Windy Swetman Sr., District 1 constable for Harrison County, is one of the many Coast residents who survived Hurricane Katrina by hanging onto a tree after his home was flooded.
Swetman was in the water clinging to a tree with his lifelong friend Gene Tauzin for about six hours. Swetman plucked out an ice chest to put on his head to protect it from the debris and help prevent heat loss since he was getting cold being in the water. Then a plastic pot for plants floated by, and Tauzin grabbed it to protect his head.
Tauzin started laughing and Swetman asked, “What’s so funny?” Tauzin said, “If we had a can of Budweiser in each hand and there was someone with a camera, we could make a fortune.”
With so much devastation and many people who ended up spending the hurricane in trees or on rooftops, there are literally thousands of different hurricane stories on the Coast. And as people have gotten back to work, many of these tales of Katrina are being shared at work. Ones that are particularly popular are those that, like the one above, provide people with a much needed laugh.
Normally businesses don’t encourage a lot of work interruptions for personal business. But Post Katrina is anything but “normal.”
“I think the first thing that happens is the immediate disruption,” says Dr. Brian Gregory, a professor with the University of Southern Mississippi (USM) College of Business. “Basic things that people have taken for granted can no longer be counted on. Immediately after a disaster, any sense of productivity or work being important goes completely out the window.”
But now that it has been nearly two months since Hurricane Katrina hit, most people have food, water and a place to live. They can concentrate on higher level needs like getting back into a normal work routine. Still, people’s lives have been shaken, and that can’t help but have an impact on work productivity.
“I think the biggest problem right now is the stress level is so high,” Gregory said. “If you are already beyond your stress level limits, any additional responsibilities that come your way are going to have the effect of reducing your overall work effectiveness. Managers need to be wary of overloading people.
“I think another source of stress aside from the hurricane and increased work load is the ambiguity. A lot of stuff is still up in the air. Not knowing creates a lot of stress. Managers should communicate as best as possible, and give the sense that things are going to be okay.”
Some employees may fear for the business and their jobs. Supply trains have been disconnected. Customer’s businesses may have been wiped out. Managers can help reduce stress by keeping people up-to-date about what is gong on.
Gregory gives the example of the Long Beach campus of USM, which is unusable. About 150 teachers and other staff lost their homes or had serious damage. When classes restarted October 10, 40 still didn’t have a permanent place to live — and were sleeping in their offices or on the couches at the homes of colleagues and friends.
USM has worked to reduce the stress by making it clear the commitment the school has to the Gulf Coast campus.
“The university has said, ‘It will cost ‘X’ amount and we will rebuild bigger and stronger than before,” Gregory said.
A continuing factor for all types of business on the Coast is that employees are still working to make home repairs (or to find a place to live), meeting with insurance adjusters, trying to replace important papers and possessions lost in the storm, and also trying to help others.
Gregory said when people don’t have their basic needs met, it is important to give them time off as needed to get things done because until those needs are taken care of, they can’t be completely effective workers.
Being more relaxed about breaks and those conversations around the water cooler also make sense. After a disaster such as this, people need socialization more than ever.
“For a lot of people, the work place is where they get a lot of their social needs met,” Gregory said. “So that is definitely an important aspect of it.”
It is possible that people might try to take advantage of the situation and take off more time than is needed. But Gregory believes that right now it would be best for managers to err on the side of giving people a break.
“At this point it may be more important to give people the benefit of the doubt just because things have been so crazy, and there really are a lot of legitimate excuses out there,” Gregory said. “Another thing is that the most motivating thing about a job is the work itself. People are most motivated when they really enjoy what they are doing. That is something particularly relevant right now. If you were hit hard by the storm, what you do at work may be the only thing you enjoy doing all day.”
Some people who may have been bored with their job before the storm might have a better attitude now because their home lives and communities are in disarray. Gregory suggests that anything companies can do to make jobs more enriching and rewarding will be beneficial.
“It may be a good opportunity to get people into the work they are doing,” Gregory said. “They need to be reminded of how valuable their work is to getting the business back on its feet. It makes them feel good at the end of the day because they are contributing to the business, helping it get back on its feet so the business can help their community. Feelings of satisfaction at the end of the work day motivate us to get up the next day, and do the same thing — or work even harder.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at firstname.lastname@example.org.