Post-quake life still has its ups and downs

Some of us may have felt jolts and aftershocks with the handful of earthquakes that have hit the North Island over the past month or so. We may have been fearful or have had to cope with damage, uncertainty, repairs and the burden of insurance claims.

Christchurch

As a secondary consequence, if we have not experienced an earthquake before, we may now also have a new understanding and respect for residents of Christchurch, for whom every day brings the possibility of being shaken up, and who are still coping with the consequences of the series of large quakes that rocked the region five years ago.

Christchurch employment lawyer Kathryn Dalziel says that, despite the passage of time, the quakes have left an indelible mark on Christchurch residents in more ways than one. While some buildings and houses have been rebuilt, others are no more; some streets have been repaired but others are no longer accessible; organisations and institutions with whom you may have dealt are gone or changed; the very way in which people work has altered from individual offices to open plan.

Kathryn Dalziel

And while Cantabrians are often (and rightly so) commended on their resilience in coping with the multitudinous and ongoing changes, even the word “resilient” now has a different meaning for those who have lived through the shakes and their aftermath.

“Resilience is a big thing,” says Ms Dalziel. “In 2013, I spoke at AUT in Auckland about what it means to me. A lot of people think resilience is about going back to the same things, getting things back to normal, but it’s not – it’s about change, about your ability to deal with a changed environment, and about adjusting to a ‘new normal’.”

Even that “new normal” is not static – Ms Dalziel says that in her work as an employment lawyer, she has noticed the ebbs and flows of emotion and behaviour amongst people in the region, who are weighed down by the fear of future tremors and fatigued by the pressure of change, ongoing repairs, bureaucracy and insurance disputes.

“There are many studies and material online about the ongoing psychological impact that a natural disaster can have on people, and that this tends to go in waves. As lawyers, in addition to our own experiences of the earthquakes and their aftermath, we also see those of our clients, and we tend to see patterns. In my view, which is consistent with what colleagues are telling me, we are in a ‘dip’ at the moment.

“Currently, our employment practice is insanely busy. We are seeing more anger, leading in some cases to actual violence, across a range of organisations. People are coming in for legal solutions to the disputes that they are having, but my feeling is that it’s often not about the dispute but about underlying issues that people are dealing with. I wouldn’t like to go as far as calling it post-traumatic stress disorder, but there are certainly stresses going on.

“Family law practitioners are telling me that they are in the same boat – it seems to be another big ‘pulse point’ for the patterns and waves that are discernible in the mood of the city.”

Ms Dalziel is grateful for what she describes as “the mildest winter I think we’ve ever had” – otherwise, she reckons the mood in Christchurch could have been much worse.

“All of those things we read about ‘wellbeing’ are actually very real and very helpful in helping people get on with things – getting good exercise, eating well, etc. For Cantabrians to simply be able to be out and about in Hagley Park in the weekend enjoying the sun over the last few weeks has been very helpful.”

The current phase in which the city finds itself could be likened to how people feel after an illness or a death in the family, when all the fuss dies down and people stop bringing round meals for them. And while fellow-feeling and gumption were at a high in the region in the more immediate post-quake period, to some extent, this is now less apparent.

“I think the adrenalin has now worn out. When the earthquakes hit, we really came together as a community – people were talking to their neighbours, looking after each other, baking for each other, communities were organising barbeques and gatherings – but that has all died down and now we are left doing the hard day-today slog.

“That relentless feeling of change transcends everything – you can’t necessarily go where you want to, the agencies you’ve always dealt with may be gone, your job and the way you work have changed, places you used to visit as a child may not be there anymore, even going for a bike ride along your favourite route may no longer be possible. People’s ‘institutional memory’ of the city has gone – buildings mean something to people, and their loss has an impact.”

For lawyers, it has been (and continues to be) somewhat of a double whammy. While dealing with their own post-earthquake related repairs, insurance worries and other adjustments, they share in their clients’ loads in many ways as well.

“Lawyers have always had somewhat of a counsellor role, but this has become even more part of what we do now, as well as giving legal advice. Empathy is a big part of the job, and if you are an empathetic person, you can’t help but feel part of the stress that your clients are going through – we end up with ‘counsellor syndrome’ as well as dealing with our own stresses.”

Ms Dalziel says that, for her personally, the earthquakes have had a lasting impact that she thinks she will never quite escape.

“If you’ve been through a bad earthquake, I don’t think it’s something that ever quite leaves you. We all know about cortisol – the hormone that the brain triggers in ‘fight or flight’ situations – well, I don’t think that’s left me for six years. We had another couple of small earthquakes the other day and immediately my heart accelerated – I found myself holding onto my desk and wondering how bad this one was going to be, and my work was disrupted for a while.”

Fortunately though, the increased trend towards aggression and conflict during the region’s “downward waves” that Ms Dalziel has observed in employment matters does not seem to be affecting lawyers in quite the same way.

“Because our clients are in conflict, we naturally tend to express some of that in representing our clients’ interests. But I don’t think it’s a very effectual strategy to buy into your clients’ anger, and anyway we don’t tend to practice law like that down here. The bar in Canterbury is very collegial and those courtesies which are part of how lawyers deal with each other have been maintained, and possibly even strengthened, because of our shared experiences.

“There is a lot of respect here and I have found increased understanding from my colleagues, for example when I am up against a deadline, or there are complexities with a file. We work through it, with courtesy and respect. We tend to bring quite a lot of humour into our discussions as well – a bit of banter always helps.”

Ms Dalziel says that the way forward from here is a matter of taking small steps to adjust to new realities, looking after yourself, and talking with friends and colleagues when you need to.

“Setting positive goals, rewarding yourself with things to look forward to (like holidays) – these kinds of ‘wellbeing things’ are good to remember to do. Practising law can be hard enough as it is – we are doing this day-in and day-out and we need a reminder that we need a break sometimes.

“It’s also about having something in reserve – if we’re sitting on zero in terms of our energy and emotions, we may think that we’re fine, but in fact we should be working on maintaining ourselves at the level of +1 or +2, so that when something bad does happen, we don’t dip down into the negatives.

“And collegiality has had real meaning for me during this time. I feel like we have been supported hugely by lawyers from both Auckland and Wellington, and it has given me a very strong sense of the importance of the profession, which is something I talk about when I’m lecturing in legal ethics at the University of Canterbury.”

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