When Tropical Storm Allison hit Texas in 2001, it put 2,200 families in Lincoln Properties' Houston communities out of their homes.
As staff searched for dry digs for the displaced tenants, they found themselves dealing with more than drenched dwellings: Distraught residents flocked to the tent that served as a makeshift office—the storm also destroyed the employees' space—because they needed to talk about their losses.
“They would hear someone come in and pour out their life story about what they just lost,” recalls John Ridgway, regional vice president of the Dallas-based firm. “Then they'd say, ‘Thanks, I feel better.' But there were 25 people lined up behind them, and staff would have to go through it again. Their level of patience was incredible.”
Patience is about all apartment staff can offer to residents grieving after a flood or death on the property, says Denise Curran, a therapist for ComPsych, a Chicago employee assistance provider.
“Employees can't do counseling,” she says. “They aren't going to be trained in that and shouldn't have to be.” Chances are, Curran says, employees are dealing with as much grief and stress as the tenants after a trauma where they work.
She says apartment owners should invite qualified therapists to conduct group sessions with traumatized residents rather than relying on staff to patch them up emotionally.
That's what Archstone-Smith did in 2003 when a tenant flung himself from his apartment's balcony and landed on a car, dead. “It was very visible to the associates and to the residents,” says Dana Hamilton, Archstone's executive vice president for national operations. “The cost [of bringing a therapist on-site] is relatively small compared to the goodwill that you build within your communities by doing the right thing for people.”
Don't forget about your employees, Curran warns. “You always have to address the employee in addition to the residents,” she says. “If you do, they will come back to work at a higher level of functioning.”
Curran compares employees to emergency-room doctors. “Even though you're helping the victims, you also have to have help for the helper,” she says. “A debriefing that allows employees to talk to each other goes a long way toward helping them deal with their feelings.”