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Business/Economy

Earthquake jitters in the workplace: Advice for employees and employers

  • Author: Lynne Curry
    | Alaska Workplace
  • Updated: December 24, 2018
  • Published December 24, 2018

Office after office on the third floor of the Cook Inlet Tribal Council building was extensively damaged by the Nov. 30 earthquake. Most of the worst damage was caused by water breaks. Photographed Dec. 3. (Anne Raup / ADN)

Since the 7.0 earthquake on Nov. 30, the Alaska Earthquake Center has recorded more than 4,000 aftershocks, with two dozen greater than 4.0. Not surprisingly, quake reactions have hit the workplace, with employee anxiety triggered by each major aftershock. Some employees arrive at work having had trouble sleeping. Others find themselves distracted. Some even find themselves unable to perform portions of their job.

What do employees need?

If the quake emotionally, mentally or physically knocked you sideways and you find yourself stressed out or off-balance, take care of yourself. You are not alone.

Honor your feelings; you may need to talk with others to get comfort or reassurance. At the same time, if your home and work site have returned to normal or nearly normal, give yourself a break from quake rehashing discussions. Over-exposure to quake images and reminders reawakens emotions and heightens stress. If you installed a quake app on your smartphone, turn off its ping.

If your exercise routine and other healthy behaviors fell by the wayside, resume them. Finally, unless your damage was extreme, put it in context. Although I spent 30 hours cleaning up damage and throwing out thousands of dollars of damaged-beyond repair heirloom china, I reminded myself how much better we had it here than did those who lost homes and loved ones in the Paradise wildfires.

What employers need to consider

Most employees and employers did a great job of getting everyone home safely. Still, stories abound of post-quake mistakes, from employees leaving cellphones and keys in buildings they couldn’t re-enter, to employees using elevators rather than stairs or racing down stairs only to stumble and cause injuries, to employees wisely leaving buildings, but then standing immediately adjacent to wobbly glass windows rather than moving across the parking lot.

Employers can help employees by holding post-quake evaluation debriefings discussing what worked or didn’t and establishing clear procedures should a future disaster hit. According to Avitus Group Senior Safety Consultant David Reynolds, “Every company needs periodic safety orientations to empower staff to make good decisions such as ‘don’t use the elevator in an emergency, go down the stairs. You don’t want to wait for the emergency to explain procedures for safely exiting a building nor where to gather.”

Employers need to realize they cannot rush stressed, traumatized employees back to work. Employees experienced varying amounts of physical damage at home, temporarily overwhelming some employees’ coping ability. Individuals respond differently to trauma and many still have trouble sleeping and difficulty concentrating. “Just because we are several weeks removed from the earthquake and all appears normal,” says Avitus Group Human Resources Director Robert Lindstrom, “for some it is not.”

Let your employees know what you expect from them. Re-establish as normal a work routine as possible while making reasonable allowances for those most severely affected who may need time off to focus on their personal situation. Let those who need it know if they can work remotely or on a part-time basis and whether there are portions of the work site still unsafe to enter. If the schools close again due to aftershock damage, can you allow employees to bring their children into the office? “Employers need to be patient with those still suffering from the aftereffects,” urges Lindstrom. “Also, if they offer mental health coverage or an employee assistance program in their company benefit package, they need to publicize this to their employees.”

If you temporarily operate with a skeleton crew, reach out to customers, particularly those outside of Alaska and let them know the situation status so they don’t take out unmet-expectation frustration on your employees.

Provide employees who need it support options in the form of resource information or referrals to professional counseling. Those whose symptoms, nightmares or flashbacks last more than four weeks may have post-traumatic stress disorder. Managers need to be aware of and able to handle reduced work performance due to concentration difficulties; heightened irritability; changes to the work atmosphere and an unusual volume of requests for time off.

Finally, seek out opportunities to give those not suffering a way to provide assistance to those who need it. And if one of your employees is still cleaning up house damage, offer to roll up your sleeves and help.

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