10 New Year Resolutions for Recovery Leaders – 10 Ways to Ease the Burn!


If we say recovery is a marathon then I have got the burn! I look at peers, colleagues and volunteers and see them too pushing hard to keep thinking, listening and empathising.  As part of my fellowship I asked twenty five recovery leaders (from all realms) – what impact does leadership fatigue/burnout have on the community? What messages do they have for leaders feeling the burn? I  got an impressive array of responses, thoughts and tips and at the risk of sounding like a Cosmo magazine I am going to synthesise the top 10 ways to ease the burn!  The time it takes to read this blog is the time it takes to drink a cup of coffee (as long as you don’t gulp it) so please sit down, relax and reflect.

Resolution #1 Embrace the Chaos – Don’t let the perfect get in the way of the good!

Recovery should be messy, it should be up and down – if it is tidy then it is time to start worrying about the process. When things are messy we need to relax and accept that it is part of the process. There is very little that is black and white. Embrace working ‘in the grey’ because recovery is an organic process, it has a rhythm and lifespan all of its own. Embrace the opportunities to be creative, innovative and to lead the way forward.

Resolution #2 Connecting will make you stronger – establish ‘off load’ and ‘share’ buttons!

Connect person-to-person and organisation-to-organisation. Find and meet regularly with a mentor (someone who ‘has been there done that’ in terms of post-disaster recovery) think of them as your professional ‘off load’ or ‘help’ button. Connect with an organisation (similar in terms of mandate, who is experienced in post-disaster work) and think of them in terms of your ‘share button’.  Our work and our team has benefited hugely from this type of relationship with Australian Red Cross (thanks guys!)

I would like to share a short message from Kay Wilkins (CEO, New Orleans Red Cross) who lead the Red Cross work post-Katrina. Please press play:

Kay from Elizabeth McNaughton on Vimeo.

“The New Orleans recovery process has been described as ‘death by a thousand cuts”. You too can become traumatised from day in and day out listening to the stories of others, it can make you so tired – the mind can’t handle it. My message to you is ‘to hang in there’, take care of yourself, take care of the person next to you – you need to do this before you can care for and give you hearts to others” Kay Wilkins, CEO New Orleans Chapter of Red Cross.

Resolution #3 Broaden Your Leadership Model

Is your hat too big? Share the load – you will last longer!

A community leader wears a bigger hat but in turn then they collect all the problems – on Saturday morning at the kid’s sports game, then at the supermarket, then the hairdresser and when you are at home people call at all hours. Leaders can become anxious, stressed, depressed and feel there is nowhere to go – it is a poor leadership model that focuses on one person. Broad leadership means people can say “I just need to focus on my family now and it doesn’t have an impact”.

Leaders become confronted by their inability to keep giving – recovery becomes a quest, a vocation. Leaders have to keep going out into the community to absorb emotion – when leaders get tired, people get angry with them because they can’t do this anymore.

“Focus on the things you can do and share what you can’t fix – innovation happens when people are asked to solve problems. You don’t have to do everything – gaps open opportunity for others to contribute. Send good people and let them make decisions. Allow time and space to think and let answers emerge – Anne Leadbeater –  Strategic Project Manager – Advancing Country Towns Murrindindi Shire Council.

Resolution #4 Listen to People You Don’t Like

“You have to debate things – there is no manual, recovery is a social science, a dialogue between partners and affected people. You also need to challenge affected people – ask questions”  Simon Eccleshall, Disaster Services Department (DSD) International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC).

This is a tough one, especially when you are tired and yes, you will have many excuses as to why you shouldn’t have to listen. Recovery is 95% about relationships – the more you can listen to a wide range of ideas and points of view the more effective you will be in building bridges and moving forward.

Naturally, if you get on with someone, if you view the world in similar ways, it is easy to agree with them and move forward. Conversely, if you don’t like them you have to work extra hard to not automatically think they are wrong. Debates and negotiation are of critical importance to recovery but not listening and arguing just sap energy and stalls progress. A strong evidence base can help take the emotion out of the argument. I hold on to the fact that overwhelmingly the majority of people doing this work have good intentions.

(Tongue biting, counting to 10 and ninja moves under the meeting table might also help!)

Resolution #5 Celebrate your Successes!

This is something I am not particularly good at as I have a preoccupation with looking forward and I am altogether rubbish at ‘living in the moment’ and ‘reflecting back on achievements’.  Oh dear, so this is one for me to work on.  So, I will focus on what others had to say (it was a hugely common theme!).

“We need to feel we are making a difference, if you step out and look back you can see change”. – Head, Disaster Services Department, International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC).

 “Well I don’t know I just manage it through, being able to show results is what keeps me going. And just really believing in what I do – I believe in a community that works, in a community that cares about its people, I believe in that and because of that belief I really want to do all that I can do to make it better for people .” Latoya Cantrell, Director of Broadmoor Community Project, New Orleans.

“You get energy from what you are doing. Have drinks on Friday afternoon and a lot of team meetings. The team keeps you going, have a problem solving focus. You need resilient staff ” Christine Nixon, Former head of VBRRA (Victorian Bushfire Reconstruction and Recovery Authority)

“When I see the children who survived from the disasters who have aspirations to live in a safer and secure world – this motivates me to do more and better, taking recovery phase as an excellent opportunity to make a difference (anonymous).

 revive 2

*Results from Winston Churchill Fellowship interviews with recovery leaders

Anne from Elizabeth McNaughton on Vimeo.

