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Sharing the Mental Load of National Security

By National Security & Counterterrorism Fellows Joselyn Eling (Australia), Ruby Gavey (New Zealand), and Mike Friel (USA)

**This blog post reflects the authors’ personal experiences on the 2023 Washington, D.C. leg of the McCain Institute National Security & Counterterrorism Fellowship; it is not a reflection or expression of the thoughts or official statements of any of the authors’ home agencies or governments.

In early March, the 2023 cohort of the McCain Institute’s Five Eyes (FVEY) National Security and Counter Terrorism (NSCT) Fellowship came together in Washington, D.C. for the first of three convenings that will take place throughout the year. Our group is comprised of national security professionals from the U.K., U.S., Australia, and the first-ever fellow from New Zealand! Though we had limited interaction (over Zoom) with one another prior to D.C., quality time together accelerated our cohort bond. By the end of the week, we had become fast friends.

During our time in D.C., we enjoyed meeting with various U.S. national security experts from an array of agencies and organizations spanning government, media, academia, and more. We covered a broad range of topics relating to our roles in the national security field, from specific issues, trends, and the current security landscape, to personal career experiences and leadership in challenging environments.

One topic that became the subject of many discussions throughout the week was the concept of “sharing the mental load” in the national security space. The term “sharing the mental load” has become popularly used in a domestic setting and is usually applied to a household or romantic relationship. The concept relates to ensuring that responsibilities, and the cognitive effort that goes with them, are shared equally amongst the parties. This ensures no individual is overly burdened, thus promoting positive mental health and well-being. Effectively sharing the mental load involves recognizing individual strengths and abilities and dividing the work accordingly. It also requires a high degree of trust, as each individual needs to relinquish control of the portions of the load they are passing to another. This can present a significant challenge, especially for anyone used to being in control!

A high-level U.S. official to pose this concept to the cohort in the context of national security. As a Five Eyes cohort, we share national security concerns such as terrorism, espionage, and foreign interference. These threats continue to evolve and manifest in new and diverse ways, impacting every facet of national security across our countries and often the mental health of national security professionals. The U.S. official put to the group that the Five Eyes construct needs to view these problems as part of a shared mental load and divide the work accordingly. Each country brings its own strengths and expertise to the FVEY table. Recognizing this and trusting our counterparts to pick up their share of the load means that no one country needs to cover everything all the time. Division of the national security mental load could come about in several ways – by adversary, crime type, capabilities, and facilitators – and dependent on establishing open and clear recognition of which nation is best positioned to take the lead on any given national security challenge.

In practice, we do draw on the expertise of our Five countries to ensure that we have the right information at the right time to make good national security decisions. Without these relationships, we risk missing key details that could protect us against future threats, emerging security issues, and complex security challenges.

However, notwithstanding this partnership, we don’t always get the balance of the load right. One thing that stood out to us during the week is the impulse for each agency in each country to try and cover everything, in detail, all the time. National security is a high-stakes challenge, and no agency wants to be the one that misses something! It can be difficult to figure out when to rely on others and when the challenge an agency faces is unique to that country.

Ultimately though, we know it makes more sense to divide that cognitive effort and responsibility among our national security agencies to improve their efficacy and well-being.

As the week progressed, we kept returning to this topic precisely because we now have a network of professionals with whom to discuss our unique, and often difficult, work environment. The Fellowship filled a gap we didn’t know existed. While we can talk within our agencies and our countries about the privileged positions that we occupy working to protect our nations, there was something special about realizing these challenges exist across our countries. We had candid discussions ranging from mental health in the national security sector to ways to better collaborate on security projects. We talked about the difficulties of being unable to share the mental load with our family and friends and found great relief knowing that these challenges can now be shared with our new friends.

As growing leaders in this space, we can apply the concept of sharing the mental load to our own professional relationships. Recognizing the cognitive burden (and emotional strain) of working in such a high-pressure field and establishing trust in our colleagues, supervisors, and teams will allow us to distribute the mental load better and achieve better results overall.

At the micro level, the concept is one many of the participants in the 2023 NSCT Fellowship were interested in exploring and applying to their own work and career. At the inter-agency and/or international level, this is likely a long-term solution to the effective management of national security threats among the FVEY network. It might allow us to further build trust and relinquish a level of control and individual oversight of all things national security. Establishing a shared understanding of these problems is the only place to start, and forums such as the McCain NSCT Fellowship provide a great opportunity for future leaders in national security to collaborate.

One fitting example of sharing this mental load has been the experience of co-authoring this international blog post. When the McCain staff asked our group to offer up a blog post discussing our DC week, instead of opting to provide several individual entries, scoped from separate countries, several of us offered to work jointly, in the spirit of FVEY cooperation.

There is a Māori proverb, or whakataukī, that is often used by New Zealand public servants: He waka eke noa (we are all in the this together / we are all in the same waka, or boat). It’s about teamwork, cooperation, and the need to only move as fast as the slowest person. When we are all in the same waka, we must all paddle together to get to our destination. When we share the mental load, we collaborate better, duplicate less, and get to our destination more quickly and safely.

The McCain Institute at Arizona State University is now accepting applications for its fourth cohort of the National Security & Counterterrorism Fellowship. For more information, or to apply, click HERE. The application deadline is Sunday, August 20, 2023.




DISCLAIMER: McCain Institute is a nonpartisan organization that is part of Arizona State University. The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not represent an opinion of the McCain Institute.

National Security & Counterterrorism Fellows Joselyn Eling (Australia), Ruby Gavey (New Zealand), and Mike Friel (USA)
Publish Date
June 26, 2023