The one-year mark of the devastating wildfires in Fort McMurray is approaching, which was a reminder for me that crisis—and even disaster—can occur without anticipation. One of the keys to not only surviving such events, but to potentially thrive during upheavals, is human resilience. While human resilience may be thought of as a personal trait, groups can learn to develop a culture of resilience—the ability to rebound or bounce back from adversity. I like to use the basketball analogy: when a basketball is full of air, it bounces back. When it starts to lose air, the ability of that ball to bounce—let alone bounce right back—becomes less and less. Without refilling that ball with air, gravity will take over. Think of that in terms of our own health and the health culture within our workplaces. How do we keep that ball full so we are able to bounce back when life throws us obstacles or even crises?
Marina, a teacher and wellness champion from Fort McMurray Public School Division shared her experience following the fires and the impact that it had on the culture of her school division.
Janelle: In a few months, it will be one year since the devastating fires in Fort McMurray. Can you talk about your experience following the fires and the impact that it had on the workplace culture?
Marina: A major hurdle for many teachers and school administrators was getting the schools back in order. The reality, upon our return, was that our environments were a bit chaotic. Desks were missing and a tremendous amount of teaching materials were lost or discarded. Teachers discovered this a week or so prior to the students returning. Staff were not only restoring their classrooms, many had to re-do years of lost lessons and teaching materials.
The fire had a big impact on the workplace culture this year. Many of my colleagues started to take better care of themselves personally, including a focus on health and wellness. More than ever, we are aware that if we do not take care of ourselves we will not be able to take care of our students. I also think we value our colleagues, students and community more than ever. Going through the devastation of the wildfire put many things into perspective. I have heard many people comment that the fire made them see what is truly important to them in life.
J: What support was needed to rebuild the workplace culture?
M: We have received a tremendous amount of support at every level. The school board has worked extremely hard to make sure staff, students and families are supported in whatever way they need. The element that stands out to me the most is that there has been a lot of diversity in the types of supports we have received. It’s been an important ingredient in the success of building a positive workplace culture. In other words, we all have different needs and it’s crucial to recognize this in order to provide a variety of supports to meet those needs.
J: What would you say are the key foundations in helping staff, students and families recover or bounce back after the fires?
M: I feel compassion and empathy are the key foundational elements that have allowed us to move forward in the workplace and within our own lives. From the day of the evacuation, the well-being of the staff members, students and families have been the top priority. We know that if unhealthy, teachers will struggle to teach well. We also know that if students are unwell, they will struggle as learners. With this in mind, it’s been important to focus on mental health and well-being and show compassion and empathy to effectively begin to recover. I don't know that we are thriving yet but I do feel that we have taken many steps in the right direction.
My observations have led me to believe that, just as individuals can learn to develop personal traits of resilience, so too can organizations. Whether recovering from a crisis or simply trying to overcome life’s every day challenges, the following foundations can be simple, yet powerful, in building a resilient organization:
- Focus on self-care. Good health—and a regular routine of healthy habits—are foundational to both mental and emotional resilience. If we are taking better care of ourselves, we are better able to take care of others. It helps to keep our basketballs full of air so that when unforeseen events occur, we are better able to bounce back.
- Pump up the positivity. Bouncing back from adversity has a lot to do with the assets you have in your bank. Positive emotions help to speed the recovery from negative emotions. How can you fill your positivity bank?. This can be a simple hello every morning you get to work.
- Lead by example. Behaviors are often mimicked by those around us. Those visible leaders demonstrate behaviors associated with resilience. I have witnessed their ability to change an entire culture of an organization. These leaders gain followers who replicate the characteristics that they have observed.
- Provide encouragement, support and mentoring. Research suggests that the single most powerful predictor of human resilience is interpersonal support. Social and emotional support from others is protective for our health.
- Find and celebrate success. Individuals thrive from success. Discovering things that are enjoyable and achievable are individual contributors to finding success. Take time to acknowledge what you and your team accomplished. Celebrating the steps along the way is important in maintaining your momentum.
Crises can take many forms and happen at the drop of a hat. What’s important is to build up your personal and workplace supports in a time of positivity in order to create a culture of resilience for the times you and your team need it. Take some time to work with your team to discover what your culture of resilience looks like. How can your team keep that basketball full so you’re able to bounce back?