FSU researcher: employers can minimize hurricane-related stress

Florida was pummeled by four major hurricanes during last year’s hurricane season. Those four storms proved tremendously damaging — and intensely stressful — for millions of Florida residents. Unfortunately for many, that stress only seemed to increase when they returned to work.

As the 2005 hurricane season begins, a Florida State University professor is examining how such hurricane-related job stress is manifested, and is offering advice for minimizing its harmful effects on those at work following a hurricane.

Wayne A. Hochwarter, an associate professor of management in FSU’s College of Business, along with graduate students Mary Dana Laird and Robyn Brouer, developed a program of research to determine how hurricanes Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne affected the stress
levels of Floridians as they went back to work after the storms.

The results were consistent throughout the state:

  • Hurricane stress was associated with increased rates of depression.
  • Hurricane stress was associated with interpersonal conflict at work.
  • Hurricane stress caused individuals to participate in fewer leisure activities away from work.
  • Individuals reporting higher levels of hurricane stress were more prone to develop negative attitudes at work (i.e., "I hate my job").
  • Hurricane stress was associated with higher levels of organizational cynicism.
  • Hurricane stress caused individuals to become more accountable for getting their job done faster, which required increased effort and energy.
  • Hurricane stress caused employees to become more anxious and jittery on the job.

Stress like this will lead employees to suffer from burnout, which can cause a variety of health and psychological maladies, Hochwarter said of his findings. "Also, because of the number of hurricanes that employees in the state experienced last year, they became increasingly anxious and then began to feel overwhelmed. Interestingly, a number of organizations I have visited in the last few months were beginning to experience the same level of anxiety even before this year’s hurricane season began. The uncertainty has a paralyzing effect on individuals because they just don’t know what to expect."

His research also indicates that there are ways to minimize the effects of hurricane-related job stress. For example, such stress had a lesser influence on health and well-being when:

  • Social support from the employer was offered.
  • Employees had the discretion to dictate the pace of their own work activities (e.g., having control).
  • Individuals had an optimistic view of life.
  • Individuals were able to get away from work and "recharge their battery," even for a short amount of time.
  • Most importantly, when organizations increased communications during these tumultuous times to minimize uncertainty.

"It’s important for employers to proactively prepare for hurricane season and anticipate the needs of their employees," Hochwarter said. "The best thing employers can do is keep the lines of communication open and allow employees to play an active role in preparing the organization for hurricane season."

In particular, he said, employers can reduce hurricane-related stress among their employees by having a detailed hurricane recovery strategy in place so that employees will know that they still have a job, as well as understand procedures for dividing workloads, taking time off or receiving help.

"Preparing for hurricanes is often discussed as boarding up buildings more quickly, or developing better evacuation plans," Hochwarter said. "The fact remains that most people unfortunate enough to experience a hurricane have to return to work. My research indicates that it may be fruitful for organizations to address stress-related consequences for those who are returning to the job before, during and after the hurricane."

Data for Hochwarter’s research was gathered from three sources: an exclusive sample of individuals employed in various industries across the state, a manufacturing organization in Central Florida, and a refuse removal firm in North Florida. All respondents reported
being affected by one or more hurricanes.

Hochwarter will present a report on his findings at a conference of the Southern Management Association in November.