Employee wellbeing in post-disaster settings

S Malinen, K Näswall, T Hatton
Chapter 20, The SAGE Handbook of Organizational Wellbeing, 2021


Workplaces are increasingly seen as important contributors to employee health and wellbeing (Deloitte, 2017; Inceoglu et al., 2018; Kossek et al., 2012). Past research in the post-disaster space suggests that workplaces can also represent a significant stabilizing force in individuals’ lives following a disaster, and therefore aid the recovery of employees, and ultimately, their communities (Mooney et al., 2011; Hobfoll et al., 2007). However, despite the prevalence of disasters and their vast impact on people and societies, little is known about individual needs, attitudes, and wellbeing in a workplace context, and what role workplaces can play in supporting the recovery and wellbeing of their employees (Nilakant et al., 2013b, 2016). Furthermore, much of the scholarly knowledge stems from research in the initial phases of disasters, ie, the response and short-term recovery phases, even though the impacts of disasters last for years or even decades post disaster (Rubin, 2009).

This chapter sets out to discuss how workplaces can support wellbeing for the benefit of their employees, the organization, and ultimately, their communities. This chapter is particularly relevant for those interested in how workplaces can facilitate post-disaster recovery. Not only are disasters increasingly common, at the time of writing, many organizations all over the world are struggling to cope with the ongoing impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, including how to manage employee needs and concerns (Worley and Jules, 2020). Considering the wide-reaching impacts of disasters (Cheatham et al., 2015), it is surprising that research is relatively scarce on the impacts of disasters on employees and on how organizational resources can help or hinder employee wellbeing and recovery. One plausible reason for the lack of research is the challenging nature of conducting research during or after disasters (Hall et al., 2016a), an area we will also address in this chapter. We argue that understanding employee wellbeing in a post-disaster context warrants significant attention as such events are not only consequential for employees, but for organizational recovery, and ultimately, for our communities. Business and organizational survival and functioning are important drivers of community recovery (MacDonald et al., 2015), and employees’ roles within this are central: organizational recovery is reliant on employee contributions (McClain, 2007; Walker and Hatton, 2020). Therefore, organizational plans and initiatives to support employee wellbeing are not only beneficial for the employees, but organizations themselves will gain from such efforts.

Furthermore, organizations have a social responsibility to care for their employees, beyond just their health and safety responsibilities. While many OECD countries’ health and safety legislation recognizes employee fatigue and stress as potential hazards to be managed (e.g., New Zealand’s Health and Safety at Work Act, 2015), scholars suggest that employers also have a moral responsibility to care for their staff (Williams, 2018). Indeed, a vast body of work shows that employment has great implications for people’s life satisfaction and that workplaces can either support or hinder people’s sense of good life (Dockery, 2003; Heller et al., 2002; Unanue et al., 2017). In a disaster setting, the role of the workplace in people’s life satisfaction is likely to be further heightened, as workplaces can significantly support (or hinder) employee wellbeing, when their out-of-work life may be in turmoil.

In this chapter, we discuss the impact of disasters on employee wellbeing and what organizations have done, and can and should do, to aid and support their staff wellbeing and recovery. This chapter begins with an overview of existing research on employee wellbeing in post-disaster contexts. We then discuss the challenges related to conducting research on employee wellbeing in a post-disaster context and provide some reflections for future research to take into consideration. We end the chapter by providing practical recommendations based on scholarly evidence for organizations to care for their staff, thereby contributing to community post-disaster recovery.

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