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Institutional resiliency within military

  • Published
  • By Col. Stuart K. Archer
  • Director, Executive Review Secretariat
Suicides from within the ranks have an obvious impact on those associated with the incident or the individual. Fortunately, our institution is one that has not refrained from dealing with the impact of trauma from suicides on individuals and families.

The Air Force has a long history of combating suicides and managing suicide prevention programs and just recently the National Institute of Mental health found the Air Force has been "effective in reducing the number of suicides within its ranks." The finding is a remarkable achievement for a dynamic organization with a wide and diverse population.

Traumatic events, death, loss of personnel and especially suicides have obvious lasting effects on individuals or families. Air Force leaders, at all levels, have pro-active policies and guidance to deal with them. While it's easy to ascertain how individual suicides affect individuals and families, and target those effects, it's not as obvious to comprehend how they affect the overall unit and how intangible elements such as attitudes, perceptions and trust can negatively reduce an organization's effectiveness.

Ten years ago, I investigated the suicide of a young NCO in a very successful flying unit with top notch leaders. The NCO didn't fit the traditional category of high risk for suicides. She was by all accounts, bright, outgoing, engaging and a superb Airman. She was happy at work with no finance problems or family strife. She never demonstrated any outward signs of depression or transmitted signals of pending suicide.

Nonetheless, my investigation revealed a troubled individual dealing with depression for months while hiding behind a strong, happy exterior. As I conducted the investigation, I expected to find a tough impact on her close friends, of which I did, but I didn't expect the collective reaction of the overall squadron.

Many members expressed doubt about the validity of the suicide, questioned the AF and its role in the incident, questioned the leadership of the squadron and expressed a distrust and lack of confidence in the organization. This occurred despite a proactive and caring commander and chain of command. The unit continued its mission, but certainly the incident had an overall negative effect on the organizational cohesion, morale and effectiveness.

In most military suicides, 52 percent of the individuals were under some type of investigation or pending adverse action. This typically implies the unit or some portion of it was already dealing with the adverse impact of an individual's or group's actions. When suicides take place under these conditions, the unit, leadership, disciplinary environment can often be blamed as a contributing or assisting factor. When this occurs the entire unit suffers collectively, not just from the impact of the loss of the individual but from the doubting and questioning its leaders, and the institution itself.

Mistrust and loss of institutional credibility or even just their perceptions are factors which can rapidly degrade a unit's effectiveness or readiness. In short, units and organizations suffer stress just as individuals do with the loss of a member.

Consequently, organizations may need the same amount of attention and care as individuals do, especially when units are under sustained stress such as ongoing deployments or high operations tempos. Understanding how units collectively handle stress is a new level of understanding Airmen should consider when dealing with individual tragedies and traumatic crises.

Single traumatic events such as suicides can cause individuals to question their unit leadership, supervision, purpose and can negatively influence morale and unit cohesion. Suicides when coupled with institutional driven stressors such as high intensity missions, dynamic or utilization, and a highly competitive culture can also render war fighting units ineffective and expose members to increased risks and dangers. It's important all servicemembers understand this additional perspective of "collective stress" and be prepared to broaden individual assistance and resiliency programs to a larger collective framework.

Studies repeatedly show individuals under stress begin to lose creativity, meet only minimum work requirements, become routinely tardy, late, absent, or in some cases belligerent toward the organization. Conversely, institutions or organizations under stress are likely to lose mission focus, fail to follow establish procedures, miss higher echelon directed suspenses, fail to meet training goals, have increased safety incidents and can ultimately become ineffective at the most minimum of organizational tasks.

In fact, "organizational depression" is a documented phenomenon in the corporate world when traumatic events or institutional crises occur. Strong, previously effective businesses and institutions have been observed to falter when faced with pending layoff or when a particular project or product they were producing failed. Combat units are particularity susceptible to stress after the loss of a single popular individual. History is ripe with examples of battles lost because of the death of a single commander or like tragedy, in much the same way an entire unit can lose its effectiveness with the single loss of an individual to a traumatic event.

As in the method of dealing with individual suicides, there is no set remedy for dealing with organizational depression or stress. The first step is obviously awareness of the situation and an understanding of the work and organizational environment after a tragic or traumatic event. When commanders and supervisors are aware of the collective stress, they can then take actions to mitigate the effects and focus their resources on the most affected areas.

Unfortunately, when organizational depression occurs, it can be much broader and more devastating than events that are more individually focused. Individuals, families, and at times, groups or flights can be insulated or removed from stressors. Organizations on the other hand typically cannot be removed or insulated from institutional stressors and require a constant state of resiliency in order to maintain unit effectiveness. Awareness of organizational needs for resiliency by the unit leader can become very challenging, especially when assisting families and individuals cope with the loss of their friend or family member.

In our business, the loss of mission effectiveness for a unit could have far ranging and troubling impact especially when operations tempo is high and the resources low. Collective organizations or units must be just as resilient to traumatic events and stressors as individuals. While individual resiliency has become part of our collective Air Force culture, squadron or unit resiliency should constitute the next level of concern when dealing with traumatic events or long periods of stress. Accordingly, commanders must look learn to address not only individual resiliency needs, but institutional resiliency needs as well.