Natural disasters: How can HR help?

‘The immediate loss of control and personal safety is frightening’

Natural disasters: How can HR help?

Natural disasters such as bushfires impact entire communities, including organisations, their employees and their families - and the disruption to daily life can be harrowing.

Moreover, seasons are becoming longer and more intense, while also starting much earlier than usual. And as some Australian regions are struggling with severe drought, fighting fires is becoming increasingly difficult.

Bushfires have already left families homeless and many evacuated from their houses, as more than 50 fires currently burn in NSW and some 15,000 hectares burned in Queensland in early September.

As many people may be forced to evacuate their homes and workplaces, and leave cherished possessions behind, they turn their energy towards survival.

Marcela Slepica, Clinical Director at AccessEAP, said a tragic disaster such as a bushfire can have a damaging effect on people, and it is common to experience a range of intense emotions following a traumatic event like a natural disaster.

“The immediate loss of control and personal safety is frightening, and can lead to severe and acute shock, distress, and anxiety,” she said.

The memories and associated fear that a similar event will reoccur can be long lasting, so it’s important that managers are sensitive with how they deal with staff members who have been affected.

Slepica offers the following insight into how managers can support their employees through this difficult time.

Welcome people back to work

Having a sense of purpose and connection is essential to recovery and often work offers this, as it provides a sense of control, routine and security. As the recovery process takes time and each individual will be coping at different speeds, with setbacks cropping up along the way, so it’s important to remember to be patient and understanding.

Normalise reactions

It’s important to remember that people will be experiencing a range of emotions, and that once the event is over, it will take time to come to terms with these feelings. Outbursts of emotion, or isolating themselves from the rest of the staff are signs that managers should look out for. Acknowledge that all emotions are OK and that it will take time to grieve, reassure people that intense feelings are normal given the disaster. 

Ask ‘how can I help?’

Ask if there is anything, as a manager, that you can do to assist employees or if there is anything that they may need to make this process easier. Flexibility will be incredibly important during the immediate aftermath from a bushfire. Staff may need to work different hours or from home to oversee repairs to their properties or to support loved ones. They also may need assistance with transport and getting to and from work, and with organising childcare. Catch up with senior managers to discuss what the business can do to recognise employees that may need help and put a strategy in place to meet their needs.

Encourage people to talk, but avoid probing

Curiosity is a part of human nature. However, by asking people for details of a traumatic experience, it may trigger painful emotions that they are not ready to share. Instead, gently encourage people to talk about how they are feeling and let them lead the dialogue. Some may be more eager to share than others, as there may be more important things to focus on at that time, so check in regularly.

Advise those suffering to speak with their confidential EAP service

As a manager, there are times that you can only do so much to support people, so make sure your business has other support networks in place too. An EAP can offer help in person or over the phone, offering coping strategies and counselling for any problems without judgement.

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