The Emotional Impact of Disaster Restoration
By Melissa Marot with Amy Hughes
In a recent edition of Straight Talk! with Jeff Cross, I sat down to discuss how the restoration industry can respond to the emotional and psychological impacts of disasters in addition to the physical damage. As an industrial and organizational psychologist, I work with organizations to help build effective organizations, leadership, transition and change, psychological wellbeing, and performance with a special emphasis on those who work in complex environments, such as emergency and disaster response.
As U.S restoration companies head into the busy storm season, I thought it important to share some of the ideas on responding to traumatic loss events discussed in my Straight Talk! video appearance with the wider Cleanfax.
Emotional response to trauma
There are a wide range of responses to disasters like fires, floods, or hurricanes, but what most survivors tend to feel is overloaded by their emotional responses and overwhelmed by everything that is happening to them and everything that needs to happen for their recovery. It’s a complex emotional situation.
Once a disaster occurs, many parties become involved: police, emergency services, insurers, assessors, restoration professionals, etc. The victims of these disasters, your customers, have all these things happening at once, and they are happening to them, leaving them with no sense of agency, no control over the situation, and this tends to be the most difficult part for people to overcome.
Helping clients who have suffered a loss
This sense of lost control can make client interactions more difficult on restoration jobs than for other home services. Most people tend not to be themselves. The victims of a disaster are often operating from a shock response at the time restorers may be working with them. I encourage restorers to keep that in mind during interactions and be empathetic to the fact that clients might not be their best selves at that time.
Survivors of disasters tend to replay the events in great detail, so technicians may experience clients who repeatedly tell them what happened. Though it may seem unnecessary, it is a typical response to a traumatic event, and restorers may help by simply being patient listeners.
Survivors are also likely experiencing a range of strong emotions, including fear, anxiety, sadness, and anger. At times, those emotions may be directed at restoration professionals because they are a part of the traumatic situation, but keep in mind that these emotions are not actually about you personally; rather, they are a response to a difficult and complex situation.
Additionally, when clients feel overloaded and overwhelmed, avoidance issues can set in and they might not respond to your calls and emails. This stems from a desire to avoid the traumatic situation as much as possible.
Alternatively, sometimes people become hyperactive and hyper-involved because their nervous systems are on high alert, watching for anything else that could go wrong. You might experience clients asking a multitude of questions and demanding details. Even though these responses can be tedious when working under complex, science- and insurance company-dictated deadlines, having patience and empathy for the client will ultimately help smooth the job.
Building trust with the client
Disasters tend to change the way people see the world. Victims may start to see the world as extra dangerous, feeling there are threats just around the corner. It becomes hard to trust people after a disaster event. Restoration technicians should keep this in mind when interacting with clients and work early in the relationship to build trust.
Some practical ways to build trust include simply being a compassionate listener and allowing clients to tell their stories or express their feelings and concerns. Good communication throughout the process is essential to putting the client’s mind at ease regarding the work you are performing and their things for which you are responsible.
Communicate really simply and with clarity. Communicate often, especially at the start of a job when the client is feeling especially overloaded and overwhelmed.
Emotional impacts on the restoration team
It is not uncommon for restoration professionals to have their own emotional response to the trauma they witness on the job, and this can also impact client interactions. Restorers may experience strong emotions like sadness or anger and could become emotionally overloaded themselves.
Understanding and acknowledging what is happening with your own emotions is highly important. For organizations responding to disaster, it is equally important to consider the emotional impact on the technicians in addition to the victims. Restoration companies must care for the psychological wellbeing of their frontline workers as well as their clients.
Restorers are well trained in the technical aspects of the job. It can be easy to get caught up in the actual work you are trained in and not think much about the emotional aspect of the job for the client. You are there to do a technical job, and it’s an important one; however, to do that job well, we need to understand the client—we need to understand the customer in terms of what they are going through.
Restoration workers should, of course, not be expected to be psychologists or counselors, but keeping in mind what has happened to and is still ongoing for the client in disaster response can actually help you do your job better. An awareness of both the client’s emotional state and your own can help interactions be more productive and make the entire job to go smoother.
See the complete episode of Straight Talk! with Jeff Cross featuring Dr. Melissa Marot at www.cleanfax.com/disaster-impact.
Melissa Marot is an industrial and organizational psychologist based in Melbourne, Australia. She works with organizations to help them build effective organizations, leadership, transition and change, psychological wellbeing and performance—with a specialty in disaster response teams and other complex environments. She has presented multiple events on response to traumatic loss events, including at RIA conferences.
Amy Hughes is a freelance writer who has worked with Cleanfax for three years and has worked as a writer and editor for nine years. Reach out to her at [email protected].