Personal resilience in tough times

By Louise Neilan | 23 September 2020

How resilient do you feel today? After six months of managing the impact of a pandemic in our communities, we would all be forgiven for feeling as though our tanks are running on empty. We’re a tough bunch in local government, and we can handle a huge amount of pressure, demand and unexpected crisis, but a relentless and enduring period like this will affect anyone’s ability to bounce back.

London in 2017 felt like that. The terror attack in Westminster in March was just the start of a devastating year for our city, and for our friends in other great cities like Manchester. For us in Southwark, the terror attacks on London Bridge and Borough turned our worlds upside down.

The date 3 June was a terrible one for our borough. Eight people lost their lives in horrific circumstances, and many more were injured and scarred by the events of that night. After a frenetic day in the emergency control centre on the Sunday, I went home and turned on the TV, which was showing the concert to commemorate the victims of the Manchester Arena attacks, just 11 days before London Bridge. Liam Gallagher was singing Live Forever, and I sat there and sobbed and sobbed, and didn’t stop for quite a long time.

Then the next day I got up, went into work, and carried on.

It’s our job as senior managers to support others, our communities, our teams, but sometimes we forget to look after ourselves.

After the attacks we set up a humanitarian assistance steering group and we made sure everyone affected by the attacks had the support they needed. My team walked the streets handing out leaflets to businesses in Borough Market to make sure everyone knew how to get help. Our health colleagues told us the six-month anniversary was often a key trigger point for post-incident trauma and so we advertised, and tweeted, and reminded our staff of the help on offer. But I didn’t once think it applied to me.

I wasn’t a victim of the London Bridge attacks – those are the people who tragically lost their lives, plus many others who were hurt or traumatised. I didn’t get hurt, I didn’t lose someone I love at London Bridge, I didn’t have to tend to the wounded or clean the streets, all of which other people did. I am truly thankful for that.

And yet, around the six-month mark, I was asked to present at a conference about our response to the attacks. I was glad to do it, pleased to continue the virtuous flow of knowledge and experience that other councils had shared with us beforehand. I couldn’t understand why, each time I sat down to write the presentation, the tears started falling.

I managed it in the end, and with every presentation I’ve given, it gets easier. I find talking about the impact, talking about us as humans and individuals who experience real emotions when faced with terrible things, is actually quite restorative.

I learned that in some circumstances it’s not good enough to think we can just keep going, and do it all ourselves. We all need to remain strong to serve our communities, and reflect back on what we’ve learned, about ourselves and our organisations. If we don’t plan in advance for emergencies, build our resilience, and pull together, we won’t be able to support those who really need it, when awful things happen.

Eleven days after London Bridge, the Grenfell tragedy happened. The local government community pulled together like never before, but it was many of the same people who stepped in. Eventually I saw some amazing, talented people leave local government. The toll it took was just too high.

In local government, we’re in a similar space now as in 2017, but this time we’re all affected. Colleagues are exhausted, there’s no end in sight, mental health is suffering, and we are all affected both personally and professionally by this pandemic.

If there are lessons from London Bridge, then they aren’t rocket science, but sometimes we all need a reminder. None of us is superhuman, we all need a proper break; find time for the things that give you strength.

Everyone should ask for help when they need it, whether that’s from colleagues, professional counsellors or other councils.

Remember the six-month rule, and anticipate that you might feel low or emotional several months after the event, as well as on anniversaries.

Longer-term we will all benefit if we get involved with the things we offer our staff and communities to help them heal, whether that is a memorial service or a community event. We are, after all, a part of our community too.

Louise Neilan is head of external affairs at Southwark LBC

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