Supporting Employees During a Disaster

Avalution Team Avalution Team | Jul 21, 2008

support employees perspecti

Recent man-made and natural disasters led many organizations to reevaluate their strategies for protecting employees from the adverse affects of a disaster. Informed, allied employees whose human needs and concerns are being met form the foundation of organizational resilience and recoverability. In a post-crisis situation, an organization cannot effectively resume operations without the physical and mental health and stability of well-trained and dedicated people.

When a disaster strikes, it is important that both management and supervisors understand how to effectively support their workforce (and by extension, their workforce’s family members) during and after a disaster. Avalution developed the following guidelines to aid in addressing employees’ needs during and after an incident.  These guidelines should be considered as your organization reviews its Crisis Management Plan to ensure human resource needs are adequately addressed.

The guidance is broken down into the following key timeframes and stages:

  • Immediately after the incident
  • Hours/days following the incident
  • Within the first couple weeks after the incident
  • Months after the incident

Immediately After the Incident
Regardless of what kind of crisis strikes your organization, management should consider a number of initial responses to ensure the well-being of all employees.

Primarily, management should:

  • Ensure the safety of employees (and anyone on site) By utilizing predefined, tested accountability processes, management should make certain all employees are accounted for and if injured, appropriate measures are being taken and emergency personnel notified.
  • Direct people away from the disaster area and injured survivors Management should ensure that uninjured employees are removed from the immediate physical area for physical and mental health reasons.
  • Keep people together

If employees are kept together following an incident, keeping them safe and cared for is more controllable, and allows employees to provide support for one another.

Hours/Days Following the Incident
Within the first couple hours and throughout the first few days following the incident, management should take steps to begin caring for the mental health of employees. Specifically, management should:

  • Consider setting up a formal relief center, even if only basic needs are provided A relief center should be set up for employees to provide food and other essential items to those in need. This strategy is particularly necessary in larger-scale, regional events impacting both the workplace, as well as the community.
  • Consider compiling key resource information as part of the planning effort Compiling reference information in a booklet, and providing it as part of a business continuity awareness effort, can be very helpful to employees in need of finding support – such as a child care provider, replacement transportation, temporary housing and repair services.
  • Give people access to their support networks and families Giving employees access to their support networks gives them the tools to effectively cope with the situation they experienced.  Organizations can assist in this effort in a number of ways, particularly for employees who have been relocated as a result of the disaster.  These include:

*Relocating immediate family with the employee
*Providing calling cards to employees
*Assisting employees in making travel arrangements to visit family

  • Do all you can to make sure employees and their families feel safe and secure Without a safe and secure home environment, employees may be unable to return to work, or they will be ineffective in assisting the organization respond and recover from the event.
  • Try to get people to take care of each other and discuss what happened As an employee is coping with an incident, they may find release in helping other employees who experienced the same crisis or discussing their reactions and experiences.  Encourage open dialogue and “sponsor” group discussions.

In cases of a severe disaster, it might be necessary to call upon a mental health professional to facilitate discussions to ensure employees’ mental health is sustained. Some professional options include:

* Employee Assistance Program (EAP) counselors
* The Red Cross
* The Center for Mental Health Services – Emergency Services and                                             Disaster Relief Branch
* The National Center for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
* The Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences
* The Federal Emergency Management Agency-recommended and                                             sponsored resources
* Other local/regional health professionals

Ensure the delivery of critical internal services to employees:

Employees should be informed about what is going on in the company and how it affects them at all times.

It is important that payroll be consistent and accurate in a post-traumatic event to ensure the stability of employees – it might be necessary to outsource this function to third party.

Within the First Couple of Weeks After the Incident
Once the initial shock from the incident has passed, supervisors should focus on maintaining structure in the work environment and returning to normal operations – including holding employees to consistent, realistic performance standards. With this in mind, management should ensure the following actions are taken:

  • Consider the pace of the work environment Let employees work at a more relaxed pace as they work toward their normal routine.  Keep in mind that it may take some employees longer than others to return to a normal work pace.
  • Temporarily defer major changes in the workplace While securing a stable environment for employees, making major changes to the workplace could be detrimental to their coping abilities.
  • Establish a routine Employees should be monitored to ensure they are not overworking – working, eating, sleeping, and relaxing should be balanced to ensure good mental health
  • Modify office rules Office rules and procedures that could be counterproductive after a disaster, such as using telephones for personal use, granting vacation/sick time or allowing family members in the office, may need to be suspended temporarily to ensure employees’ well-being.
  • Confirm transportation availability It is quite possible that vehicles were damaged in the incident – make sure all employees have adequate transportation to and from work.

Months After the Incident
Each employee will react differently to the disaster they have experienced.  Occasionally, the pressure of getting their job done and taking care of their family in the face of significant personal loss can lead to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), a anxiety disorder which is often exhibited by frightening thoughts and memories of the ordeal and feeling emotionally numb.

Employees who may have PTSD should be consistently monitored. Employees who exhibit the signs of PTSD may need professional help to return to normal levels of functionality. The following are considerations to keep in mind regarding PTSD:

  • About 1-2% of those involved in a disaster may develop Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
  • Additional symptoms:

*Re-experience Phenomena
Recurrent or intrusive distressing recollections of the event; re-living the                                experience.

*Avoidance or Numbing Phenomena
Efforts to avoid recollections of the event, places or people, which by association                    could arouse recollections of trauma; inability to recall aspects of the trauma;                          diminished interest in previously significant people or activities; feelings of                              detachment; reduced capacity to feel; depression.

*Increased Arousal
Sleeping difficulties; irritability; poor concentration; hyper-vigilance; low threshold for startle response.

By knowing the signs of PTSD, supervisors can make concerted decisions about ensuring the well-being of employees. Experienced professionals are best-able to assist employees with PTSD.

Knowing what to do in the midst of a crisis is difficult, but proper planning is a critical tool necessary to support the recovery of your employees and your organization. Helping people cope with the incident at hand could be what gets your organization to function more quickly and efficiently during and immediately following a disaster situation.

In addition to incorporating the guidelines above into your organization’s plans, there are also proactive steps that should be taken to ensure proper capabilities are in place to protect employees in the case of a disaster, including:

  • Develop a communications plan Delivering and integrating consistent outbound and inbound communications should be a cornerstone of business continuity planning – and the employee support effort.
  • Create a succession plan In worst-case scenarios, it’s a prudent risk management practice to develop and maintain redundant skills.
  • Deliver employee awareness sessions, including exercises Once plans are in place, it is necessary to make certain that all stakeholders know their roles and responsibilities in a crisis situation.
  • Develop a virtual infrastructure In the case of an inoperable facility, having a virtual infrastructure allows employees to carry on with work without actually being in the facility.  Virtual infrastructure to support critical work activities also enables virtual employee support and communications.

Remember, by focusing on your people and the full spectrum of their needs, you not only help them – you enable and empower them to respond to organizational needs as flexibly and efficiently as possible.