Managing the Human Side of a Disaster
Human Concerns
Written by Vali Hawkins Mitchell and Kristen Noakes-Fry   

A veteran carpenter would tell you that a hammer and a nail never change, but what you build over the decades will be different as creative designs change. Disasters are disasters, emergencies are emergencies, and some of the tools to manage them will be basic, stable, unchangeable “hammer-and-nails” work. However, if you look at the composition of disasters today as compared to 10 years ago, they have changed a lot. The victims have changed. The perpetrators have changed.

The most immediate skills you need in order to manage the human side of disaster require understanding the basic nature of disasters and the range of potential accompanying human emotions. Just as disasters can instantly level buildings, they can just as rapidly change longstanding patterns of power, work, authority, and perceptions among the people in your workplace.

Anticipating Workplace Changes in a Disaster

You’ve heard post-disaster stories about an ordinary employee who surprised everyone with “surprising compassion and heroism” under terrible circumstances. What is usually left out is that the employee had been trained by good management – and the training kicked in at the right time. After a catastrophic event, it is the leader who is centered, calm, alert, focused, and informed who may well become the valued lighthouse in the darkness, the beacon of sanity in an insane situation. Ongoing training and exercise is essential for that to happen.

Power: Suddenly, everything you know about power in your organization has changed. Immediately, you will see that the force of the disaster now holds the power. Dramatic changes occur in people during disasters. Normally powerful people may be brought to their knees, while usually powerless people can rise to superhuman abilities. Your planning and drills will prepare people for roles to change unexpectedly. Be open to creative ideas from people who usually remain silent, or be ready to find usually strong people that would normally have opinions to be suddenly clueless. It’s not a matter of job code, age, or experience. The disaster has created an even playing field.

Work: After a disaster, the rhythm of work has fits and starts as it readjusts to its new flow. You can’t force everything back to normal. In most industries, expecting employees to continue normal activities immediately after a disaster is at the least unreasonable and at the worst unethical, inhuman, and perhaps even be fodder for litigation. If your company executives are determined to continue operations as if nothing happened, advise them that this kind of denial can only worsen the situation and make it take longer for people, processes, and productivity to recover. Use your common sense to allow a reasonable period of time – depending on the nature of the disaster and the level of personal involvement of those in your workplace – between the end of the incident and phasing in the return to normalcy.

Authority: You have observed in your own tests of your BC and evacuation plans that clearly understood lines of command during the on-scene process of a disaster is essential to keep workers on track amid chaos. As a manager, you will need to either be the incident manager during a disaster or delegate one. And be sure to have at least one backup person and a procedure to follow in the event you are out of the office or stuck between floors in an elevator. Create a hierarchy phone tree or contact list of chain of command for the tasks and performance issues that are ranked from immediate to long term planning options if needed. In your disaster drills, arrange to have a key person absent to test the flexibility of the lines of command.

Perceptions: You may have heard from disaster workers – or observed it yourself – that victims, emergency responders, and mental health workers can be expected to be in an “altered state of consciousness.” You will never have to ask “if” there is an altered state, only “how altered is it?” Brains will be processing information in a distorted manner because brains under the influence of the incident do not operate like brains not under duress. Both victims and responders are “under the influence” of the disaster and can do some odd, silly, heroic, bizarre, and dangerous things. Most disaster management professionals will tell you to plan for the worst, hope for the best. If you are aware that altered states of behavior are often quite shocking, but short lived, you can prepare yourself – and other managers in your organization – to be the person who can bring people back to “normal” more quickly.

