Workers Seek Ways to Return to Normal Routines
Workers Seek Ways to Return to Normal Routines
- By Gail Repsher Emery
- Oct 04, 2001
It has been nearly a month since the world stopped and stood transfixed before televisions, radios and news Web sites, watching two jetliners destroy New York's World Trade Center, then another smash into the Pentagon. More than 6,000 people died.
Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, workers have gone back to the office, turned on computers, scheduled meetings, gotten things done. But for many, the workaholic American workplace doesn't feel the same.
"Employees are asking 'How do I call my client?' 'Am I a good person because I am working or because I'm not working?' There are no good answers," said Jim Lafond, managing partner of the Washington area for PricewaterhouseCoopers.
The New York management and technology consulting firm lost five employees on the downed flights. At the Pentagon, some of the firm's employees were blown out of their chairs when the jet crashed into the building.
"There is no returning to a normal life," said Jack Smith, a crisis counseling expert with Salus International, Edmond, Okla. "The process is of searching for what is normal in the wake of a catastrophe, and that is what occupies people's minds and hearts," he said in a Sept. 20 Webcast offering advice to about 300 employers.
Demand for the Webcast, sponsored by the Information Technology Association of America, Arlington, Va., and the Society for Human Resource Management, Alexandria, Va., was so great that another was held Sept. 25. Again, about 300 employers participated. A typical ITAA Webcast draws about 70 participants, said ITAA spokesman Bob Cohen.
Employers will see reactions to the events of Sept. 11 for weeks to come, Smith said, including difficulty concentrating; feelings of helplessness, anger and blame; mood swings and confusion about priorities.
"I think you're going to see substantial losses in productivity because people are shocked. It's easy to sit in your office and daydream about this," said Henry Tosi, a management professor at the University of Florida in Gainesville.
These reactions can happen to anyone, but will be most pronounced among workers who witnessed the attacks or lost colleagues and loved ones, experts said. In response, Smith said, employers must accept individuals' frailty, respect their faiths and beliefs, renew efforts to make the workplace safe and reassure employees about the future.
"Everything you do as a leader is watched closely. If the leadership is seen in the cafeteria really listening to colleagues, that speaks loudly," he said.
Employers directly affected by the attacks spun into action immediately, although none had ever faced a catastrophe of such proportions. They brought in crisis counselors, worked the phones to tally their work forces, set up special Web pages to disseminate information to employees and worked closely with the victims' families to ensure they receive support and assistance.
PricewaterhouseCoopers set up a database to connect stranded employees with others who had rooms to spare or a rental car to share. BTG Inc. of Fairfax, Va., mailed information to all employees about how to get help for themselves, how to deal with co-workers and how to talk to children.
"We tried to be as proactive as possible," said Linda Hill, senior vice president and chief human development officer. Two BTG employees died at the Pentagon and several others were injured.
"One of our biggest challenges was that our people wanted to get back to work, and we had to make sure they took care of themselves," Hill said. "The country was looking for some structure, and getting back to work was something they could rely on. Counseling provided a reminder that they need to get enough sleep, eat well, get back to basics."
As they define a new American work life, some employers are taking cues from workers coping with acute losses.
Employees of Lockheed Martin Corp., Bethesda, Md., requested the firm establish a fund to benefit victims' families and survivors. Lockheed Martin lost one employee and his wife on American Airlines Flight 77, which was commandeered into the Pentagon.
"We have a highly educated work force that doesn't hesitate to communicate its desires," said spokesman Jim Fetig.
The American Spirit Fund was established Sept. 12, after hundreds of e-mails poured in from staff members responding to the crisis. Lockheed Martin's officers launched the fund with individual donations of $2,500, Fetig said.
At Booz-Allen & Hamilton Inc., McLean, Va., employees asked the company to hold a memorial service for three employees who died at the Pentagon, where they were meeting with Army clients.
"The team felt they wanted to have a memorial service. It was just very clear that we needed to do it," said spokeswoman Mary Ann Sutherland.
Employees throughout Booz-Allen volunteered to help. Within days, speeches were ready, programs printed, equipment set up so the service could be telecast live to workers in New York, San Francisco and seven other offices of the 11,000-employee management and IT consulting company.
Afterward, Booz-Allen employees collected donations for the Red Cross relief effort, raising more than $12,000.
Responding to the tragedies in concrete ways will help operations return to normal sooner rather than later, said Joyce Gioia, a Greensboro, N.C., management consultant. This could be selling bumper stickers, giving blood or raising money. It also could be a meeting with employees to talk things over and send a positive message about the future, she said.
"A lot of companies will continue to do OK and will ignore the situation," she added. "It's just that their people will take longer to get back to the same level of productivity than if they did do something."