This blog post is part of the OSC Five Core Leader Functions series that will feature several guest bloggers.
I’ve completed many deployments in my 24 years on sea duty and have seen the effects that stress can have on junior Sailors and senior leaders alike. When we talk about mitigating or lessening the effects of that stress, there are several things we can do as leaders. The first step is to recognize you are going into a stressful environment whether inport or deployed. Inport can be just as stressful with late hours and inspections. On deployment you have a bit more control of the environment, so I’ll talk about some things we did on our last deployment.
One step we took was to change our watch rotation to a 3/9 schedule. In the Surface Navy we often talk like you can substitute sleep with coffee and energy drinks, but you can’t. Tired Sailors make mistakes. If you as the leader can adjust their day, especially to one that preserves circadian rhythm [natural sleep/wake cycles] by sticking to a 24 hour day, your Sailors will be more rested and perform better. Something else we did to mitigate stress was to help the crew increase their physical activity which can be difficult aboard a ship because of both time and space. We opened up the main deck so the crew could exercise there and we were able to put a couple of treadmills in another ship’s space. On the social side, Sailors often find things to do to avoid human contact. For instance, the Sailor that will sit in front of a console for 8 hours and complain about the horrible watch he had, will go back and play computer games for another 6 hours. We tried to get the Sailors out of that routine by doing Fantail Picnics and Iron Man competitions. And because the ship had two successful counter-piracy ops, we celebrated a Pirate Day. They held the CO hostage on the bridge and the pay off was dinner in the wardroom and handing over the XO… which I did.
Sunday was funny hat day where Sailors got to wear ball caps of their favorite sports teams and that went a long way in helping crew morale. You need to provide for your Sailors spiritual needs too. We had a chaplain onboard, but whether it’s making sure you have lay leaders and all faiths are represented, you need to make sure they have an opportunity to replenish their spiritual resources. When we pulled into some of the ports, we were able to contract with a company so they could use videoconference software with family back home. It’s important for the CO and all the command leaders to listen, take time, and think about their own and their Sailors’ family needs. When we were deployed I saw four marriages crumble and I had to send eight Sailors home for various reasons. It’s important for leaders to think outside the box and not just do things the way they have always done.
What it boils down to is that it’s all about people. The ship is just a big gray thing, but inside it are 300 people who all deal with stress in their own way. It’s important for the leaders to provide as many opportunities in as many ways as possible to mitigate that stress.
In the Navy we focus on warfighting and readiness but that focus tends to be all about the materiel readiness; if the Sailors aren’t ready and resilient, the ship won’t be an effective warfighter.