That’s the position Virginia-based Greenleaf Integrative Strategies finds itself in this morning. The company is at the leading edge of neuroscience, providing consulting services to government agencies and non-profit organizations who work in the world’s most stressful environments. Greenleaf uses insights from the fields of medicine, public health, psychology, anthropology and social work to help workers develop resiliency in the face of immense stress.
It’s an emerging field – and this weekend, it was the subject of a major story in the Washington Post. The Post profiles the Army’s Comprehensive Soldier Fitness Program, an effort to help prepare soldiers for the stress of combat.
Greenleaf has no direct involvement in the CSF program, but the program is the most high-profile example of a government effort to build resiliency in those who are routinely exposed to trauma. It bears similarities to work Greenleaf has done for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), and for non-profit organizations with workers exposed to trauma in Haiti, Sudan, Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan and other trouble spots around the globe.
Greenleaf turns traditional psychological treatment on its head — rather than waiting for workers to develop symptoms of psychological distress after they are exposed to trauma, then offering treatment, Greenleaf’s trainers attempt to prepare workers for the traumas they may experience in the field and better prepare them for life afterward.
The Critics Have a Point
The Post article takes a neutral tone, quoting soldiers who are happy with the skills the program has given them, as well as critics who contend that it lacks a strong scientific foundation and could make soldiers less likely to reach out for help when they need it. If the program trains soldiers to view combat as a growth opportunity, some worry, they’ll be reluctant to admit to facing negative long-term impacts from combat.
Despite the critics quoted in the article, Greenleaf’s experts are happy to see the idea win such broad exposure.
“The attitude I take is that controversy or criticism is good, scientifically, as long as it doesn’t become a witch hunt,” Dr. Siddharth Ashvin Shah tells me. “It’s a sign that there are critical thinkers hashing different scenarios out.”
Dr. Shah, Medical Director for Greenleaf, isn’t familiar with the intimate details of the Army’s program. But, he says, “I’m in agreement with the high ethical standard that the critics are suggesting we should adhere to. That’s not to say that the current program is unethical, but that designing ethical programs can be an iterative process.”
However, Dr. Shah says, the criticisms don’t justify scrapping the program. “The critics who have raised these issues,” he tells me, “are saying ‘we need to follow up on this.'” They’re largely correct, he believes.
Measuring the Impact
That is one reason, he says, that Greenleaf works so hard to monitor the impact its work has. “In the course of our work, we have done a pilot that has some similar components” to the CSF program, he says. “We don’t use positive psychology as a basis for our work to the extent that the Army seems to be, but we are looking to build resiliency. In a future contract, we’re looking forward to having a third-party evaluator” impartially measure the outcome of the work.
In fact, he says, Greenleaf has systems in place to track the psychological health of those exposed to its resiliency training over time. “We give our trainees a tool that helps them to monitor their distress levels” he explains, “and depending on the outcome, they would take specific steps for every level of distress.”
“Any one intervention is not enough, because there is a diversity of thinking styles. We have a menu of options that allow people to select interventions that match their thinking style and their belief systems. I don’t think there is any one style of self-care that is going to help someone be resilient all the time.”
Selling an Unknown Service
There is no shortage of organizations, from government agencies to private sector companies, that routinely send workers into dangerous environments. But Greenleaf’s services aren’t well-known.
So how do you attract government buyers to a service the government may not know it needs? “It’s a matter of finding someone within the organization – maybe in Human Resources, maybe a program officer – who gets it,” Shah explains. “It doesn’t take a lot. In most organizations, I have found, most people have a look in their eyes that shows they know what we’re talking about. Then, it’s a matter of reaching the right person and winning their political support.”
With an internal champion in place, he says, the foundation for a long-term relationship can be built.
Greenleaf won its first federal contract, he explains, thanks to the intervention of a USAID employee who also has expertise in yoga. “He got to know about what we do. In our menu of options are yoga components that people use to create more balance and resilience in their life. It’s just one of many available options, but he learned about it and put us in touch with people we could talk to at USAID.”
“We ran a pilot for them, managed to impress the trainees, and have continued for the last two years to give trainings.”
Now, Shah explains, the company is searching for similar champions in other agencies. “We’re in the process of reaching out to a number of federal agencies,” he tells me.
Shah sees opportunities inside and outside the federal government for Greenleaf to grow. “The Transportation Security Administration, Federal Emergency Management Agency, the border protection agency, everyone under the Department of Homeland Security could be the beneficiary of training, not identical to what we offer at USAID, but adapted to the unique challenges of each agency,” he explains. Embassy guards employed by the Department of State, and employees of the Department of Justice could also benefit from Greenleaf’s work.
In the private sector, Shah tells me, health care providers have a similar need. “Anyone who works in health care, by definition, works with people who are suffering some combination of fear, anxiety, and sadness. I have been working with physicians and nurses for some years now. “
As new as the idea of resiliency training may be, Shah says, it seems to make intuitive sense to people who work in stressful environments.
“Clients are sensitive to the idea that this work does damage people,” he explains, “That people are not the same after having done it for a while. Our clients are pretty excited to learn some of the brain science behind it, to help to concretize it. They appreciate knowing that there is an electrochemical basis for the changes they see in themselves and their employees over time. They like to see, in the map of the brain, that there is a basis for this.”
“We put people at ease by saying, ‘Hey, this is just something that comes with the territory, everyone is vulnerable. But you can train everyone to be vigilant, and monitor for these symptoms, and know when it’s appropriate to go for professional help.”