“You will never do harder work but you will never do more important work either ” Anne Leadbeater – Strategic Project Manager – Advancing Country Towns Murrindindi Shire Council.


Resolution #6 Stop, Drop and Knit – Knitting is to Recovery like Fish is to Chips!

Those of you who know me will be surprised at this one – a knitter I am not! But I have to admit there is something wonderful about knitting and recovery. This struck me when the ‘public knitting’ I saw in Christchurch was exactly the same as the ‘public knitting’ in L’Aquilla, Italy – please see evidence below!).


(Myself and Jane Edgar standing next to a shipping crate adorned by knitting in Sumner, Christchurch.)


Italy from Elizabeth McNaughton on Vimeo.

(A video describing the wonderful knitting in earthquake affected L’Aquilla, Italy)

I guess the essence of the message here is to make a conscious investment in ‘pleasure and leisure’. This is something we put aside and feel guilty about doing (especially if you are personally affected by an event and doing recovery work as a job!) but is crucial to effective recovery. Dr Rob Gordon is a psychologist who has more than 25 years’ experience from more than 30 disasters in Australia and New Zealand – he is great to listen to on this stuff.

Resolution #7 Two years marks the spot – stop, assess and make a plan!

Recovery is not a permanent job. It can be difficult to identify the ‘burn-out beast’ especially as adrenaline shuts down pain receptors and we don’t realise how tired we are until we completely relax.

Recovery takes a huge toll on life balance and relationships (my three year old has been known to ask – Mummy, do you live in the Red Cross?). We can become extremely cranky, bitter and cynical. We can start to resent the community, or take on the worries of the community and not see clearly. Our cynicism and lack of enthusiasm, drive and energy starts to makes things so much harder to achieve. We can develop an overly irrational perception of ‘the system’ or become overly involved with clients and narrow in focus. Over time we can become too invested – this is problematic – we can become so invested that we want to keep ‘recovery’ alive rather than devolve back to normal community structures.

So, I asked the question – how long should the contractual period for an employee working on post-disaster recovery be? The answer was overwhelmingly that by the two year mark you need to stop, assess and make a plan. This might include:

  • Arranging a secondment
  • Taking a long break (6-8 weeks)
  • Revising your role
  • Changing jobs
  • Updating your self-care plan
  • Listening carefully to those who you trust and who know you best

It is also a good time to think about where you fit in the scheme of things – are you predominantly:

  • an innovator/planner/designer (phase 1)
  • a monitor/implementer (phase 2)
  • a closer/evaluator (phase 3)

An overwhelming key message was “the better you care for yourself and your team along the way the longer you can keep making a positive contribution”.

*Just a note regarding funding – when you are applying for funding following an emergency (the easiest time to access funding), if at all possible seek funding for 5 year roles– as it is the roles you are seeking funding for not specific people).

 contract period

*Results from Winston Churchill Fellowship interviews with recovery leaders

Resolution #8 Plan for moving on before you intend to………

People invest in heavily in relationships and feel trust is lost when people leave – a planned handover is essential. Not having a transition is to the detriment of the community. If you leave your recovery role when you still have some ‘gas in the tank’ you can stay on as a mentor and continue to support the community/team in small but crucial ways.

The worst scenario is burning out and going AWOL with no contingency plan. This leaves the community/team without key support mechanisms. Losing key people with no planning has massive impacts on access to support, funding, coordination and advocacy


Resolution #9 Stay Calm – Leaders who are greatly stressed stress those around them!

“A sense of calm is very important as is personal resilience as it is tough stuff – Christine Nixon”

I asked recovery leaders, what importance strengths do you bring to recovery? The key theme to emerge was maintaining a sense of calm under pressure. I don’t mean calm in a boring, passive, nothing happening sense but rather in that it is a pre-requisite to clear thinking, to negotiating and navigating the way forward. When leadership can maintain calm it gives the team/community a feeling that ‘we can get through anything’. It would seem that in a chaotic situation people are attracted to leaders who exhibit calm and self-control.  Easier said than done (especially two weeks out from Christmas) so before you head for KFC and order that really large bucket of KFC that looks really good right now – here are some tips I like:

  • Sitting in my car and listening to really bad 90s rock really loud – I find this seriously reduces the desire to yell “You did wwwhhaaaaatt?”
  • Keep a learning journal, write everyday – think, clear your mind – writing is calming and clears clutter and confusion
  • Walk – as a respondent told me “when I walk the angels come to visit – nothing is as energising as gaining perspective”
  • Check out our celebs with their tips on our website www.addressthestress.co.nz

Resolution #10 – What is missing?

I am putting the call out for ideas for #10.  What is missing  from your experience that would help reduce the burn?


I have been priviallged to meet inspiring leaders in the recovery field who have graciously given their time and insights. Over the coming weeks I will continue to post key insights from these interviews.    I wish to sincerely thank all those who have contributed to my Winston Churchill fellowship.








One thought on “10 New Year Resolutions for Recovery Leaders – 10 Ways to Ease the Burn!

  1. Elizabeth

    I have browsed and enjoyed your material again, having just returned from a three week break, including a few days in The Netherlands, Barcelona, London/Cambridge, Yorkshire and Wiltshire.

    I have a suggestion for #10:
    ‘Take a short but complete break. Get away for some focussed time visiting friends and new places or things’.

    I have found it very stimulating and satisfying. It doesn’t solve problems but it lifts spirits, refreshes and gives a new perspective and focus.

    Rod Cameron

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