Lessons from Katrina Provide Pandemic Employee Insight

What Can Hurricane Katrina Teach Us About Pandemic Employees?

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As the coronavirus rages and parts of our country continue to deal with the aftermath of Hurricanes Sally and Laura, the research my colleagues and I conducted before and after Hurricane Katrina provides today’s businesses with unique, timely insights into what their employees are enduring.

In December 2004, as part of a hurricane preparation exercise, we collected data for FEMA from people living and working in New Orleans, Louisiana. Together with FEMA, we used these data to anticipate what would happen if “the big one” hit New Orleans; little did we know then that, nine months later, Hurricane Katrina would strike.

After the hurricane, our follow-up research included re-interviewing many of the New Orleans residents from the initial survey. In the first months following the storm, we discovered that our index of depressed mood stood at seven times pre-Katrina levels. Equally striking was the finding that, 18 months after the event, the index still stood at twice pre-Katrina levels.

That disaster affected one geographic area of the United States. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, we faced a nationwide disaster — one whose economic and health effects will likely last even longer than those of Katrina.

3 Crisis Management Lessons for Today’s Companies

The lessons drawn from our Katrina research offer businesses a powerful opportunity to make a lasting, positive impact on their employees — and their bottom lines — during this challenging time. It all boils down to “the three Cs”: connection, counseling, and culture.

1.     CONNECTION: Social support proves crucial.

We learned from our Katrina research that social support plays a critical role in mitigating the effects of disasters. That includes emotional support, having enough people to talk to. It also includes instrumental support, having enough people to help you. As a company considers how best to support its team, ensuring that team members get emotional support from their friends and family and instrumental support from team members proves vitally important.

2.     COUNSELING: Mental health affects productivity.

Companies face huge challenges in keeping their workforces engaged and productive right now. Recent CDC data show that nearly 40% of Americans have experienced increased mental health issues during this pandemic. Employees who can’t sleep well, experience problems focusing, and struggle to meet their work and personal responsibilities stand at risk not only for decreased productivity but also for physical and mental health effects. We work with clients to create solutions, such as setting up a coupon code so they can provide online counseling through Smart Counseling. The coupon code allows the team members to remain completely confidential and the counseling makes a direct impact on employee wellness and productivity.

3.     CULTURE: Do well by doing good. 

Promote loyalty and spur company growth by showing your employees that your business “does well by doing good.” We can (a) measure the effects workers are experiencing, at both the aggregate and individual levels, then (b) work with companies to craft three types of interventions: providing online counseling to individuals who need it, providing resources that will increase employees’ social support, and identifying structural changes that can reduce the stress that employees experience.

Businesses have a major opportunity to support their teams. Making a commitment to support your team now will yield benefits for months and even years to come.

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