Risks of not supporting the supporters

For the supporter:

Below is a list of risks identified from this research, followed by direct quotes from those who have worked in disaster recovery.

Damaged by the experience

Worker injury

Effects on general health – both short and long term


Exacerbation of pre-disaster injuries or health conditions

Mental health impacts

Eating disorders

Decreased energy and vitality

Chronic fatigue

Feeling they have aged incredibly

Weight gain or loss

Drug or alcohol abuse

Increased smoking

Sleep problems – inability to switch off

Large chunk of their life where lost a sense of happiness or quality of life

Decreased faith in humanity


Feeling devalued

Bitter disappointment

Compassion fatigue

Vicarious/secondary trauma

Pessimism, cynicism, bitterness

Diminished trust and faith in institutions




Feeling trapped by community need

Feeling torn between competing rolesPoor decision making



Lost ability to monitor own expenditure of energy and exhaustion levels

Diminished confidence in own abilities


Social isolation

Emotionally drained

Feeling untrusted

Feeling uncared for

Relationships suffer – divorce, availability for children, conflict in the family, connection in community

Parental guilt

Negative impacts for children

Intensity of emotional environment leading to affairs and costing marriages

Loss of a sense of community

Creates a backlog of neglected tasks

Unable to do this work in the future – ending or changing career

Sacrificed own personal needs and goals leading to extreme disorientation

If social supports strained and turn to organisation for support which they don’t receive then the worker is as vulnerable and isolated as those they are supporting

The residents

Damage to clients

Frustration of constant staff turnover

Decreased ability to provide support 5 years on

Prolonged recovery and the associated impact on wellbeing, quality of life and productivity

The people we support begin taking on our stress – worry about us

Exacerbated rather than reduced disaster impacts

Diminished capacity of community leaders and volunteers affects the glue of communities

Diminished community capacity

The team/project/organisation

Negatively affects organisational mission


Poor decision making

Worker attrition

Constant change leads to short term thinking

Feeling overwhelmed led to prematurely shutting down the programme

Decreased quality of support

Function less effectively

Decreased productivity

Decreased efficiency

Closed thinking

Co-dependency, loss of separation, boundary blur

Lose connection with the community

Workforce has a breaking point

Lose your best people

The money invested in the programme lacks quality

Increased sick leave

Impacts potential for sourcing future funding

Loss of valuable experience and knowledge

Inability to recruit

Legal liability – failing to meet duty of care

Lost connection and loyalty to the organisation – a sense of hypocrisy

Deteriorated atmosphere/ culture

Staff burnout

Guilt and worry about the staff

Cost of counselling and remedial support costs

Decreased resourcing capacity – eg less ability to recruit volunteers

Employee and volunteer turnover

Constantly inducting new staff, bringing them up to date with the where we are at and why

Breach of trust in the community when expectations are not met

Loss of community support to organisation due to view of how staff are supported

Decreased sector resilience and loss of knowledge within the sector as people leave

Staff ‘go rogue’ – they implement decisions locally under the radar

Reduced capacity for other programmes

Reduced integrity of the project and reduced likelihood of meeting goals

Loss of perspective

Team dysfunction

Short fuse with the community

Diminished energy meets less capacity for consultation and collaboration

Withdraw (barricade in office and make themselves unavailable) due to being overwhelmed

Loss of volunteers

Promotion of burnt out staff infects others with cynicism


Quotes on risks:


The risk to the person is considerable and self-evident. The risk to the organisational reputation is enormous and affects the potential to be able to do this in the future. And damage to the people we are supposed to be supporting when our workers are burnt out, cynical, jaded, tired. The damage is far worse than most other hazards, worse than serving up off food if someone is not faring well in a position influencing the support people get. Kate Brady – Australian Red Cross

I have a Dr Seuss book, which I read to my oldest kids. My youngest Jack was about to turn one at the time of the fires and he was five before I realised I hadn't read him any Dr Seuss books. I had been so preoccupied. The toll is huge. Anon – Kinglake Ranges

