When a disaster like the Fort McMurray wildfire hits, it’s important for employers to have planned not only for how to respond to the immediate disaster but also for its potential lasting impact on employees.
“There’s a risk period. Just because someone returns to work and the group is 100% accounted for doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone is going to be OK,” said Paula Allen, vice president of research and integrative solutions at Morneau Shepell. Employees may be dealing with practical issues related to recovering from the disaster as well as emotional ones. Allen made the comments during the webcast “Case Study: A Look Back at Fort McMurray, Lessons Learned and Considerations for the Future.”
The May wildfire forced the evacuation of more than 80,000 people and caused more than $3.5 billion in damage. Residents began returning to the city in June.
Allen identified three important strategies for employers in the aftermath of a disaster:
1. Support managers and supervisors.
This includes informational support, to help quell anxiety and rumours, and also personal support. “Sometimes it’s very easy to forget that those individuals are in the community where the trauma occurred. They have the same stressors that employees do. They might have had a major loss,” Allen said. Managers need tools to help them support their employees, such as an employee and family assistance program (EFAP) that can provide debriefing for managers as well as help them identify employees who are struggling.
2. Ensure that employees recognize the organization’s concern for their well-being.
If a trauma happens and “immediately it’s back to work as usual, without some acknowledgment of what people have gone through, people remember that for a very long time,” Allen said. “Conversely, people also remember the support that was available to them and shown to them by their employer while going through a difficult time.” One of the best ways to show that concerns is to have senior leaders visit impacted locations. Employers also should have a mechanism for tracking how employees are doing, such as absence tracking, EFAP reports or checking in with leaders of each location. “Showing concern is not just about being visible,” Allen said. “It’s about going that extra mile and finding out who needs help and responding to it.”
3. Connect with and actively support those who cannot immediately return.
Employers should stay connected to employees who are away from work dealing with a physical injury, disability, mental health issue or some other problem. There should be clear guidelines for whether employees missing work will be on a leave of absence and whether it’s with or without pay. “Regardless of the reason why people are not in your workplace, they’re still your employees,” Allen said. Keeping up those connections helps reduce the length of a disability leave and helps people transition back to work more easily.
Employers should keep in mind that the practical and psychological needs of employees will continue for a while following a disaster, although they will decline, Allen said. “Making sure that you as an organization, but also your managers in particular, are equipped and aware that it’s not just going to go away in two weeks is an important part of the preparation.”
Kathy Bergstrom, CEBS
Editor, Publications at the International Foundation