Research exploring ways to help the helpers in the wake of natural disasters

people handing out supplies for flood relief
Jason Wessendorf | Verdigre Eagle
Nebraska Extension and community volunteers combine flood relief efforts in spring 2019, after floods ravaged much of the state.
December 11, 2020

Lincoln, Neb. —In March 2019, 81 of Nebraska’s 93 counties were declared in a state of emergency due to significant flooding and blizzards. Nebraska Extension provided vital assistance to communities during the state’s disaster response and recovery, and continues to offer a lifeline for many struggling to cope.

More than a year and a half later, as the ripple effects of the crisis continue, stress levels for front-line caregiving professionals remain elevated.

Extension employees have a wide array of tools with which to help communities after natural disasters such as wildfires, tornadoes and other severe weather events. But the resources and tools they have to address their own emotional well-being after such disasters are far fewer.

A group of Nebraska researchers is working to change that for extension personnel throughout the United States.

Holly Hatton-Bowers, assistant professor of child, youth and family studies, is the program director of a national project funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and housed at the Nebraska Center for Research on Children, Youth, Families and Schools, focused on identifying ways to support the wellness of extension employees following a natural disaster. She and her team are developing an online platform to help the broader extension community learn practical coping strategies and access their wellness.

“Sometimes we forget about the helper,” said Hatton-Bowers, a Children, Youth, Families and Schools research affiliate. “People supporting communities during and after natural disasters need effective ways to support their well-being, too.”

Because natural disasters usually occur with little warning, they can leave a trail of destruction that results in significant financial and material losses to individuals and communities. People exposed to such hardship often experience psychosocial problems such as post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety.

Extension personnel are not immune from the same mental health challenges. They invest long hours working directly with distressed and traumatized people, spend less time with their own families and friends, and sometimes are affected personally by the disaster.

Research shows that psychological recovery from traumatic events relies heavily on social support. Such support is associated with positive psychological outcomes, workplace engagement and job satisfaction. The team aims to develop, implement and evaluate resources that provide strategies to effectively cope and seek support.

Two products are being developed with help from the Children, Youth, Families and Schools communications team: an interactive, web-based Reach Out for Wellness course and a Disaster Recovery Self-Assessment. These will comprise a sustainable resource toolkit designed to combat extension employee burnout, empathy fatigue and turnover while enhancing workplace engagement.

After using the resources, Hatton-Bowers said, extension employees are expected to better understand their own wellness and the natural disaster’s impact on them, and how to use their support system to cope with their stressors. Additionally, extension employees’ improved wellness is expected to lead to more supportive work with individuals and communities recovering from a natural disaster.

A lack of support resources for extension employees, Hatton-Bowers said, may jeopardize their emotional health and ability to fulfill their mission during disaster recovery.

Gilbert Parra, associate professor of child, youth and family studies and program co-director, said asking for help can be difficult.

“In our society, we are sometimes hesitant to reach out for the support of others,” said Parra, a Children, Youth, Families and Schools research affiliate. “One of our goals is to develop a module that covers the importance of support and effectively using support.”

Lorey Wheeler, Children, Youth, Families and Schools research associate professor and co-PD, said the team is conducting needs assessments, using focus groups and interviews to talk to extension responders who work in disaster-affected communities, and administrators. These focus groups and interviews include questions about extension employee wellness during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We hope to have a ground-up approach and not limit our focus groups to Nebraska, or only one type of disaster, so we can develop something that can be scaled up successfully,” Wheeler said.

Researchers are interviewing extension personnel from all levels, from Nebraska and other states. Most participants have identified the need for information and training on extreme stress and self-care practices during disaster response.

Co-PD Michelle Krehbiel, youth development specialist and associate professor for Nebraska Extension’s 4-H Youth Development, said that because many educators live throughout the state, they are the face of the university in their community.

“You have people who are representing the university and engaging in those communities,” she said. “They are community leaders in their towns and help provide their neighbors and fellow citizens with connections and resources.”