  • Dial down your team’s Amygdala by encouraging the practice of Diaphragmatic breathing.

Aftershocks are simply a part of life after a large quake, and these shocks have the ability to unsettle your staff very quickly. The best thing you can do is understand why they are feeling the way they are and prepare them mentally to cope in future. 

If you have further concerns regarding your staff, you can reach out to WREDA for more resources and advice:

Umbrella is also a great resource as they aim to make positive changes in all areas of the workplace:

Caitlin Mackay is the MarComs person for the Wellington BizDojo and Collider programme. When she's not practicing her diaphragmatic breathing (as she's not a huge fan of aftershocks), she's stocking up her emergency supply kit, with lots of cat food... for displaced cats...