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Taking the Helm: Build team resiliency to get through crisis

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Taking the Helm: by Capt. Paul Ferdais

There’s no doubt we live in an unusual time. Stories about worldwide lockdowns, daily death tolls, personal safety equipment, food and rent issues and a possible recession come at us non-stop from the 24-hour news cycle. 

Add in the social media bombardment and we get all the information all the time. Unfortunately, a lot of what we hear can generate fear, stress and anxiety above and beyond what we normally feel working on a boat.

Fear and anxiety are created in different ways. In some circumstances, fear is created from life-and-death situations such as our boat sinking or catching fire while underway. This fear comes and goes as the emergency we encounter comes and goes.

Another kind of fear is more internal, such as the anxiety faced when we’re fearful of losing our job, or when we hear a loved one is sick and we can do nothing about it. 

Anxiety is a normal emotion and everyone develops different strategies to cope with it. Some people self-medicate with drinking or drugs; some focus on physical activity, such as working out; some try to communicate; and others try to ignore it. All of these strategies will work, until they don’t. And when they no longer work, leaders and co-workers have to deal with the fallout.

This month, let’s examine a couple of strategies to build resilience to help crew manage anxiety and stress.

There are three good predictors for how resilient we’ll be at work and in life: high levels of confidence in our abilities; disciplined routines for our work; and social and family support. Hopefully team leaders will know how their members stack up on these criteria — especially the first two. 

To successfully make it through a crisis, a yacht team will more than ever need to rely on being resilient. Fortunately, leaders can help create the conditions that make this possible. The key is to focus on two things: people and perspective.

  • People: Focus on Positive Control

Don’t assume there’s no issue. Very resilient people are action oriented and can sometimes “panic-work” on the things they can control, which can lead to burn out.

At the same time, anxiety and stress can come about from feeling helpless and out of control. Our body’s response to stress is physical (stress hormones are released) and can create negative health outcomes such as elevated blood pressure, poor concentration, interrupted sleep habits and more.

Encourage crew members to focus on what’s in their control, but not to overdo it. While crew members don’t have control over who they might have as cabin mates or when the boat leaves for the next port or how long the job will last, there are things they can control to help reduce stress and anxiety. These things include what they do when they have an evening or weekend off (do they get drunk or do they explore the new places where the boat stops); how committed they are to the job; or their general attitude toward work and the people they work with. 

Remind crew members of what they can control and encourage them to do those things. Encourage team members to focus on healthy eating, daily activity and a good night’s sleep since these activities will help both physical and mental health.

Of course, the leader sets the tone. If the first mate goes out every night and parties it up until the wee hours, her message to her department members to get a good night’s sleep sends a mixed message.

  • Perspective: Keeping touch of the world outside yachting

Even during normal times, working on a yacht can sometimes feel like we’re quarantined and social distancing. We’re away from friends and family (except our work family) and spend most of our days and nights in the same place without anywhere to go. Staying connected with family and friends is a key to reducing this stress. The loneliness we can sometimes experience working on a yacht can be a big stressor mentally. 

Fortunately, there’s a solution. Virtual contact through FaceTime or Skype for one-on-one or group chats is the solution in this digital age. And don’t forget the good old-fashioned phone call. Reach out via voice, not text, to others to say hello and reconnect.

Something leaders can do to help build resilience is check in with crew members and ask how they’re doing. With this simple question, a conversation might follow that will help team members accept and face any realities they may be ignoring. 

Accepting things as they are instead of how we’d like them to be is key to building resilience. Ask co-workers what plans they have in place for working away from home while uncertainty is the new norm can help form any plans and examine options. While they might not feel comfortable thinking about such things, they will weather the current crisis better if you help them plan and create control.

Capt. Paul Ferdais, skipper of a motoryacht, has a master’s degree in leadership and previously ran a leadership training company for yacht crew. Comments on this column are welcome below.

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