Readers who are accustomed to complaining about workplace stress may feel a little humbled by the stories coming out of the Chilean copper mine, where 33 mineworkers are trapped half a mile underground. Officials estimate that it will take 3-4 months to drill a rescue shaft to reach the men.
These months will provide rare insights into mental endurance, resilience, response to adversity, patterns of trauma stress and ways of overcoming obstacles.
These miners are in a life or death situation, and their resistance to mental and physical stress has yet to be determined. One hopeful factor is that these are the kind of men most likely to survive the stress of adversity and trauma.
They are accustomed to depending on one another, much more than on their distant management, and they are trained in overcoming obstacles without external help.
Interestingly, 33 men is roughly the strength of a military platoon, which is typically the smallest military unit led by a commissioned officer. It is a group of an optimum size that is trained to perform its duties, and to deal with an enemy — (in this case, the collapse of the main shaft), with ordered discipline whilst acting as a group.
But the history of combat is also full of terrible lessons about human behaviour at the extremes of adversity. The command structure can collapse when individuals are at the mercy of the strongest and most ruthless in the group.
The longer this ordeal lasts, the less we can apply reasoned logic but no doubt we shall see some inspiring examples of bravery, resilience and displays of leadership in ordinary individuals who have risen to the challenge. However, there may also be some highly irrational side-effects — behaviours that are inexplicable to us sitting comfortably, far above the entombed miners.
Some may exhibit mental breakdown or become psychotic whereas others may suffer long-term trauma stress that may not show up for some months or years.
These irrational effects will not be confined to those miners. I predict that individual rescue team members may need their own form of resilience and doubtless a good deal of stress counselling too.
For them, there is the particular stress of knowing that the entire mine is insecure, and that vibrations from the drilling equipment could bury those men in one terrible avalanche.
And that is quite apart from the Survivor Guilt that is bound to afflict these rescue workers.
So next time you feel like grumbling about workplace stress, remember that not all workplaces are air-conditioned offices with convenient access to email. And you might compare your own problems against the kind of trauma stress now afflicting those 33 Chilean miners.