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Compound natural disasters emerge as new HR risk

Compounding natural disasters is something businesses will need to plan for. Employees face physical recovery and mental health issues, affecting work performance.

Employers have long helped employees deal with natural disasters, but climate change might be making that job harder. That's because of compound natural disasters, which are multiple disasters, one following the other or happening all at once.

For HR departments, the problem of compound natural disasters means that employees might be dealing with ongoing physical recovery issues as well as persistent anxiety that hurts their performance at work. This could be a problem for any size company with remote workers scattered throughout the U.S.

The rising risk from natural disasters -- everything from record-setting heat to extreme rain and storms -- could change how the HR department uses employee assistance program benefits and include tools that can help monitor health on the job.

A good example of compounding disasters is what happened in the city of Lake Charles, La., over a period of two years, said Derek Ortt, senior tropical meteorologist at StormGeo, which provides forecasts and continuity planning for businesses.

Hurricane Laura, a Category 4 storm in 2020, made a direct hit on Lake Charles just a few months after the COVID-19 lockdowns began.

"Before that area was even close to being recovered from Laura, yet another hurricane, Delta, impacted the area," Ortt said. And in February 2021, that region was affected by a deep freeze, cold enough to burst pipes.

With many employees working remotely, response plans "need to account for potential disruption for remote workers," he said.

This disaster preparedness might involve moving employees and their families to an alternate work location to not only keep them safe, but enable them "to remain productive during the disaster," Ortt said.

But remaining productive as climate change impacts worsen might become more difficult.

Mental health concerns can affect not just employee productivity and presence at work, but also disability and intense anxiety, said Smriti Joshi, chief psychologist at Wysa, a mental health platform that provides both AI-enabled and human psychologist support.

With climate change comes the expectation of bad things happening, or catastrophizing, which can be "very paralyzing because the threat perception starts impacting your behavior and thoughts in the here and now," Joshi said.

Employers are asking how they can make their workforce more resilient and prepared to deal with these challenges, he said.

The U.S. Climate Resilience Toolkit has identified four research areas for improving resilience of communities and businesses.
Compound disasters require a robust response, including relentless resilience.

Employers have bigger role

Emily Rose McRae, a Gartner analyst, said employers will be doing more to help employees adapt, and she expects this to be a much bigger issue for them as time goes on.

Efforts to help employees could be broad, McRae said, and include such things as subsidies for short-term housing, stipends for safety equipment such as air purifiers and respirator masks, and extra pay for higher energy costs and mental health support. It could also involve helping employees apply for disaster relief loans.

McRae said one of the things employees need, "in the face of so much climate change, is some support." It is also something employees will deeply appreciate, she said.

Vendors will get more active in providing help, especially in helping HR departments use their existing benefits packages to help their employees, McRae said.

Jeff Gorter, vice president of clinical crisis response at R3 Continuum, a provider of consulting and psychological support services, was recently in Lahaina, Hawaii, to provide support for the victims of the Maui wildfires in August.

It's not just this one thing that is creating the stress -- it's one more thing on top of everything else.
Jeff GorterVice president of clinical crisis response, R3 Continuum

Ecological disasters are leading to loss of jobs, housing, community and health, and have a profound impact on people, he said. But broadly, what Gorter sees is sometimes called eco-anxiety: a "generalized anxiety that something is just off -- something is just not right," he said.

Cascading collective crisis

Along the lines of compound natural disasters is another term: cascading collective trauma or crisis. This is a combination of events, such as COVID-19, civil unrest culminating with the breach of the U.S. Capitol, increased wildfires and mass shootings, Gorter said.

"It's not just this one thing that is creating the stress -- it's one more thing on top of everything else," he said. "We're basically just stumbling from one crisis to the next."

To deal with this, managers need a "trauma-informed" approach to leadership, Gorter said. If a manager encounters an employee wrestling with anxiety, distraction or performance issues, perhaps related to environmental concerns, "[instead of saying], 'What's wrong with you?' as if there's something broken, [they are] asking, 'What's strong with you?'" he explained. "And that's another way of saying, 'Tell me how you have managed situations in the past.'"

Tech's role

Technology might play a bigger role ahead in monitoring employee wellness.

Wearables at work are getting much more attention, especially in safety-related areas. That includes monitoring fatigue, heat stress and other physiological areas such as pulse and respiratory rate. Many of these wearables were designed for medical use, but the U.S. Department of Homeland Security is considering these sensors for broader adoption, such as to monitor the health of first responders.

One tool that can be used to monitor physical health is SoterCoach, a wearable device from Soter Analytics that can help identify ergonomic problems. For instance, if an employee lifts an object with their waist, it alerts the employee about a risky movement to help prevent injuries. It does not measure productivity or track location because it doesn't have GPS capability, according to the vendor.

"It's not looking at where you are at and what you're doing," said Heather Chapman, head of ergonomics at Soter.

Their plan for next year is for the device to begin monitoring ambient temperature around the employee. If someone is exposed, for instance, to 90-degree temperatures for a certain period, they are at risk for heat stress, and the device will alert the worker, Chapman said.

Patrick Thibodeau covers HCM and ERP technologies for TechTarget Editorial. He's worked for more than two decades as an enterprise IT reporter.

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