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The aftermath of Katrina: HR lessons learned

Is your HR department prepared to handle a disaster? Many companies have disaster plans, but few anticipated the breadth and the scope of the challenges posed by Katrina. Do you have key functions protected with cross-training? If you lost all power and phone service, how would you communicate with employees? How would you pay people if your current service became non-operational? The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) explores these and other readiness issues in an article entitled Hurricane Katrina's Hard-earned Lessons for HR.

The article also discusses the results of a recent Disaster Planning survey conducted by the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans. Among the findings we found noteworthy:

  • The most common provisions in a disaster plan to aid employees are access to counseling or an employee assistance program (51%) and emergency payroll distribution or cash advances (47%).
  • Although 34% of our respondents have both communicated their disaster plan to employees and implemented an exercise or drill to test the plan, 26% of respondents have neither communicated nor tested the plan.

Workforce Management also explores the challenges that employers face in the article, One Year After Katrina, New Orleans Employers See Operations in New Light. The article uses specific case examples with several companies based on their actual post-Katrina experience. Here's an excerpt:

"Employers such as Sodexho, State Farm, Entergy and Tulane University struggled with common post-hurricane issues for their workers. They had to find emergency and temporary housing, provide financial assistance, extend health insurance and other benefits beyond the usual sign-up dates, relocate personnel and put people back to work.
These organizations, and quite possibly every business and institution in the city, have documented the lessons learned and are developing plans for the future so they won’t be unprepared should another catastrophe hit. For Sodexho and State Farm, the effort closely follows disaster planning, whereas Entergy and Tulane have made more structural business changes."

Beyond business: the psychological aftermath
Besides the issues of planning for business continuity, employee communication, workforce management, and payroll and benefits distribution, one of the most pressing issues facing HR departments is helping employees with the psychological and emotional toll that a disaster leaves in its wake. Typically, about 10 percent of the population experiences Post Traumatic Stress Disorder at some point. With a crisis of this magnitude, experts are stymied about predicting the scope and breadth of the psychological aftermath. Clearly, many survivors are still suffering and the psychological toll is widespread.

Many experts think that this week's anniversary could trigger renewed trauma. And with the double whammy of the 9/11 anniversary following so closely on the heels of the Katrina anniversary, HR managers should be particularly attuned to signs of stress in affected work populations. It's a good time to remind your employees of available help, such as EAP and other counseling services.

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