Returning Home After Disaster Relief Work
U.S. DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration
Many people who are involved, either directly or indirectly, in disaster work find it to be a unique blend of stressors and rewards. Both are typically powerful parts of the experience. After deployment, many workers have found the return to normal duties to be a complicated, prolonged, and difficult process. While some were deployed, others maintained the ongoing operation of the office. They too have experienced additional unexpected and unwelcomed demands possibly resulting in stress. This brochure is intended to assist supervisors in easing transition, reducing potential difficulties, and enhancing the positive consequences for the work unit.
During disaster response and recovery efforts, your employees most likely worked under less than desirable conditions while taking care of others. Before they return to normal duties, you will want to offer your employees self-care tips to help them readjust to worklife. These include the following:
Upon returning to their routine duties, your employees may notice changes in themselves, coworkers, or their work environment. The following are a few examples of potential difficulties your employees may face and some tips on how you, as a supervisor, can help to overcome them.
Pace change - The disaster environment often moves at a pace that is much faster than the normal workplace. After working in a disaster response environment, this pace begins to feel normal. When returning to normal work, it may appear that people are moving at a much slower pace than before. It is easy to misinterpret this as laziness or lack of caring or motivation.
Unrelenting fatigue - Even with what seems like sufficient sleep, deployed workers may experience chronic fatigue. Sometimes chronic stress results in never feeling rested. Chronic fatigue may also be a result of a medical condition.
Cynicism - Typically, during disaster work one sees the best and the worst in individuals and systems and it is easy to become cynical. This is expected. These feelings often diminish over time once a worker is able to focus on the positive results of his or her work.
Dissatisfaction with routine work - It is very rewarding to be involved, directly or indirectly, in saving lives and protecting our fellow citizen's health and safety. Most work does not provide such dramatic and immediate reinforcement. Deployed workers might start seeing their daily work routine as lacking meaning and satisfaction. These feelings are normal.
Easily evoked emotions - Sometimes the combination of intense experiences, fatigue, and/or stress leaves deployed workers especially vulnerable to unexpected emotions. For example, they may cry easily, be quick to anger, or experience dramatic mood swings. These are normal reactions that typically subside over time. In the meantime, be aware of their reactions, discuss their experiences, and be sensitive of comments that might be hurtful or upsetting to others.
Relating our experiences - Though an employee may want to share his or her experiences with others, he or she may be unsure if it is appropriate. This is normal.
Difficulties with colleagues and supervisors - Deployed workers may not experience a welcome back from their colleagues and supervisors that meets his or her expectations. Coworkers may resent having to assume additional workloads, may not understand the difficulty of the work the responder did, or may resent the recognition that the responder receives.
Cultural issues - Culture affects how an individual reacts to trauma. For example, showing emotion, discussing problems with others, or touching is acceptable with some groups and not with others. On the basis of this understanding, it is important to appreciate and respect these differences.
Remember, stress is a normal reaction to abnormal situations like disasters. If your employees experience the following signs of persistent or severe stress, ask them to seek help from a licensed mental health professional.
Sometimes it may be difficult to determine if what your workers are experiencing is a result of a physical illness or stress (or both). In some disaster situations, workers may have been exposed to infectious disease and/or environmental exposure that may result in signs and symptoms similar to stress. When in doubt, encourage employees to go see a health care professional.
Help workers find ways to use their disaster experience to better understand themselves - Deployed workers have had an experience/opportunity that not many people have had. During that experience they undoubtedly learned things about themselves. What stresses them most? What were they able to handle in ways that surprised themselves? What unrecognized skills/talents did they discover? What did they learn about how you function in extreme environments?
Find ways to use their disaster experience to enhance job function - A deployed worker's normal job role probably does not involve disaster response.
What skills/knowledge did they bring from their normal role that was helpful? What skills/knowledge/perspective did they gain from the disaster deployment that can enhance normal job function? Did his or her experience point them in directions in which he or she would like to move professionally or did it make them cognizant of assignments he or she would like to seek or avoid?
Supervisors can be very helpful in helping returning workers gain perspective on their disaster response experience, minimize adverse consequences for both the individual and the workplace, and help workers grow both personally and professionally from the experience. Supervisors may consider discussing these issues in large or small groups or individually with workers.
Supervisors may consider the following:
If you feel you need additional information, you may find this list of resources to be helpful.
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