How to Offer Employees Comfort & Assistance After Tragedy

May 20th, 2013 forever changed my life. You see I live in Moore, Oklahoma, and for a period of several hours did not know if my home was left standing. Thankfully, my home, me and my family were unharmed. My storage unit with many of our treasures was not. We were one of the lucky ones. I live just 3 blocks from where the deadliest tornado carved a path of destruction in the United States. I couldn’t leave my home for three days. Law enforcement and the national guard had closed down my street. I was left feeling helpless and also incredibly guilty because I didn’t lose my home like so many friends and neighbors had. Looking back I realize now I had survivor’s remorse as well as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Tornados in particular are my trigger. Last night I dealt with a large amount of increased stress and a great deal of panic when I learned there was a tornado watch in November which is crazy. I didn’t sleep much, but we are safe which is key.

These traumatic life events whether it be the recent Paris Attacks, a tornado, military returning from active duty, and other disaster like flooding in Austin, Texas, which happened twice earlier this year happen. It’s called life. We move on with our lives or more likely moves forward sometimes not with us in tow. The stress and the panic from traumatic events never really leaves. It can have psychological and physical repercussions we don’t always understand, realize or see.

Maybe you have a group of employees who relocated from France over the course of their life. Maybe there are many close friends or family members who still live near where the attacks took place. Maybe an employee is a highly sensitive individual who reacts to this tragedy in a different way. They are connected to the terrorist attacks in a way you are not. Maybe some of your employees haven’t been back to Paris to visit family in 10 years. That simple fact doesn’t matter. They are connected. They are experiencing a life event that can catapult them into a depression, physical or psychological health problems. We need to consider this and consider offering employee assistance days, weeks, months and even years after a traumatic life event. It’s the right thing.

The Importance Offering Employee Assistance in the Wake of Tragedy

Personal tragedy is well, personal. People who are employees of your organization heal, grow and move on at different paces. There is no normal for this kind of thing which is why EAP short for Employee Assistance Program is key.

An Employee Assistance Program is an established process where an employer provides an employee access to resources. Often times you use a third party company to manage the EAP allowing for privacy and confidentiality. It can be as simple using a third party that has a 1-800 number and you, as the HR leader make sure the EAP information is communicated to employees and prominently displayed.

I’ve used a therapist through my company’s EAP while going through a divorce. I made a simple phone call to the EAP and was referred to a resource where I received a free initial meeting with the therapist and a discount so that I’m not increasing my stress over money.

Traumatic Life Events Can Trigger Diagnosis Like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

Because how we experience and copy with traumatic events, it’s important to have an employee assistance program that is flexible to suit each and every individual’s needs. Diagnoses including PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) impact everyone differently. There is no one size fits all time, program or process overcoming or managing  grief, a personal or life crisis or dealing with a traumatic event like the May 20th tornado of what happened last week in Paris, France. It’s been almost three years since the tornado and 11 years since leaving my now ex-husband and domestic abuser. I am still processing and overcoming events, situations and remembering repression memories. As I mentioned, I am certain I have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder although I haven’t been diagnosed medically.

I don’t share all these personal things about me and my life to make you feel sorry for me. I tell you because everyone needs time, support and resources to overcome what life throws at us. We all have life challenges we’re struggling with and demons to overcome. Many people aren’t as forthcoming to share their personal tragedies and skeletons in their closet like me. Let me be clear I don’t consider these life challenges to be personal skeletons at all. These challenges and life situations I’ve encountered have made me stronger. While I never wanted them to happen, I understand that overcoming these life tragedies made the person I am today. I’d like to think you want that kind of grit and determination from your employees.

This is why I’m thankful that employers offer things like the Family Medical Leave Act, bereavement leave and an employee assistance program. However, all these things mean nothing if an organization, its leadership team including front line managers doesn’t provide support for the staff. They can’t and shouldn’t make judgments. They  aren’t psychologists or medical experts who have years of medical training to understand these things. Let’s leave the assumptions and diagnosis to the real experts so HR and company leadership can focus on providing a supportive and inclusive work environment that helps us get the best work and production out of our employees.

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Jessica Miller-Merrell

Jessica Miller-Merrell (@jmillermerrell) is a workplace change agent, author and consultant focused on human resources and talent acquisition living in Austin, TX. Recognized by Forbes as a top 50 social media influencer and is a global speaker. She’s the founder of Workology, a workplace HR resource and host of the Workology Podcast.


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