As people return to work following the devastation of the bushfires, workplaces should be prepared to support those still grieving what they have lost, writes Marcela Slepica, Clinical Director of AccessEAP.
Australia is no stranger to natural disasters, from cyclones and floods to never-ending drought and unforgiving bushfire seasons, and whilst Australians have witnessed larger fires within the country, the damage from the bushfires of 2019/20 goes beyond devastated landscape.
The losses that are being experienced have been staggering, and are still not over yet. Over 18.5 million hectares have burned across the country and these numbers are continuing to rise, almost 2000 homes have been destroyed and an estimated 480 million animals have been killed by the fires. The impact on Australians is not only mental but also financial, with the economic damage set to exceed the record $4.4bn set by the Black Saturday fires in 2009 with at least 1.8 million workdays lost as a result.
“The impact of the bushfires will have long-term effects,” says Marcela Slepica, Clinical Director of AccessEAP, leading Employer Assistance Program provider. “The feeling of loss can overwhelm people and whilst those who are unaffected resume their daily lives, those who are still recovering have to start adapting to a new normal whilst grieving their loss and trying to rebuild their lives,” she continues.
“Returning to work is a major step for those who have been constantly trying to protect their homes and families and while it can be a daunting experience, it can provide a sense of purpose and connection which is essential to recovery,” says Marcela. The workplace can also provide a sense of community, and communities that support each other through difficult times is key. With that being said, managers should be sensitive with how they deal with staff members who have been affected and are returning to work.
Whilst people will want to speak to those closest to them in the initial stages, it will be the longer term in which people will need support from a counsellor or their Employee Assistance Program. This support will be imperative for those who are suffering firsthand, but also their co-workers, who can be susceptible to vicarious trauma.
Here’s how you can help
Acknowledge that the road to recovery will be lengthy
Before welcoming staff back into the workplace, it’s important to know that the grieving process is long and hard and recovery often comes in stages. Managers should think about the levels and types of required support that will be needed at different times, for example, grief may be delayed or PTSD may take effect, managers should be prepared for the emotions and how to respond to these emotions and be equipped to tackle these reactions.
Adopt a flexible approach to hours for those affected
It’s hard to tell when shock and grief will hit the hardest, so by adopting flexible working hours, affected staff can rest assured that they won’t be overwhelmed once they return back to the workplace and the work can be drip-fed.
Establish an open-door policy
Where possible and appropriate, it would be better to encourage people to communicate their needs, rather than to assume you know what their needs may be. Managers should let their staff know that they always have time to listen to them and help them when they are in need.
Advise those suffering to speak with their confidential employee assistance service
As a manager, there are times that you can only do so much to support people, so make sure your business has other support networks in place too. An EAP can offer help in person or over the phone, offering coping strategies and counselling for any problems without judgement.
 The Insurance Council of Australia