Emotional health for disaster workers on assignment

Emergency responders do their best to meet the needs of disaster victims while surrounded by confusion, destruction, uncertainty, and emotional instability. Working in these conditions will take a toll on even the most experienced workers.

Disaster worker as secondary victims

You may become a secondary victim in an emergency by performing hard work for long hours under dangerous conditions. The stress you face working in a disaster area can be heightened by:

  • Being away from family and friends;
  • The leadership styles of supervisors; and
  • Emergency policies and procedures that can change without notice.

If you are like many disaster workers, you tend toward perfectionism and may be reluctant to give yourself credit for a job well-done. Try to remember that the work you do has extraordinary value to the people you serve, even if they are not able to tell you so themselves.

Fatigue, frustration and anger

As a disaster worker, you labour for long hours in difficult conditions. You may also see destruction, injury and death, and experience survivor’s guilt if you have not suffered losses of your own. There could also be occasions when, through no fault of your own, other disaster workers, victims or the media are upset with you. These experiences may leave you feeling fatigued, frustrated and angry.

You need to understand and appreciate the intensity of what you are going through, and be able to talk about your feelings. It is critical you understand the effect of stress on your health, and remember you are giving disaster victims your time and help; gifts you could not give if you were also a victim.

Stress relief

You may be able to reduce your stress by:

  • Going for a walk during breaks;
  • Talking about your feelings and experiences with other people;
  • Doing deep breathing exercises.

During an operation it is important you take care of yourself so you can continue to meet the challenges of your job. Try to:

  • Eat nutritious food;
  • Avoid drinking too much caffeine and alcohol;
  • Exercise; and
  • Sleep when you can.

If you feel you need to take time off before it is scheduled or if you want to change assignments, ask your supervisor. As hard as it is to give your duties to someone else, when your shift is over it is important that you leave and recharge.