Dealing with Stress, Anxiety and Burnout as a Crisis Manager

What factors contribute to stress and anxiety for Crisis Managers, and what can team leaders and individuals do to manage stress and anxiety, and reduce the risk of burnout.

First published by Grant Rayner on 20 Nov 2022

7 min read

Crisis Management

This essay was originally published on 51CM on 20 Nov 2022, and was edited and re-published in 51CM in 2023.

It probably goes without saying that life as a Crisis Manager can be intense.

For background, Crisis Managers work in different contexts. They may work in a large organisation, such as a government department, corporation or non-government organisation. They may also work for a consulting company or, like me, as an independent consultant. Security Managers often have the additional role of being Crisis Managers.

Crisis Managers will typically need to do the following core tasks:

  • Monitor the information environment to ensure they’re able to rapidly identify new incidents.
  • Be immediately available to provide time-critical advice to clients.
  • Be prepared to deploy to locations to support clients at short or no notice.
  • Manage and deliver projects and assignments

As you’ll learn below, the fulfilment of these responsibilities can lead to high levels of anxiety and stress. Eventually, there’s a risk of burnout.

In the following sections, I’ll work through each of the core tasks that most Crisis Managers will need to perform. I’ll also share some personal reflections based on my own experience.

Situation monitoring

Situation monitoring is a fundamental task of Crisis Managers. If you don’t know what’s going on, you won’t be ready to respond to incidents. That’s a fast track to irrelevancy. A high level of situational awareness is therefore essential.

The volume and scope of work will depend on the size of the area you’re supporting (i.e., national, regional or global). If you’re covering a region, you’ll probably have at least one major event a week you’ll need to monitor and may need to respond to.

In the Asia Pacific region right now, for example, you may be monitoring the following events:

  • Major floods in Australia
  • Protests in Bangkok relating to the APEC Economic Leader’s Week
  • North Korean missile launches (including the launch of a Hwasong-17 missile on Friday, which was significant) and the risk of escalation on the Korean Peninsula.

You’d also be keeping tabs on the situation between China and Taiwan, which has the potential to escalate to a major regional conflict.

However, the number of ongoing events isn’t necessarily what causes anxiety and stress. Rather, it’s the uncertainty involved with not knowing when the next event will take place. As a result, you’re always having to check your information sources looking for subtle changes to an existing situation or emerging news of new events.

I find this need for immediacy to be a key source of anxiety. I need to know about incidents as soon as they happen. Why? I don’t want clients coming to me and saying “Have you heard about this incident?” and me having to quickly jump online to find what’s going on. If you’re in a role where you need to provide information and updates to clients, there’s limited value in doing so after the fact. Clients with exposure in different countries need to know about new threats as soon as they emerge.

As a result, I find myself checking Twitter and other sources at least once an hour looking for new incidents or tracking how current incidents are evolving. While I’ve developed a relatively efficient feed, I’m continually worried I might have missed something.

Recent changes to Twitter have helped to add some additional stress. Right now there aren’t any good alternatives to Twitter when it comes to monitoring events around the world. The thought of a degraded Twitter, or even no Twitter, is another source of concern.

[Author’s note: As at the time of editing, in July 2023, changes to the verification system have made Twitter near worthless as a reliable source of information updates on specific situations. Consider using other sources of information during a crisis.

Of course, you’ll only be seeing public events on sources such as Twitter. In addition to public events, you’ll also need to prepared for events that occur within companies that aren’t made public.

Being on call

In addition to having to continually monitor events, the need to be continually available to clients is another source of stress and will almost certainly contribute to eventual burnout.

Being on call involves carrying your phone with you everywhere. Going out to a nice dinner or watching a movie? Don’t forget your phone and make sure you set it to vibrate so you don’t miss an important call.

Not knowing when the phone will ring with news of a new incident is a potential source of anxiety.

I was on a morning run when the first calls from people impacted by the Asian Tsunami came in. Thankfully, I had my phone with me while on the run. I had to respond to multiple calls while making my way home, and then the calls didn’t stop for weeks. Of course, the tsunami was a bit of an outlier. Not all incidents have such a broad impact.

Short-notice deployments

Crisis Managers are often required to be in places at very short notice.

In the initial stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, in February 2020, I was asked on a Sunday if I could be in Seoul first thing Monday morning (the next day) to support a client. The decision was made late Sunday afternoon. I took an overnight flight and was in the client office—a bit bleary eyed, mind you—first thing the next morning. What was supposed to be a one-week engagement ended up lasting for six weeks.

I’ve experienced the same situation many times over the years. I caught one of the first flights into Kathmandu after the major earthquake in 2015. In 2019, I was on one of the first flights into Colombo after the Easter Day terrorist attacks in Sri Lanka. Just last week, I flew to South Korea with only a few hours notice to support a client in Busan.

Many Security and Crisis Managers reading this will have similar or worse stories. It’s par for the course in this line of work. In retrospect, COVID-19 travel restrictions provided a welcome relief from these types of deployments.

The challenge here is that these types of no-notice deployments are incredibly disruptive. Did you have plans for your weekend? Too bad. Attending a family event? I’m sure you’ll be able to make it up to them once you get back.

These deployments also disrupt other project work. The only consolation is you’ll get at least a few hours on the flight with your phone in airplane mode where you can relax. Maybe.

