I first met our writer today on Twitter a few years ago when she was living in the UK. A quick coffee in Wellington when she was checking it out as a place to emigrate to led to me helping her husband get a job, and a suggestion as to where they should house hunt means her family now live just up the road from mine! The power of social media.
Zoe Mounsey (@zoemounsey) explains her current role below and, with natural disasters one of the things we live in constant fear of in New Zealand, her post will resonate with anyone who dealt with staff and offices in Christchurch during and after the earthquakes.
Two worlds collide
Before I moved to New Zealand my professional focus was around change communication and organisational development. I still have an active interest in organisations and how they tick. I enjoy sharing my two penneth and learning from others through the #nzlead tweet chats, tweetups and unconferences. After getting settled in New Zealand I took a slightly different path – I am now an academic researcher focusing on people’s psychological and social needs after disasters. It’s a fascinating and very fulfilling job as well as being a great conversation starter.
When Richard asked me if I would write a post for his Christmas series I thought it was a great opportunity to bring these two areas together. I have recently written an academic paper, with Sarb Johal and Katharina Naswall, on how organisations can support employees after a disaster. While I imagine most organisations have business continuity and risk plans in place in case of disaster I wonder how many have thought about the impact on employees and how they can provide support.
The Canterbury earthquake sequence (2010/2011) brought these issues to the fore for businesses and organisations in Christchurch. Our research involved qualitative interviews with 11 nurses to explore the personal and professional challenges they were facing. As a result of these interviews we collected data on how organisations were supporting their employees as well as suggestions for how they could do it better. While the research focuses on those in a caring profession and on a public sector organisation, the findings have wider relevance.
Natural disasters can have a significant impact on organisations and may result in employees having to relocate, work with reduced resources and with increased exposure to distressed clients. In addition employees may be experiencing other stresses such as worry about family members, home damage/insurance issues and longer/different commutes. These stresses can make it challenging for people to focus on their roles – at a time when organisations most need their employees. So what can organisations do to support their employees?
Flexibility – the research indicated that the nurses really appreciated it when their organisations were flexible and allowed them time off to deal with family and/or housing issues
Practical support – simple things like being able to take a shower at work were welcomed by those who lost water and power at home, providing advice sessions on financial issues and insurance process were also helpful
Communication – being able to communicate easily with family members was critical especially given the number of aftershocks experienced and some organisations changed their cell phone usage policies to support this
Emotional Support – many employees had access to Employee Assistance Programmes and counselling services and while this was welcomed most of the nurses said that peer support from colleagues was most important. Organisations enabled this process by making sure there was time for people to talk through their experiences at team meetings, shared lunches etc
Feeling understood – having senior managers and supervisors who had been in Christchurch during the earthquake was beneficial as the nurses felt that their issues and difficulties were better understood
A key problematic issues raised by the research was that of the organisations’ expectations as the nurses were not always sure of what was expected of them during an earthquake – where they allowed to leave work or did they have to stay? Clear communication about what was expected would have reduced the nurses’ anxiety. The research also highlighted the need for support to last beyond the first few months, especially if job demands increase due to staff shortages and increased need. In the caring professions there is a significant risk of compassion fatigue and burnout so organisational support and self-care are critical.
In many ways I feel the research points out the obvious – treat people with compassion while they are going through a difficult period, listen to people about what would make their lives easier and be flexible – but I think it is easy to forget this after a disaster. The recent #nzlead unconferences focused on ‘humane workplaces’ – I think demonstrating humanity and compassion towards employees is essential following a disaster.
Thank you Richard for letting me share my work. Merry Christmas all!