Communication Currents

Performing Resilience Labor to Reintegrate After Disaster

February 1, 2016
Organizational Communication

Disaster-relief work can be physically, emotionally, and mentally grueling, and can take a toll on relief workers. Understanding how these individuals maintain commitments to their volunteer work, the communities they serve, and their nonprofits is the subject of new research published by Communication scholars Vinita Agarwal of Salisbury University and Patrice M. Buzzanell of Purdue University.

“The lives of individuals and communities can change at a moment’s notice, and devastating losses can happen when we least expect them,” said Agarwal and Buzzanell in describing their interest in this topic. “And yet there are people who devote considerable resources, sometimes at a personal cost, to help others with no expectation of thanks or reward.”

Family Ties, Ideological Ties, and Spiritual Ties 

Agarwal and Buzzanell’s findings suggest there are three main processes that enabled their research participants to perform resilience labor. Resilience labor is the effort that people make to enable individuals and communities to reintegrate after losses. In creating a new normal through communication, individuals and communities stabilize and change their lives and their environments. The researchers labeled the motivating processes as familial, ideological, and destruction-renewal network identifications or relationship ties.

Agarwal and Buzzanell conducted 23 semi-structured interviews with disaster-relief workers of a local branch of an internationally recognized nonprofit organization, The Helping Hand (a pseudonym to protect participant privacy). The nonprofit had 4.5 full-time staff members, and about 141 volunteers. The volunteers were involved in training (e.g., CPR), fundraising, office management, and community outreach. The organization’s core volunteers were part of disaster action teams that help care for victims of local and national emergencies, such as fires, floods, nor’easters, and hurricanes.

Familial Ties 

Study participants said that among their motivations for remaining involved with the nonprofit were the strong, family-like bonds that they developed with their co-workers, as well as support they received from their friends and family members.

Participants described strong connections with other volunteers, anticipating their needs and looking out for one another in ways that affirm bonds, create understanding of one another's capabilities, and reduce stress. Staff member Rob said that if it weren’t for the support of his coworkers, the stress of his work might have become intolerable: “We understand each other, we work together, we’re family.”

In the familial network frame, participants’ identity/identifications with family encompass bonds that surfaced in affective (“felt like family”), cognitive (“we understand each other”), and behavioral (“we work together”) ways. Furthermore, participants used “family” as both a descriptor (“we’re family”) and a metaphor (“I felt like family”).

Ideological Ties 

Relief workers also were motivated by creating what the authors call “ideological network identifications.” Ideological beliefs are enduring commitments toward particular sets of values. The disaster-relief workers who participated in the study shared several beliefs and values, including humanitarianism, egalitarianism, and secularism.

Matt, a long-term staff member who started volunteering for the nonprofit at the age of 15, said the organizational ideology of egalitarianism kept him volunteering: “[The Helping Hand] doesn’t look at race, religion, creed … you’re not trying to recruit somebody to your religion, it’s just … we’ll help the enemy, we’ll help the good, the powerful, whoever, as long as it’s a human being.”

Similarly, Pat explained that her affiliation with The Helping Hand was tied to the respect the organization enjoys internationally for its humanitarian ideology: “They are well-respected in the community, and when I wear my little red badge and a medal … I am proud.” The connection between Pat’s pride and the organizational symbol, the medal, has sustained her involvement in disaster relief and helped her recreate her identity as a valued resource in her community.

Another worker, Molly, said, “It’s rewarding when you meet someone who maybe doesn’t speak your language, but they’re wearing that same emblem and you know they have the same principles.”

Destruction-Renewal Ties 

Finally, the authors describe destruction-renewal network identifications as cycles in which disaster workers learn how to reintegrate and create a new normal with every new disaster encounter. Like spiritual rebirths, volunteers used vivid language (e.g., “mind-blowing,” “pulling together often in very difficult circumstances”) to try to depict the devastation to individuals and communities they encounter by being among the first to respond to disasters. They described these cycles as intense processes, likening the complete devastation of the situations they witnessed to an apocalypse, and their work as “enabling life, witnessing death, and feeling the immediate gratitude of those saved and wholeness in one’s self,” explains Agarwal and Buzzanell. 

The workers described the feelings of adrenaline rush (some described it as being “adrenaline junkies”) and other intense feelings when entering, working within, and leaving disaster zones. In the field, disaster-relief workers experience the spirituality of their labor by opening themselves up to the emotional intensity of their work.

Individuals who witness human suffering and work on behalf of devastated communities often make themselves emotionally vulnerable when providing support to others. Without the identifications that help them construct resilience for themselves and others, they may experience guilt, burnout, or emotional exhaustion in their own lives. However, engaging in the whole destruction-renewal cycle provides anchors for their lives and commitments. As Matt said, “You can see [victims] being helped instantly, and it provides [a rapid snapshot of the] good and the positive you do in the community.”

This sense of gratification when seeing the results of their work for others and within themselves was a powerful motivator for the study participants.

Practical Implications  

In this study, the authors suggest that disaster-relief workers are engaged in establishing their own resilience communication even as they are working on behalf of others who are in difficult circumstances. The findings have some practical implications for other relief organizations. The authors offer a few suggestions:First, nonprofit managers should consider ways in which to support disaster-relief workers as they create the family identifications that keep them going in the face of tragedy. Second, they should find seemingly mundane ways to integrate the ideological values that bring volunteers to their organizations. Promoting the connections between the volunteers’ beliefs and values and those of the organization could help build a resilient volunteer identity anchored in those core beliefs (in this case, humanitarianism, egalitarianism, and secularism). Finally, nonprofit managers should recognize and be mindful of the emotional labor the workers are providing. By reinforcing the feelings of fulfillment that come from witnessing the immediate impact of relief work, nonprofit managers can sustain their workers’ engagement. 

About the author (s)

Vinita Agarwal

Salisbury University

Associate Professor

Patrice M. Buzzanell

Purdue University

Distinguished Professor