Assisting Rural Employees Following Critical Events: Businesses in Rural Areas Can Help Employees Recover from Traumatic Incidents by Building on Local Social Networks, Educating Workers about Post-Disaster Stress, and Coordinating with Community Organizations

Article excerpt

Following natural disasters, terrorist attacks, or episodes of workplace violence, many people experience significant stressors, including economic loss, loss of life, and family conflict, and psychological reactions such as depression, anger, and anxiety In the workplace, these stressors and reactions may lead to reduced productivity, missed workdays, conflict between employees, low morale, and concerns about job security.

Although these reactions are common to people living and working in all geographic and social environments, individuals and businesses in rural communities face unique challenges during the recovery process. Because of their remote locations and limited resources, rural communities recover from disasters quite differently than do urban communities (Stamm 2002).

Rural America represents a significant demographic in the United States--approximately four-fifths of U.S. land is classified as rural, and nearly 60 million Americans (roughly 20 percent) live in rural communities--but a disadvantaged one as well. Its residents are more likely to experience economic hardship and poverty, have unmet health care needs, and lack insurance, each of which can impede recovery from disasters (Rost, Fortney, and Smith 2002).

In addition, although rates of mental health disorders are generally the same for rural and urban residents (Rost et al. 2002), residents of rural areas often encounter barriers to accessing mental health treatment. These barriers include fewer mental health providers in rural areas (e.g., fewer than 20 percent of the most rural counties have mental health providers), a lack of specialty services such as child psychology, the need to travel long distances to receive care, inadequate insurance coverage for mental health, and rural social stigmas that dissuade community members from seeking help for mental health-related concerns (Center for Mental Health Services 1997; Holzer, Goldsmith, and Ciarlo 2000; National Rural Health Association 1999; Office of Rural Health Policy 2002).

As a result, in many rural areas, primary care doctors serve as a mental health resource for their patients. If the need for mental health services arises, as it does following disasters and other community tragedies, barriers to mental health care in rural areas can be magnified and can impede community-wide psychological recovery.

Traditional rural values may also affect recovery from traumatic incidents. People in rural communities may prefer talking to local providers and trusted community members and often form a "trauma membrane" after critical events that may be hard to penetrate (Lindy 1985). Outside agencies and professionals may find it difficult to be accepted, as residents may question whether these people share their values, understand their way of life, or know what is good for them.

In addition, rural residents may fear being stigmatized if they seek help for stress and may be reluctant to accept assistance. Seeking help may be seen as a weakness among rural residents, who often pride themselves in being self-sufficient. Employers in rural areas should consider what resources they can provide for their employees after a critical event, as employees may find it easier to accept and seek help from someone they know and trust than from people outside the community.

HELPING EMPLOYEES

One resource that businesses in rural communities can draw upon is the presence of close-knit family and community social networks. Social support for affected individuals is an important aspect of recovery following critical events (Barling et al. 2002), and many rural residents have close ties to people in their communities, neighborhoods, and workplaces (Jackson and Cook 1999).

Rural employers also can help organize interested employees to assist in business or community recovery efforts, which can provide workers with a feeling of control over their recovery Fostering a sense of control over recovery is especially important following terrorist events or workplace violence, as employees may perceive they have less control in these situations (Barfing et al. …