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Taking the lead: Maintaining morale and mental resilience

Richard Dorney 800x533 800x533

Lt Col (Retd) Richard Dorney served in the British Army for more than 38 years.

He established the Trauma Risk Management (TRiM) system in the Army and commanded the training team for three years. Here he explains the importance of strong leadership in maintaining morale and mental resiliency.

What is the role of leadership in maintaining organisational morale? And what is the relationship with personal resilience? In the context of this article the term ‘personal resilience’ is used to describe our ability to overcome psychological challenges and to recover from poor mental wellbeing, especially after traumatic events. There are many definitions of the term morale, but this one from Leighton is perhaps one that fits the policing context well:

‘The capacity of a group of people to pull together persistently and consistently for a common purpose’ (Leighton 1943)

‘Pulling together’ means everyone, at all levels and is vital in times of high stress. Leadership is entirely separate to management. Leadership is not about process or policy, it is about human beings; instilling confidence, providing genuine empathetic support, doing the right thing, providing example and being visible. It implies the understanding of people and the real frustrations and challenges they face. Positive leadership has a direct impact on people and their wellbeing. Encouraging words in stressful times will be remembered and their absence will perhaps leave a strong negative impression.

The well-known psychologists Grinker and Spiegel carried out intensive research into morale and this was published in their book ‘Men under stress’ (1962).

They identified four key facets underpinning morale:

• A faith in a common purpose
• A faith in the leadership
• A faith in each other
• And adequate rest and recuperation

Physical presence

Grinker and Spiegel’s research was conducted in the military environment, but the facets they identified can be applied to any organisation and will resonate with any experienced leader. Personal contact becomes increasingly difficult in a widely dispersed workforce and e mail can become the default setting for communication. The military often refer to this phenomenon in negative terms as; ‘command by e mail’.

Personal contact, although often difficult to achieve, is vital to facilitate genuine two-way communication, to hear opinion, to explain realities and to inspire confidence. I am not talking about focus groups, I mean informal and frequent chats with people ‘on the ground’ and at work. How can you gauge morale if you don’t see it first-hand? When things don’t go well and mistakes are perceived to have been made, management situations can be very difficult. Having the moral courage to support officers in need and to not abandon them through fear of association will be hugely appreciated not just by the officers concerned, but by those looking on.

Some readers may feel that this comment is somewhat judgemental, but perception is everything where morale is concerned, and one hears many stories of perceived abandonment and subsequent isolation. Make no mistake these factors lead to poor mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression very quickly.

Leaders need to know their people well and should be able to see when morale is low, recognise the warning signs of poor wellbeing and the development of deeper problems. Early intervention and genuine empathy can make a real difference. When we feel that the organisation cares, it really helps. All too often we consider mental health to be a personal issue or one for occupational health, but creating a supportive environment is vitally important.

We know that stigma plays a very negative role and discourages help seeking and this in turn leads to sickness absence and more profound illness. The psychological contract in policing is vitally important, by this I mean; ‘the perception of the two parties, employee and employer, of what their mutual obligations are towards each other’. When the perception develops that this contract has been breached, low morale surely follows and everything that goes with it.

There is good research linking strong leadership to high morale and it is interesting to see studies in the military operational context show that:

‘Greater self-reported levels of unit cohesion, morale, and perceived good leadership were all associated with lower levels of common mental disorder and PTSD.’

Good leaders will instinctively understand the key features mentioned above and will realise how important these issues are, given the exceptionally high rates of reported low force morale in PFEW surveys. It is easy to dismiss surveys or to assume that causation is entirely due to factors outside of your control, but to do so would be to ignore the importance of morale and personal resilience.

In relation to the development of post-traumatic stress after incidents, it may be useful to note that the post incident period is critical to longer term outcomes and the perception of those involved as to how they have been treated by the organisation can have positive or negative effects. The two strongest post incident factors are firstly how much subsequent ‘stress the individual is placed under during the recovery period and secondly the availability and quality of social support, preferably in a lower stress environment’ (Greenberg, Brooks et al 2015). Managers are in a position to directly influence these factors, so informed leadership here is crucial.

After a traumatic event, effective and informed leadership is essential. There has to be a coherent response that caters for everyone involved at whatever level. This does not mean blanket debriefing which has been shown to be ineffective, but more focussed personalised interventions like TRiM.

Ongoing support and tailored management plans are essential.

In this period leaders must be visible and should be prepared to give face to face briefings to groups and where necessary to individuals. Clarifying facts (as known) scotching rumour, updating on injured colleagues and explaining available support are indicators that the organisation cares.

Where officers are being frequently exposed to distressing images the risks to their health are great, this means proactive management and frequent individual supervision are essential.

There are also significant occupational risks from secondary trauma. We know that help is available, but the trick is manage the risk to individuals before they become profoundly unwell.
When enthusiastic individuals instigate support systems without strong leadership support or resource, they often wither on the vine.

For managers to be able to have a positive influence on resilience, they need to understand the basics of mental health, firstly what it is, what effects it and what poor mental health looks like. Do you have an idea what the symptoms of common mental health problems like anxiety and depression look like? Do you really know what a mentally healthy workplace is? We hear lots of words but the people who really make a difference are those that have undergone training.

Mental health awareness training and systems like Trauma Risk Management are highly successful but only when there is informed management buy in. When enthusiastic individuals instigate support systems without strong leadership support or resource, they often wither on the vine.

There are some great examples of where these systems have worked well to improve force resilience and they are almost always where senior leaders have engaged, taken the time to understand and have actively supported.
Personal resilience

What about your own resilience as a leader? Contrary to belief, experienced officers, and senior staff are also affected by poor mental wellbeing. Are you self-aware? And are you honest with yourself about the risk of burnout and the lack of balance in your life? Have you felt overwhelmed with your workload? If so what are you doing to mitigate the risk of serious mental health problems. It takes courage to recognise and admit that you are not doing well. Self-awareness is one of the key underpinning functions of personal resilience.

There will be some who say we don’t have time, or we never had it in my career, but these aren’t intelligent responses to a very real problem that ruins lives and depletes your workforce.

So, personal resilience, leadership and morale are intertwined. Leaders are at their most confident when they have a clear understanding of their role and the skills required. To be better leaders we all need to have a good knowledge of mental health, not just the frequently spouted myths around some emotive areas.

Things have been improving for some time in this regard but there is much work to be done. There will be some who say we don’t have time, or we never had it in my career, but these aren’t intelligent responses to a very real problem that ruins lives and depletes your workforce. Contrary to belief most people do recover from mental health problems and this happens quicker when managers and peers are supportive.

We can all do better but it starts at the top.


Richard Dorney was the British Army’s non-clinical subject matter expert in Trauma Risk Management. Since leaving the forces after 38 years of service, he established Strongmind Resiliency Training Ltd. He delivers frequent courses to Home Office organisations around mental health awareness and personal resilience, including TRiM.

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Tuesday, 07 July 2020

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