Disaster Preparedness in the 21st Century: EAPs Can Play a Vital Role in Protecting and Sustaining the Human Capital and Continuity of Our Nation's Workplaces in the Face of Disaster and Terrorism

Article excerpt

This fall marks the fifth anniversary of the terrorist attacks of September 2001 and the now-often-forgotten anthrax mailings. In the five years since, the United States has experienced one of the worst natural disasters in its history, Hurricane Katrina, and now faces the threat of an avian flu pandemic.

With the memory of these events fresh in mind, many EAPs are wondering how they can better serve employers and employees before, during, and after future disasters and terrorist events. Workplace preparedness is an integral part of our nation's health, and the workplace is often a primary source for health information (Ursano 2002). Two times as many individuals experiencing persistent distress after the attacks of September 2001 accessed information at work rather than from a medical practitioner, and over three times as many sought information and counseling at work rather than from a mental health provider in a community setting (Stein et al. 2003). There is increasing evidence that workplace health promotion activities and programs can change behavior and psychosocial risk factors for individual employees and the collective employee population (Institute of Medicine 2003).

One question that needs to be asked is whether any changes in health services or behavioral health risk management are necessary in light of the risks the world now faces. Large-scale, catastrophic events require population-based responses, which represent a departure from the traditional EAP delivery model (Ursano, Fullerton, and Norwood 2003). A recent study by the Center for the Study of Traumatic Stress, Workplace Preparedness for Terrorism: Report of Findings to the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, informs this perspective.

The CSTS analyzes the psychological and behavioral effects and health consequences of exposure to disaster (including war and terrorism) from the cellular level to its impact on individuals, communities, and the nation. Since 1987 the center has been actively engaged in workplace disaster research, education, and consultation to both private and public employers and has collaborated with federal, state, and local agencies to foster organizational planning, response, and recovery around natural disasters, terrorist incidents, and pandemics.

To compile Workplace Preparedness for Terrorism, CSTS researchers engaged a diverse sample of U.S. corporations and conducted site visits and semi-structured interviews of business professionals, including chief executives, directors of corporate security, employee assistance, medical offices, human resources, and communications, and line managers. Based on these interviews and site visits, the CSTS developed recommendations and identified areas for action and further study.

In June, the CSTS held a national conference that brought together experts in the behavioral implications of disaster preparedness, response, and recovery and workplace professionals representing a wide range of organizational functions (e.g., employee assistance, security, human resources, and occupational health). The conference further developed the information base and disseminated knowledge on workplace disaster planning and preparedness.


The primary purpose of the study and conference was to identify barriers to, and opportunities for, advancing the human continuity aspects of employee preparedness in large corporations. Ensuring human continuity in the workplace is at the core of ensuring operational continuity Human continuity planning must address (1) the threats to an organization, (2) the level of employee preparedness, (3) overall employee health and performance, and (4) leadership functions necessary to sustain organizational resilience in the face of disasters and terrorist actions (see Table 1).

The events of September 2001 demonstrated that a healthy and resilient workforce is essential to reestablishing an organization's infrastructure and productivity, Thus, human continuity is a "bottom line" economic issue for an organization, a point that EAPs can be instrumental in conveying to upper levels of management. …