It is devastating not to get support. When your lived experience doesn't match up to the structure it feels like your fault. The organisation is a touchstone and if it doesn't recognise what your experience actually means you internalise it, all the grief and stress. Anne Leadbeater – Kinglake Ranges

Our family.... When we are time poor, the people who suffer the most are the ones we love and are closer to us because we think they can cope with it. It is easier to say no to family than a stranger or someone in need. Anon– Kinglake Ranges

I don't socialise the way I used to. I have an anxiety level that rises when I go and see long-term friends as the conversation always comes back to my job.... My family don't understand why I'm sh**ty. Why you can't watch the news because it makes you cry... Jodie Bowker – formerly of EACH, Victoria

You have to find time and energy to train a member of the team and start with lessons learned all over again. They will be naive and make mistakes and it will take a full year for them to understand what's really going on.Jill Hofmann – American Red Cross

The risk is that if it is true that the bar for staff care is starting to rise, then you're behind the curve. You lose the best people and you can't recruit the best people. Dr James Guy – Headington Institute

My four year old daughter, she was very attached to me and I wasn't there. The stress of normalcy gone and on top of that I wasn't there. As stressful as it is for you it is for them too. In emergency management there is the message to make sure your family is safe before doing EM work, but you also have to deal with them after the disaster – they have needs too. You have to take care of them long-term, it is not a short-term thing. Scott Kemins - Building Commissioner, Long Island

Vicarious trauma. In a traumatised environment they are hearing stories and seeing images and have immersed themselves in it and opened their hearts up to those victimised and so they are victimised themselves. Reactions are almost as strong as the reactions of the victims themselves. Dr James Guy – Headington Institute

I have lost hope for the organisation. If there were other opportunities I would change role. I like the content of the job, but not the organisation. Anon - Japan

Actually I don't think the costs are fully known yet. There are health issues, but what other bigger issues will there be arising another five years down the track? Anon – Kinglake Ranges

They are so tired. They forget how to be empathic and effective. For years they are not bright, sparky people. People saying, "I didn't smoke before this," now they are chain-smoking. A whole town of people who put on or lost lots of weight. A whole lot of people who no longer seem to fit their skin. Their pallor is off and their hair and nails are not shiny. Kate Brady – Australian Red Cross

Committee support. The fabric of community is impacted by everyone being stretched. When you need people to circle the wagons, you haven't got capacity. Anne Leadbeater – Kinglake Ranges

It is so much easier to deal with someone else's stuff than your own so it postpones your own recovery work. It is easier to prioritise someone else's needs or fill in forms and applications for anyone else. Sylvia Thomas - COGA, Kinglake

If you don't value staff they become existentially wounded. "I worked my guts out for my organisation and they don't recognise it..." Accumulated grief of not being valued, expertise not being listened to, competence... The effect is distress. Dr Rob Gordon - Consultant psychologist in emergency recovery

I volunteer because I like to do it, I get reward from it and would like to be able to continue to do it. If I can't then for me it is a loss of community. If I cannot contribute then it is another loss. Fiona Leadbeater – Kinglake

The toll on staff is monumental and the toll on clients for not having staff available is insurmountable. Jill Hofmann – American Red Cross

You lose the best people. We burnout the people who are most idealistic and visionary, and you hate to lose these people. Dr James Guy – Headington Institute

The workforce has a breaking point – the person who is your biggest asset today could drop out tomorrow. Valerie Cole – American Red Cross

Your worse self comes out if you are not taken care of. We can hide unhelpful traits when cared for well. But if we are frustrated with the organisation, the frustration comes out somewhere - with beneficiaries or your family. For most people it will affect the way they look at the person they are supposed to help. Prejudice or the mentality, "it cannot be that bad. Other people are worse off. Get yourself together"... When they are not looked after you see all this. Louise Steen Kryger – IFRC PS Centre

Staff and volunteers both departed after Katrina, Oklahoma City... We lose people who have it in their heads, how to do this, we lose expertise to mentor other people and develop policies for next time. Diane Ryan – American Red Cross

There is a liability issue if an employee ever sues. It is only a matter of time – there is enough research and data around standards of care. Dr James Guy – Headington Institute

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