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.
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.