A pair of devastating storms, Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma, have affected millions of people and cost billions in damages. Those disasters also are putting employers in a difficult position of leading a workforce through a crisis. But there are some ways to help.

One of the best tools available to employers in times of crisis is an employee assistance program. The EAP can provide employers and employees with the tools and resources to address immediate needs and build resilience in the face of disaster.

Rescuers in a boat help trapped residents escape from rising floodwaters due to Hurricane Harvey in Spring, Texas.
Rescuers in a boat help trapped residents escape from rising floodwaters due to Hurricane Harvey in Spring, Texas. Bloomberg News

From professional counseling to helping locate loved ones across the country, there are a wide range of EAP crisis support services that employers can share with all employees and family members affected. Those include:

· Emotional support for dealing with traumatic events

· Emergency referrals for basic needs including shelter, food and clothing

· Emergency pet care and boarding

· Community-based resources

· Locating loved ones

· Charitable giving opportunities

While EAP clinicians are on hand to provide immediate emotional support to the workforce and families, and work-life specialists are ready to provide referrals to any emergency resources, housing, or other specific needs, there are also a variety of support offerings included in an EAP’s critical incident response service.

· Unlimited crisis consultation

· Onsite critical incident stress debriefings (CISDs)

· Crisis communications for distribution

· Crisis outreach messages for social media

· Disaster planning, prevention and threat assessment consultation

· Coordination with management and first responders to provide support

Critical incident stress debriefings

Management is expected to lead in times of crisis, and if there is a natural disaster that has caused evident signs of distress, impairment or dysfunction among the workforce, a formal critical incident intervention can effectively help address concerns. Led by an EAP mental health professional, a CISD is a small group supportive crisis intervention process that provides a safe environment for group members to share emotional reactions, learn coping strategies and begin to foster a sense of resiliency in the aftermath of a traumatic incident.

It is to both the employees’ and employer’s benefit to help workers manage the impact of natural disasters and critical incidents. Research indicates that when employees are exposed to a critical incident that is dealt with inappropriately, these employees are more likely to experience an increase in personal and health-related problems, and are at greater risk of using more sick days, having lower productivity or leaving their employment following the critical incident.

Crisis communication is key

To reach the maximum number of employees and family members impacted by a natural disaster, it is important for management to communicate support services available across every channel, including social media, text, online, direct email and phone.

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A stand-alone EAP that includes comprehensive crisis support services should also offer immediate crisis communications, including content and messaging around support services available to all employees and family members, management tools and information for leading in times of crisis, emergency resource blogs and materials, and promotion of any onsite CISDs available.

Choosing an EAP partner to help in critical situations

Are all family members covered, regardless of location? Are onsite critical incident stress debriefings included in the EAP plan at no extra cost? Are crisis communications provided by the EAP, or only offered at an additional fee? These are just a few of the important questions to consider when choosing an EAP partner that can be most helpful in critical situations.

In recent years, many employers have looked at free, or embedded, EAPs as a way to save costs in employee benefits, but often overlook the high costs of additional fees in critical incident response support, onsite services, and travel costs for clinicians and trainers. These fees from embedded EAPs can quickly add up to tens of thousands of dollars, or up to nearly three times the annual cost of the program, after just one traumatic incident or natural disaster.

In a time when partnership and support is needed most, the last thing an employer wants to face is hidden costs and high fees for service. An established stand-alone EAP often includes comprehensive critical incident response and crisis support in all plan designs.

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Ann D. Clark

Ann D. Clark

Clark, Ph.D., is the founder and CEO of ACI Specialty Benefits, an employee assistance program and provider of work-life, concierge and student assistance program benefits and perks for customers worldwide.