STORY: Staying Sane and Happy While Serving Others: Wellness Tips for Red Cross Workers

Written by: Lilly Watson

Sandy ReliefNEW YORK, NY, December 7, 2012 – Anita Laffey, the current mental health leader for the Hurricane Sandy New York disaster relief operation, has a tried and true motto when it comes to the importance of staying healthy during a disaster: “Work smarter, not harder.”

The Red Cross responded immediately after Hurricane Sandy made landfall on Oct. 29, mobilizing more than 15,300 trained workers to perform myriad disaster relief services. In more than a month of 15-, 16- and sometimes 18-hour days, very few have succumbed to exhaustion or major illness, but the danger always lurks.

Laffey said Red Cross workers must realize that to take care of others, they have to take care of themselves. “We care so much, or we wouldn’t be here,” Laffey says. “We want to go gung ho and help everyone else, but if we give too much, we burn out and become the people that suddenly need help.”

The two biggest mistakes Laffey said she witnesses are Red Cross workers acting as if they can meet the needs of every affected community by themselves, and neglecting their own care. When it comes to concrete ways Red Cross workers can stay happy and focused during their deployment, Laffey offers five simple tips that everyone can follow:

  1. Eat well. Getting fast food or skipping a meal might provide a short term solution, but eating healthy and purposefully will provide volunteers with the energy they need to bring outstanding service and emotional support to victims.
  2. Buddy up. Opening up to a new friend or a supervisor on deployment each day helps someone comfort a volunteer when he or she is having difficulty or experiencing burn-out. “That person can offer sympathy, laugh with you or help you feel proud of your daily accomplishments,” Laffey said.
  3. Call home. Taking time to process their experiences keeps volunteers from slipping into trauma. Acknowledging the hardships by sharing them with someone encouraging, helps volunteers process them and prepare for the next day.
  4. Get rest. Volunteers do their best with an extra hour or two of sleep at night. “If you’re fatigued, you’re more accident prone than if you’re driving while intoxicated,” Laffey said. “Plus, if you’re too tired, the logical part of your brain never wakes up and the animal part takes over, causing poor decision making and irrational behavior.”
  5. Exercise! Exercising may be the last thing volunteers want to do on deployment, but it gives them an energy – and immune system – boost from endorphins. A quick exercise ranges from retrieving something for a team member from the drugstore or deli to adding a few blocks to a walk home at night.

“Instead of thinking that you’re going to come in and change the world in two weeks, focus on coming in and making a strong and positive drop in the bucket,” Laffey said. “Remember, the biggest oceans are made up of a bunch of single drops.”

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