Additional tips for Human Resource personnel

When supporting the supporters in disaster recovery, these are the additional points interviewees made with Human Resource personnel in mind[1]. They serve as additional pointers, over and above the ’12 principles of support’ and ‘Top tips for implementation’.

Develop an understanding of disaster recovery and how this translates to teams.  Understand the typical recovery trajectories and stages. Consider how these stages also apply to those working in a post-disaster environment, with implications for team dynamics and support. Anger, fear and frustration from team members and resulting conflict is often a function of intense or cumulative stress – a survival/defense mechanism. No one is immune to stress.

Down the track you get the fatigue element which leads people to be irritable and short tempered and therefore less tolerant. Friction needs managing carefully and sensitively. The emotional climate gets very tatty in the second and third year – people get quite reactive. Dr Rob Gordon, Consultant psychologist in emergency recovery

Work to understand the local context and to form relationships and establish trust with staff and volunteers. Second an HR person to the team with a dedicated role of team support. An embedded role within the team is preferred. If embedding is not possible, find other ways to become a member of the team – attend meetings, come to retreats and planning days. 

It doesn’t help to be forced to do things we are not ready for so establish a relationship. For people to take time out needs trust and an established relationship so they will listen and not feel like it is another organisational demand. Have HR close – a representative close to the team and have them have a good sense of what is happening for the team. Dr Rob Gordon, Consultant psychologist in emergency recovery

Include staff wellbeing in all HR or occupational health and safety processes and policies. The post-disaster HR policy needs to encompass a fatigue management system. Employ multiple fatigue management methods such as healthy work hour limits, breaks, extra leave, diversity of tasks to limit time spent on the challenging aspects of the role, rotating or seconding staff out… Mandate extra leave in recognition of the stress of their role and in recognition of their own recovery-related challenges so that annual leave can be taken to refresh and maintain wellbeing as intended. Make certain leave is taken, and taken before the point of exhaustion. Ensure resourcing is in place so that people feel confident to step away from their projects or work as needed.

At the coal face you need to rest before you are exhausted. If exhausted your ability to recoup energy is less. Otherwise, the first third of leave is spent having migraines or the flu etc and is wasted. The intuitive sense is to take leave when you are exhausted. If you get to -10 in terms of energy and take leave you get back to 0, but as soon as you are working again you are already eating up your reserves. If you take leave before exhaustion, say at -5 and get to +5, then you have at least built up some reserves. Dr Rob Gordon, Consultant psychologist in emergency recovery

You need extra leave – for people working in recovery regardless if living it or not, but it is particularly pertinent for those living it. There should be a policy of extra leave for people who have been through a disaster – after all there is family violence leave, bereavement leave…. But also for people who work in it. So if you live it and work in it you get both. Kate Brady – Australian Red Cross

Additional support to leaders ‘feeling the squeeze’ - Team leaders and managers have a responsibility for supporting the wellbeing of their teams. However, during disaster recovery team leaders and managers also ‘feel the squeeze’ and will need encouragement and support to keep worker wellbeing front and centre. 

Assist team leaders with drafting role profiles and screen and select staff carefully with role boundaries, challenges and stress-management in mind. Match people carefully to roles. Help team leaders to prioritise time for planning, team building, reflection and the celebration of successes.

HR could be the people who keep an eye on the fact that the teams have opportunities to stop, meet and reflect on a regular basis and that these don’t get pushed aside for operational activity, i.e. someone who could come in to run debriefs. Dr Rob Gordon, Consultant psychologist in emergency recovery

Act as a broker. Support volunteers and staff with basic, practical needs. Link to information, resources and support.

Keep asking ‘If we had to do this over again how might we have inducted, trained or supported you? What else did you need? What could we do differently?’ and continually shape the processes and plug the gaps.

Tell us what is an issue. HR can be like a broker, knowing who to go to, linking to resources - creating capacity that way. Katie Barnett – British Red Cross

Lead the way, and bring in support – build partnerships with the likes of public health or university researchers to help create monitoring instruments or a cost-benefit case for staff support.

Assess and track staff and volunteer wellbeing and measure effectiveness of supports put in place – knowing that maintaining wellbeing (let alone increasing it) is a sign of success.

If support is working it doesn’t look like anything at all. It is a pleasant conversation once a month, but if you stop it then the problems build up. Dr Rob Gordon, Consultant psychologist in emergency recovery

Bend and flex HR processes. Flexibility with regard to working hours and conditions was considered incredibly important – such as being able to work around rebuild/repair appointments, home relocations or family commitments, the option to start later after attaining little sleep, the opportunity to work days from home if helpful.

Know that if you have selected good workers, most people working in recovery will be dedicated and the focus will need to be on ensuring they do not overwork rather than underwork. Therefore, if you select staff well, you can have confidence that you can grant flexibility of working hours and conditions with trust.

Don’t wait for things to be put in writing – exempt people from having to do this. Speed up processes – add in flexibility… flexibility re discretionary leave, and practical recognition. For example an afternoon off and time to regroup when needed. Alexina Baldini - CIMA

Look for the good worker. This is particularly true when you're not sure what you should be doing – the good worker will figure it out. Most of the good recovery workers I’ve worked with are just good workers generally. Make it easy for them to work flexibly – in my experience, they don’t exploit it, but if you hold to rigidity in your rules, it makes it harder for them to pace themselves. Kate Brady – Australian Red Cross

Standard contractual periods may not be appropriate in the recovery context. Be prepared to match contracts with a long term sustainable programme approach. Short term contracts, which are often then extended, encourage time pressures and an unsustainable pace. They also create uncertainty and anxiety for staff unnecessarily as recovery is not a short-term phenomenon. Consider longer term contracts unless the preferred candidate would rather opt for short term.

Value and support those on short term contracts as you would permanent staff.

HR is often rigid and driven by theoretical considerations into risk management and are insistent that people do things because of the risk to the organisation rather than the asset to a person’s health. Dr Rob Gordon, Consultant psychologist in emergency recovery

The HR role can be crucial. It can be the lynchpin pivoting between the individual and the organisation as a whole. Alexina Baldini - CIMA


[1]A useful reference for HR personnel supporting teams post-disaster is: Nilakant, K., Walker, B., Rochford, K., van Heugten, K. (2014). Leading in a Post-disaster setting: Guidance for human resource practitioners. New Zealand Journal of Employment Relations, 38, 1-13

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