Offering Relief in the Wake of Disaster

by Timothy Pajak.
Feature Report HRWire March 19, 2001

For decades professional psychologists have researched the merits of offering varying forms of trauma and grief counseling to persons who have had a traumatic experience. But only within the last several years has the idea been extensively practiced. Recent instances of workplace violence and natural disasters, such as the earthquake recently experienced in the Pacific Northwest have put the issue squarely into the hands of human resource professionals.

Coping with loss ...

After a natural disaster strikes some employees may face the difficulty of dealing with the loss of a loved one, a co-worker, or their home. Part of having a solid disaster response plan includes knowing how to deal with these employees. Employers sometimes refer employees to "grief counselors" or "trauma counselors." However, researchers have yet to formulate an agreeable conclusion on the long-term effects of such counseling.

Stuart Hales, communications director for the International Employee Assistance Professionals Association, says employers should be prepared to respond to a tragedy that includes death. Hales, formerly of the American Red Cross, says employers should know how to deal with someone who's had a close family member die, and determine what to say to them, how to comfort them, and how to acknowledge their loss.

... including productivity loss

Workplace productivity might suffer as a result of a grieving employee being out of the office for awhile or because they are having a hard time accepting their loss. And when employees do return to work, their minds are often elsewhere--anywhere from thinking of the recently deceased loved one to dealing with insurance claims and finding a new place to live. Hales says employers have to figure out a way to help employees work through their problems.

"You might have something very sophisticated where the EAP actually is accustomed to dealing with this sort of thing or is prepared to deal with that," Hales tells HRWire. "You might even have a formal packet or checklist of things you need to do in these kinds of situations that the employees haven't thought of." For example, employers can provide a list of all the people or community resources employees may need to contact (e.g., funeral homes, insurance agents), as well as remind employees about their bereavement policy (or put one in place).

To counsel or not to counsel

However, psychologists who have done research in the area of grief and trauma counseling say this is where the agreement about the still evolving field of employee assistance programs ends and the questions begin. Dr. Tana Dineen, Ph.D., a psychologist and author of Manufacturing Victims: What the Psychology Industry Is Doing to People belongs to the school of thought that says there is no research that indicates people benefit from trauma counseling and that some data shows that counselors may actually be doing some damage.

Naturally, people who experience trauma usually feel pretty bad about it, but eventually get on with their lives, says Dineen. And employees' productivity won't return to normal simply by sending in counselors. "EAP programs and counselors sell the idea, by virtue of saying: 'we'll go in there and there will be a gain for you. People won't be as disturbed for as long and you won't see the disruption you otherwise would." Dineen tells HRWire. "But I don't see the data that says that sending these people in really does that."

Although Dineen is critical of counseling, she hopes that employers who question what such services are doing would question them "on the basis of looking at data rather than listening to anybody, including me." It's important for employers to determine how best their money could be spent by consulting with unions and employees alike.

Essentially, HR should evaluate what would be of the most benefit to employees; especially since trauma counselors are not volunteers and are being paid for their services. Ask employees whether they'd rather have an hour with a counselor or rather have a couple of days to get their lives together. "I've actually heard of that being tried ... very rarely do people end up choosing the counselor," says Dineen.

Other options

Regardless of whether you offer counseling, there are other steps employers can take to help employees and the community in the aftermath of a natural disaster. For example, HR can organize a collection to help with funeral costs or with finding a new home. It can also temporarily change leave policies to give those adversely affected more time off to deal with personal issues.