Project load

Of course, a Crisis Manager isn’t just waiting around for crisis events to respond to. If they work as consultants, they’ll also be delivering consulting projects. These projects might include writing or reviewing client plans, conducting training or running exercises. In-house Crisis Managers will be doing similar work in their own organisations.

As a consultant, a Crisis Manager may work on up to three projects at one time. Sometimes more. In addition to active projects, it’s likely they’ll also be supporting sales efforts for future projects. Project load can be an ongoing source of stress, particularly for less experienced Crisis Managers and Crisis Managers on under-staffed teams where project load isn’t effectively managed.

How do you avoid burning out?

I’ve found that the four activities outlined above are major contributors to anxiety, stress, and eventual burn out for Crisis Managers.

How can you avoid burning out?

If you work as part of a team, you can try to share the workload. The challenge with consulting teams is that they will accept more and more work. Eventually everyone on the team will be working multiple, back-to-back projects.

If you’re working as an independent consultant, you’ll find it even more challenging. While you have more say over what you do, you’ll find that monitoring the situation and being available 24/7 will grind you into the ground. Add the need to monitor current events and the possibility of short-notice deployments, and you’ll quickly find that working for yourself isn’t quite as rosy as people say it is.

In the sections below, I’ll share some recommendations for team leaders and for individuals to enable them to manage anxiety and stress, and hopefully prevent burnout.

Team leaders

If you’re leading a team of Crisis Managers in an organisation, here’s a few things you can do to reduce the risk of burnout among your team members:

  • Share the load. There should be no role where that individual is solely responsible for situation monitoring or response. Team members need to know they can take a break or go on leave and someone else will be able to seamlessly step in and perform the same role to the same standard.
  • Rotate on-call and deployment responsibilities. Rotate on-call responsibilities, so that individuals can take a break. Similarly, instead of all team members having to be prepared for a short-notice deployment, implement a roster system where certain team members are placed on standby for deployment. If an incident occurs, the individual who is on standby deploys. Rotating on-call responsibilities and implementing a roster system for deployments helps to reduce the uncertainty felt by team members and allows them to get on with their lives when not on call.
  • Build a situational awareness system. Using people and technology, develop a system that feeds relevant information to Crisis Managers in a timely manner. Don’t expect each Crisis Manager to have to continually monitor the information environment as individuals—it’s simply not sustainable and can be a major source of anxiety and stress.
  • Manage project load. Ensure an equitable distribution of project load amongst the team. Doing so helps ensure some team members aren’t overloaded with project work. It also helps to avoid animosity developing between team members. If new work comes in while the team is overloaded, defer non-urgent client work by agreeing with a client on the schedule for delivery (if they want the work done earlier, there should be a premium for that). Another factor here is the volume of work and the number of people actually available to deliver that work. Smaller teams may struggle under the project load and managers may be unwilling to staff up due to the fact that the volume of work can fluctuate. When considering staffing, it’s therefore important not to just focus on project work. Also consider on-call responsibilities and the fact that at least one team member will be continually deployed.
  • Build tools and templates. Make response and consulting work as streamlined as possible by investing time to develop tools and templates.


As an individual on a team, or as a independent consultant, there’s a few things you can do to avoid burnout:

  • Get enough sleep. Unless you’re in the middle of managing an incident, get 8 hours sleep every night. Non negotiable. If you’re tired, your judgement will be compromised. At that point, you’re potentially dangerous.
  • Exercise every day. Maintain a regular exercise schedule. At the very least, spend an hour each day walking outside. Of course, be sure to take your phone with you. Fitness is also important if you’re going to be deploying to different situations.
  • Eat well. As with exercise and sleep, eating well will do wonders for your mental acuity. Eat a balanced diet of fresh food. You might also consider taking vitamins and other supplements to maintain nutrition. Stay away from stimulants.
  • Take breaks. If you work as part of a team, make sure you take periodic breaks from work. You’ll need at least a few weeks off to relax. If you’re an independent consultant, you may struggle to take breaks. I can’t remember the last time I was able to take a holiday and not have to monitor the situation, engage with clients, work on consulting projects et cetera. That’s just life as an independent consultant. I’ve adapted by taking ‘working holidays’ that blend what I enjoy doing with a few hours of work each day to make sure I remain on top of things.
  • Turn off notifications. Device notifications are not only distracting, they can also be distressing in some contexts. Turn off all notifications except for critical numbers. Get into the habit of checking your email, messages and feeds on a regular schedule, rather than in response to a notification. Of course, if someone calls, you’ll need to immediately respond.
  • Push everything non-critical to email. When working with clients and colleagues, ensure that people only call you in the most critical situations—when a response is required immediately. Everything else can be sent to you by email. That way, when the phone does ring, you’ll know it’s something important.
  • Be prepared for deployments. Have a deployment kit at home that’s ready to go. Use checklists to make sure you don’t leave anything important behind.

Wrap Up

Anxiety and stress are not uncommon amongst Crisis Managers. The combination of monitoring the situation, being on call 24/7, the possibility of short-notice deployments, and ongoing project work or assignments can overwhelm most people.

The techniques I’ve shared above will help team leaders and individuals to manage anxiety and stress, and hopefully avoid burnout.

On a positive note, the work that Crisis Managers do is extremely important. It’s not only exciting, but deeply meaningful. The challenge is to maintain optimum levels of performance without driving yourself into the ground and destroying your relationships.

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