Psychological Preparedness By Design

Systemic changes are happening all around us and the need for preparedness for an uncertain future has never been more salient. While operational plans and strategy are critical, psychological preparedness is just as important.

Preparedness is anticipating certain kinds of events and outcomes tied to those events.

Let’s look at environmental issues. For example, every year in places with forests we’ll see forest fires. It’s a common phenomenon that happens regularly in forested areas. Or take heavy rainfall, which also happens and sometimes produces flooding, so we plan for that possibility. We prepare by seeing patterns over time and extrapolate what we learn to future scenarios.

What we are seeing now is something different. It’s the same pattern — heat in the summer, forest fires, rain and flooding and so on — but at a greater frequency, intensity, and scope. These are the same things we would have prepared for before, but now they are at a different scale.

What’s also different is that these are commingling. While these interconnections were always there, but they weren’t obvious or as pronounced. Now, the weather patterns we see are affecting each other. Similar connected, complex relationships are being found in how we manage our economies, social issues, and the introduction of new technologies like AI.

Psychologically, we are in a predicament. We see the same patterns we’ve seen our whole lives only played out at 3X speed. We’re also seeing things that rarely if ever went together (to our eyes,at least) come together like tornadoes and hurricanes in places that rarely, if ever, had them.

Psychological Preparedness

In 2020, just as the world was experiencing the COVID-19 pandemic, a systematic review was published on psychological preparedness. What the review found was that the concept of psychological preparedness was poorly defined, inadequately measured, and ripe for further theory development. What it seems is that we’ve not prepared well to look at psychological preparedness.

The American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress suggest the following definition for psychological preparedness:

Psychological preparation is a process of tuning person’s inner resources to the coming situation. A psychologically prepared person expects certain challenges, has an idea of the potential psychological impact of such challenges, knows his/her own reactions to such challenges and is familiar with his/her own inner resources and where and how to seek support when needed. In the context of assignments to hardship locations, these challenges include: 

  • working under continuous pressure
  • lack of privacy
  • working and living in the contexts of security threats and/or exposure to human suffering
  • separation from family and social network
  • lack of conditions that favor a healthy lifestyle
American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress

What this definition does — including most of those included in the 2020 systematic review — is recognize that we can anticipate something and build a resilient mindset ahead of having to react to something. Considerable research has shown that visualization and other psychological preparedness techniques can make a significant difference in reducing anxiety and enhancing performance in individuals and organizations.

While this approach is more common in athletics, the same kind of preparedness is useful for organizations.

Psychological Foresight

Strategic Foresight is about seeing what’s happening and envisioning how it might play out in the future as it relates to what we do. It helps us go from where we are toward a goal that may have many different pathways to it. Psychological Foresight is about applying a lens on our future selves to explore what it might mean to experience (and prepare for) the scenarios we envision.

For example, if we consider climate change. What might it mean to experience the effects of extreme weather, volatility and heat on a much more regular basis? What would we need to do to prepare ourselves physically, emotionally, and socially?

What about the loss of industry or transformation of a sector due to technology changes? There are many scenarios we can envision where disruption might be high, conditions will change, and the pressures on us will be great. Psychological foresight brings together the same scenario and trend research to our understanding of behavioural science. It encourages us to ask questions about these scenarios and pose strategies for addressing concerns ahead of time.

To illustrate, consider what we’ve learned from the COVID-19 pandemic and its effect on the health workforce. If we were to engage in psychological foresight and preparedness with health workers, we might do the following:

  1. Explore various scenarios where a similarly scaled sustained health crisis (e.g., infectious disease outbreak, widespread heat exposure) emerges.
  2. Review the lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic (where gathered) to explore ways in which people responded to pressure, coped with stress and trauma, protected and supported each other, and the short, medium and long-term effects of what happened.
  3. Develop scenarios where those lessons are translated into actions (or inactions) such as changes in policies, practices, or returns to status quo. Consider the implications of this in setting up future situations. Health professionals will react to upcoming threats differently if they did not fully recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, were not supported, or saw lessons ignored.
  4. Find areas of common concern and note those factors that are likely to produce health or detract from it and what kind of policies, practices, and systemic supports are in place or absent to lead to these outcomes.
  5. Design in those that are most likely to produce health within the context.

The policies, practices and lessons learned from our past applied proactively to future situations allows us to connect what we’ve learned to what we do now to prepare for what might be. You can apply the same approach to whatever industry you work in.

This is psychological preparedness by design.

What this does is ensure that we aren’t caught out flat-footed when disaster or mass disruption occurs. It is easier to build in and support resilience when we are set up for it ahead of time, not reactively. Psychological preparedness helps ensure that our mental wellbeing and stamina are strong alongside the policies, procedures, resources, and structures we’ve built to support our organizations.

Prepare yourself for change by design; I can help. Let’s talk if you want help in setting your organization up for the future threats and opportunities by design.

Image credits: Photo by Tobias Reich on Unsplash

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