Five Questions: As Many Ways to Grieve as There Are Desks in the Office

Cites consultant Kerry J. Sulkowicz
Featured on New York Times

Tomorrow, many people will be returning to work for the first time since last week’s terrorist attack, and they will be carrying the burden of the horrible things they have seen on television or perhaps in person. The psychological state of employees affects how they approach work, and how managers handle the situation can make the adjustment easier or harder.

Dr. Kerry J. Sulkowicz, a psychiatrist, runs a small management consulting firm that has advised companies coping with difficult transitions. As a volunteer, he counseled employees, family members and friends at the crisis center set up by Cantor Fitzgerald, an investment firm that may have lost several hundred employees in one of the World Trade Center towers.

Q. What are the challenges when employees return?

A. There is a sense of disbelief, a sense of unreality about what has happened. People may appear disconnected emotionally from events. That may be translated into people looking spaced out, very anxious, fearful, easily startled, depressed or sad and tearful. People may develop substance abuse problems or such problems may worsen, and some people may engage in suicidal or self-destructive behavior. Another common thing that people ought to be alert to is physical symptoms, whether that’s gastrointestinal problems, diarrhea, insomnia, headaches or other aches and pains. Another reaction may be denial – people may think they can go back to business as usual, and that is false. This is not business as usual.

It is crucially important to allow people, if they wish, the time and the space to talk about their feelings, about how they are processing this experience. And this doesn’t need to be done just once, because people are going to be reacting to this in their own individual ways for a long time to come, and I mean weeks and months. One meeting on Monday is not going to be enough. That’s just a start.

Q. How can employers reassure and motivate workers?

A. It is reasonable to say, “We are doing everything we can to ensure the security of our company, or our office building, or whatever the environment is, and we are going to cooperate with all of the authorities in beefing up security or whatever is necessary.” We don’t want to be in a state of denial.

The leaders in organizations need to set the example both in terms of trying to resume work in as regular a way as possible but also to set the example that resuming work and trying to return to productivity is inconsistent with trying to deal with emotional pain this has caused.

I would try to have high expectations of employees, but reasonable expectations. What’s reasonable? I don’t know – nobody has been through this before. I don’t think it’s a matter of managers having to really push all that hard to get employees to work hard, because most will want to return to work. It makes them feel more productive and counters feelings of helplessness that so many people feel.

Q. Should employers set up volunteer drives?

A. A volunteer drive is an excellent idea for several reasons beyond the obvious – the obvious being that there are a lot of people who need help. It also helps the employees who were not directly affected to feel like they’re doing something useful and active, rather than being passive.

Anybody who was not directly affected is susceptible to feeling guilt that they survived and others didn’t, so doing something active, whether it’s making donations or donating food, services or blood, helps address that feeling.

Q.How can employers prevent discrimination against Arab-Americans or Muslims?

A. It’s normal to be angry at what happened and to look for somebody to blame. If people express anger, I wouldn’t in any way want to squelch that.

On the other hand, managers should discourage an angry moblike response that labels entire ethnic or religious groups as responsible. If that happens, somebody needs to express the voice of reason and say that these are terrible people who did very terrible, awful things. We don’t know who, but it’s certainly not a race. It’s a group of people, it’s a highly organized group of terrorists, but not an entire ethnic group. That distinction needs to be made clear.

Q. How tolerant should supervisors be when workers say they are unable to work?

A. Very tolerant. I wouldn’t let the conversation end there, but this is really hard on people. This is trauma of the biggest sort, and I would not respond cynically to anyone saying that they feel incapacitated.

People’s reaction to trauma is determined by their personality and life experiences prior to the trauma. Two people at adjacent desks may experience what happened completely differently.

Someone who has experienced trauma early in life or someone who has a pre-existing mental illness may be more vulnerable. Managers may not know about that kind of history.

If someone needs help, they should get it. There are lots of mental health professionals in New York City who are doing amazing things right now; that help is available.

It may be helpful to bring mental health workers to talk to groups of people on site. Employers should not hold back on providing these support services, or else the consequences will be very severe in the long run, in terms of long-term mental health problems. This is not a time to scrimp.

Written by Jonathan D. Glater