Study Examines Effects of Hurricane Fatigue on Employees, Businesses in Florida

The results of study on hurricane fatigue associated with the 2004 series of Florida hurricanes illustrated a clear link between occupational health and wellness programs and the level of disaster preparedness and disaster mitigation.

The study, conducted by Comprehensive Health Services (CHS), investigated the social and emotional impact of the series of hurricanes within the framework of a business as a hurricane victim, made up of individuals who were also hurricane victims. The organization studied is an occupational health company that has one office located in Cape Canaveral on one of the barrier islands in Brevard County. Over 40 people, most residents of Brevard County and who lived in areas under mandatory evacuation during Hurricanes Frances and Jeanne, staff the company's office.

Company operations had to be interrupted while buildings and equipment were secured. The office and warehouse were under mandatory evacuation at least twice. Frances and Jeanne caused water damage to the building. Electricity was out for several days. In spite of all this, the business had to ensure that their customers did not suffer any interruption in service.

Since high employee stress levels have been shown to have a negative impact on company operations and profitability, occupational health and wellness programs strive to mitigate the effects of stress. Disaster preparedness - planning, practice and communication - benefits companies by decreasing both employee and management stress. Lower stress usually results in decreased lost hours of work, continuity of services, and decreased cost of recovery, as well as generates a higher level of employee loyalty and cooperation - before, during and after a crisis. Disaster preparedness sustains occupational health goals by addressing employee support in terms of the safety of the work location, as well as physical, mental and emotional considerations during times of crisis, particularly when employees are experiencing the disaster both at home and at work.

"Our goal for this project was to examine the effects of hurricane fatigue on a business whose employees were undergoing the same disaster response experience both at home and at work," said Cheryl Chang, paper co-author and CHS project coordinator. "What we found is that if the company makes a concerted effort to take care of its employees, the employees are dedicated to taking care of the company. This was most successful when supported by established occupational health and wellness programs."

According to the study, management was most impressed with the cooperation of all of the employees and felt that this was the main reason the company was able to meet all of its contractual requirements with no interruptions in service to its customers. However, even while business was getting done, employees showed signs of hurricane-related distress, intensified by the overlap of four distinct phases typical of this syndrome. The authors adopted the definition of Hurricane-Related Distress as described by Dr. Charles Figley of the Florida State University Traumatology Institute, which is:

  • Phase I: Anticipation and Preparation - lasts from warning to impact (if any) of the storm;
  • Phase II: Disaster Impact (DI) - lasts as long as there is perceived immediate danger;
  • Phase III: Immediate Post-Disaster Impact - starts with return to a sense of safety and ends with a sense of normality (or new normality);
  • Phase IV: Long-term Post-Disaster Impact - longest phase, associated with creating a new normal, grieving the losses, thankful it was not worse, potential growth, and efforts to recover by drawing upon personal and social resources.

Figley also noted that if there is an overlap in recovery phases, (for example, Phase IV of Charley, Phase III of Frances, and Phase I of Ivan), it could result in Hurricane Stress Fatigue for those most affected.

The authors noted that while the company became more efficient in dealing with the hurricanes, individual stress and fatigue levels increased with each successive storm.

"We observed that employees became quieter, more robotic and weary with every hurricane," said Kaye Whitson, paper co-author and a CHS nurse. "With each successive storm, there was a progressively diminished ability to deal with the emotions of excitement, fear, sense of uncertainty, stress, and fatigue that were all described as being heightened during this hurricane season."

Among the recommendations that came out of the study, effective communication, established occupational health programs and disaster plan practice were key to mitigating the effects of the crisis on both the business and individual employees. The authors observed that companies should perform risk analyses and evaluate areas of vulnerability that are specific to their location and situation, and that crisis plans must be subject to updating and refinement based on experience and changing circumstances.

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