Coping with Stress during Disaster Response: Anecdotal Evidence from EA Professionals Who Helped Victims of Hurricane Katrina Suggests That Paying More Attention to Job Satisfaction May Help Reduce the Impact of Burnout and Stress

Article excerpt

When a natural disaster strikes, organizations look to their employee assistance program (EAP) for guidance. During these times, EAPs are asked to do everything from provide critical incident stress debriefings (CISDs) to help manage the technological infrastructure for locating employees and deploying basic necessities.

Because of the urgency inherent in disaster response, this type of work inspires employee assistance (EA) professionals to go the extra mile to fulfll their professional mission of making a genuine, tangible difference in the lives of other human beings. Moments like these are the reason many EA professionals entered the profession, and they willingly apply their skills to meet the overwhelming needs of client organizations and their constituents.

Disaster response work, however, can have a tremendous impact on responders as well as victims. EA professionals share stories of experiencing difficulty sleeping and visualizing troubling events described to them by survivors of natural disasters. Furthermore, the literature is replete with warnings about the dangers of stress, burnout, and compassion fatigue for service workers.

While these outcomes are damaging to the health and well-being of EA professionals, they can also prove detrimental to the quality of care provided to clients and can have a negative impact on the confidence that work organizations have in our profession. Consequently, it is vital for every EA professional to be aware of the potential emotional impact of disaster response and the skills and tools that can help us manage these stressors.


After the 2005 hurricane season ended, I was curious about the types of stress experienced by EA professionals who had responded to these disasters and the effectiveness of the coping skills they had used to minimize the stress. I organized small, informal discussion groups of EA professionals who had provided telephonic assistance to victims of Hurricane Katrina. I gathered anecdotal information from them about the stressors and coping skills and compared it with data from the literature. I am presenting it here in an effort to start a professional dialogue about how to provide the best service to our clients by first providing the best care for ourselves.

Stressors. The EA professionals in the discussion groups reported several different stressors that accompanied their response to Hurricane Katrina. Some of the stressors seemed to emanate from the unique challenges presented by the sheer scope of the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina; others seemed related to the well-documented concepts of role stressors and secondary traumatic stress.

The response to Hurricane Katrina was unique because the storm overwhelmed traditional community resources and destroyed telephone systems. Consequently, clients would wait in line for hours to use a working telephone to call their EAP for help, only to learn they had already contacted the resources being recommended to them and had not received any help. This caused clients to feel frustrated and disappointed and was very disheartening to the responding EA professionals. Many discussion group participants reported feeling powerless following these interactions with clients.

As would be expected, some stressors seemed related to secondary traumatic stress. Group participants reported experiencing troubling visualizations of the events described to them. For those who had responded to other large-scale crises, Katrina triggered some flashback-like memories of previous response efforts, prompting comparisons between the various events. Many EA professionals reported that the combination of media coverage of the event and the day-to-day interaction with the survivors was emotionally exhausting.

The concept of secondary traumatic stress is fairly well-documented in the literature. One can find many studies under the headings secondary traumatic stress, compassion fatigue, and vicarious traumatization. …