The Human Element of Disaster Recovery

Kathie Schwerdtfeger , Rhoda Woo


October 1, 2019

Disaster comes in many forms, from the fury of storms and earthquakes to the destruction brought on by explosions and spills. Whether a catastrophe is natural or man-made, businesses that have developed a broad-based crisis and disaster recovery plan have an advantage when addressing them. Such plans detail how an organization will deal with the potential impact of the event and its aftermath on facilities, information systems and equipment.

Just as important as protecting physical assets, however, is considering how a disaster can affect the company’s workforce. Employees could lose their homes, their possessions and even the lives of  loved ones. Employers, meanwhile, must try to understand such trauma and determine what support they can give to affected workers. Beyond the priority of providing immediate assistance, organizational leaders will also have to evaluate what an extended cessation or impairment of business operations could mean to both the company and its personnel.

A 2018 report from the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) highlighted the human aspect of disaster recovery planning, finding that businesses need to have a thoughtfully developed workforce management plan, especially given the frequency and scope of recent disasters. Indeed, in 2017, hurricanes and wildfires affected more than 47 million people in the United States alone.

A disaster can drive people from their homes and the struggle to secure shelter and address other life and family needs can relegate job responsibilities to an afterthought. For business leaders, recognizing the likelihood and logic of such reactions after a disaster is critical to building resilience. The availability of temporary housing in the wake of an event is an important part of keeping employees safe and productive, and employers can play a key role in providing options. FEMA assistance is basically limited to emergency shelter, transitional housing and emergency housing repair. Eligibility requirements govern distribution of these resources, and securing assistance can require considerable time and effort. Meanwhile, family disruption continues, and prospects for returning to work can dim or disappear.

While finding alternate housing or repairing a damaged home are the responsibility of the affected workers and their insurers, some employers are stepping in to help. Rather than lose valuable personnel, many companies are providing employees with ad-hoc assistance including home repair supplies, financial aid to defray costs, guidance in navigating FEMA programs, and assistance with understanding insurance requirements and rebuilding processes.

Recognizing the potential for disruptions, proactive companies are contracting support services in advance to help potentially impacted employees. This can be especially valuable in times of low unemployment and shortages of highly skilled workers. Employees can receive valuable services, while the business can recruit and train new employees more cost effectively in the event a disaster drives displaced workers to leave the area.

Additional steps businesses can take to strengthen workforce resilience include:

  • Define success. What constitutes success is different for each organization. Is retaining the entire workforce required, or is retaining mission-critical employees with disbursement of operations to other locations more achievable?

  • Acknowledge the employee’s role. Make sure employees understand their role in the company’s recovery. Reinforce desired behaviors for recovery of operations with incentives and communicate them.

  • Provide timely, accurate and authoritative information during a crisis to encourage employees’ return to work. Provide suggestions on alternate housing options or locations of temporary accommodations.

  • Provide worker care. Offer practical support and resources necessary for repairing a home, such as contracting for restoration support or providing access to financial assistance. Appropriate psychological care for workers in the aftermath of an event is also important.

  • Provide tools and resources. Identify additional logistical support for essential staff such as transportation to and from work, childcare or support for other personal needs that could keep the employee from returning to work.

Organizations build resilience by relying on a strong workforce as a foundation. Increasingly, forward-looking organizations are treating workforce resilience plans as an extension of their crisis and disaster recovery plan and an embodiment of their organizational values. With population centers expanding and natural disasters an ever-present threat, such planning should continue to grow in importance and value to employees and their organizations.
Kathie Schwerdtfeger is partner and leader of crisis recovery for the risk intelligence practice of Deloitte Risk and Financial Advisory.
Rhoda Woo is managing director and leader of the U.S. crisis management practice for the risk intelligence practice of Deloitte Risk and Financial Advisory.