Is sleep your secret weapon in a crisis?

January 23, 2020

Critical takeaways

  • Being properly rested is key to peak performance but this is often overlooked in a crisis.
  • Rest in a natural disaster is of even greater importance when many of the responders themselves have also been affected by the situation.
  • Schedule watch or duty periods to ensure that responders are properly rested so that the response is managed effectively and your team is cared for. 

Local government and healthcare facilities along the Gulf Coast and Atlantic Seaboard spend a significant amount of time each year preparing for or dealing with hurricanes or severe weather events. These events typically last for several days and the aftermath often extends for weeks while floods recede, the damage is repaired, and power is restored. Sometimes, in the case of Puerto Rico and 2017’s Hurricane Maria, the effects can last for years.

However, there’s not just physical damage in events like this: there’s also the human toll of loss, injury, and suffering. But one area that’s often overlooked is the toll on the responders themselves. 

Many of them will be residents of the areas hit by the storms so they have the same fears that their loved ones and property will be affected. However, responders also have to deal with the strain of managing a lengthy response. Therefore, a crucial part of effectively managing a response is carefully managing the people responding. And a large part of that means ensuring that they have adequate downtime.

Without the opportunity to rest and recover, the responders will become worn down, less able to make effective decisions, and more susceptible to the stress and strain they will face managing the situation.

I’ve seen this first-hand in the middle of a crisis but it’s been most evident to me while sailing. At sea, you not only have the mental strain of watching the weather and staying on course, but there is also a large amount of physical exertion. Throw in some wind and rain and this combination can very quickly break people down.

So while rest is essential, it has to be balanced with the operational needs: how many people are required to keep things running?

On a recent trip, we had two different watch schedules. The first was with two people on watch at one time alternating between four hours on and four off. This was a grueling schedule but we were in a particularly acute moment facing higher seas, significant weather, and it was our first overnight offshore. The situation required two hands on deck but you began each watch tired, still recovering from your last spell on deck.

However, once we got into a rhythm and things settled down, we were able to move to a solo watch: one person on watch for three hours followed by nine hours off. This gave everyone a chance to attend to their personal needs and get rest properly so they were fully prepared for their next watch.

It’s the same in a crisis. You need to determine the appropriate watch schedule or means to share the workload and eliminate fatigue. However, you also need to ensure that the staffing levels are suitable for the situation. Similar to our trip, there’s going to be some difficulty getting that balance right to begin with. Getting the response set up and establishing the speed you need requires all hands on deck. Opportunities for rest will be limited and infrequent in the first few days. However, once a rhythm is established, you will be able to set up a proper schedule for meaningful rest.

The standard practice that I’ve seen is to have an A-Team, and a B-Team, rotating every 12 hours. That ensures that each team member has sufficient time for rest and can spend time with their own family who may have been affected by the disaster too.

However, although the 12-hour split works well as far as rest is concerned, there are two other things to consider.

Firstly, you need to make sure the right people are on duty at the right time. If the event is local, your A-Team, the primary response team, should be around during the day, say from 9:00 AM – 9:00 PM. That lets them deal with the majority of the decision-making and actions required to keep things moving. This also ensures that they are available for the late afternoon and evening for media appearances. Members of the B-Team aren’t less capable or essential but the overnight shift is a good time to have your planners and administrators on duty. Working from 9:00 PM – 9:00 AM lets them prepare things for the next cycle of the response.

However, if your event was happening elsewhere, you might need to flip that schedule. For example, if the event took place in Asia or Europe, you would want your A-Team available for their workday. That might mean a night shift in Texas for the A-Team with the B-Team planning during the day.

The second issue is to ensure that teams hand over correctly.  There needs to be a managed and formal transition between teams to ensure that the incoming team knows what’s going on, what issues are ‘live,’ and what actions need to be tackled first.

One of the best practices I’ve seen was at a hospital in South Florida where they divided a big whiteboard into columns listing the issues and tasks they were tracking. These were further divided into those that were critical and urgent versus the important but longer-term. They assigned a lead to each task along with a deadline. For the communications team, they’d write down members of the media that needed to be contacted and noted who was interested in a particular angle.

This provided an excellent basis for them to brief the incoming team as they changed over. It also ensured that the new team had a reference so they didn’t lose track of what needed to be done.

So make sure that you allow your teams to rest but make sure that you have the right people available for the phase of the response and the time of day. Then, ensure that the process is followed – it’s not uncommon to have to force people to leave the room to rest – and that there is a managed handover between teams.

This will ensure that your teams are prepared and attentive and able to make thoughtful, ethical decisions to help move the response along.

Remember, a tired responder, worried about their family will be distracted which will cause its own issues. And a sleepy, unshaven, bedraggled CEO on television isn’t going to be a compelling storyteller, no matter how good your response is.

So while you need to attend to the crisis, never forget that a large part of that is attending to your team and yourself.

Filed under: Blog


Bill is a reputation management, crisis communications and professional development expert, keynote speaker, Wall Street Journal Risk & Compliance panelist, and best-selling author of Critical Moments: The New Mindset of Reputation Management. He has more than 25 years of global experience managing high-stakes crises, issues management, and media relations challenges for both Fortune 500 companies and winning global political campaigns.