Manage During a Disaster

  • Include everybody. Involve people in helping, even if it is a fabricated task like “we need someone to empty the wastebaskets.” Busy people become more focused and feel more security. An employee to whom you give “power and control” over the wastebaskets may feel less overwhelmed by the power of the disaster– and may return to competent functioning more quickly. Washing dishes, sweeping, dusting, organizing a phone tree, serving water and other ordinary tasks may keep people from sliding into an emotional abyss of helplessness.
  • Express emotions. Human emotions are okay. In fact, they are necessary. Numbness is not healthy. Don’t avoid or discourage emotions from employees. If you are uncomfortable talking about emotions, you need to identify someone who is more comfortable and delegate such interactions to that person. Do not block the healthy process of emotional recovery. You and the other managers do not need to be the “bulwark” of non-emotion, but it is also your job to lead through this adversity toward recovery. Quick check-ins with employees – without getting deeply involved in their emotions – are very helpful. This process of “defusing” emotions is a brief respite and release. Seek help if you need support. Admitting your own stress makes you more accessible. However, if you need to go deeper for your own recovery, you need to find a private place to defuse, not with the employees you manage. Let them know you are still feeling it, too, but seeking support, and it will also act as a model for them to reach out for help if they need it.
  • Communicate openly. Your employees can handle facts better than innuendo. Share information, listen, wait, exchange ideas, avoid rumors, seek facts, present facts, and offer patience, peace, procedures, and protocol. Be as transparent as possible until things settle back into the new normal. During and after major disasters, the constant theme of survivors is the anxiety of trying to know the latest news, when dozens of people hold bits and pieces of information. It is better to say, “I don’t know, but I’ll find out as soon as I can,” than to say, “I have no clue” and leave people in the dark with no sense of leadership. Expect people to be distracted. If your disaster is receiving ongoing media coverage, you may want to have a television in the office for a few days for people to watch as they work. Expect random outbreaks of group talking when incidents change. Don’t make employees pretend nothing happened.
  • Listen and debrief. Create opportunities for employees to be debriefed by trained employees, volunteers, professionals, or consultants specially trained in mental health disaster practices. Continue to communicate and move forward. Check in with people to see if they are moving forward, or if they are beginning to lose ground and need a different kind of intervention. Although this is a difficult time for everyone, it can be an excellent time to gain more training. Review every step, before, during, and after, with an eye on successes and areas that need improvement. Another disaster may be in the future.

Credit: Andrea Booher/FEMA

Recognize the Human Side of Preparation

When I arrived in New York City in September of 2001, I knew what my job was, even though my mind and heart were shattered by recent events. I had participated in many disaster drills, and in fact had been involved in a large multi-agency aviation disaster exercise before I was called on to go to New York.

A disaster is a complicated event affecting numerous connections, intersections, links, and systems of people, places, things, and ideas. Disasters produce changes in human emotions that are both predictable and unpredictable. The regular ways of relating do not work during or immediately following a disaster. Normal cues are missing, images are distorted, and normal emotions and thoughts are temporarily incongruent. Once you know what to expect from yourself and others in such critical circumstances, the better you will be able to manage effectively and compassionately. Key to this management process is practice. The expression “practice makes perfect” is not necessarily correct – practicing something incorrectly over and over will not correct it. The phrase should be “practice something perfectly to maintain perfection.” Practice until you discover your errors, get feedback, and make corrections, addressing the physical and emotional needs of your people.

You may remember the toy by Hasbro called “Weebles” – small people-shapes that had a rounded base so that when a child pushed the toy it would wiggle but not tip over. The line in the ad was something like, “Weebles wobble but they don’t fall down!” I call real disaster survivors “Weebles” – they are the ones who can maintain some integrity with their own emotional experience and get the job done.

About the Authors
Vali Hawkins Mitchell, PhD, LMHC, is a Certified Traumatologist. Details, instructions, plans, and examples for “emotional continuity management” in an organization can be found in her book, The Cost of Emotions in the Workplace: The Bottom Line Value of Emotional Continuity Management (Rothstein Publishing, 2013). She consults and coaches individuals and companies and has also directly supported survivors and first responders during such disasters as 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, the Indonesian tsunami, and most recently with US Military troops returning from active duty in Afghanistan. Kristen Noakes-Fry, MA, is Executive Editor at Rothstein Publishing, a division of Rothstein Associates Inc. Previously, she was a Research Director, Information Security and Risk Group, Gartner, Inc.; Associate Editor, Datapro; and Associate Professor of English, Atlantic Cape College.