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HR Handled Right

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When Stephanie Dodge asked me to write an article for HR.Com’s 9/11 issue, I jumped at the chance to help commemorate one of the United States’ most tragic events. Until I sat down to write it. How can I celebrate about the resilience of the American people without trivializing the pain those closest to the event still feel? Should I give a clinical picture of the psychological impact of trauma or convey the personal impact of 9/11? Every idea I had provoked an argument with myself.

Perhaps I haven’t come to terms with the paradoxical role tragedy has played in my own life. I curse and I applaud the toll personal tragedies have extolled from my psyche. They have stolen days of potential happiness and joy, and they have given me greater patience, peace, and courage. When I look back over the past year, I see this same paradox in the myriad of responses to 9/11.

Is it possible to abhor the evil and honor the courage and wisdom that it spawned? I don’t know; to this day, I would gladly eradicate deaths and losses from my own life, but I would sorely miss the better person they inspired me to become. Life reminds me of the child board game Snakes and Ladders, where every roll of the dice can either send you spiraling backward or propel you forward. Every time a snake crosses my path, it seems a ladder soon follows.

Statistics Mean Nothing

What is the impact of 9/11 on our employees? Immediately after 9/11, there were dire predictions of the long-term impact of this tragedy on job satisfaction, confidence in corporate security, and mental health. The Wall Street Journal, for example, claimed, “The aftermath of the terrorist attacks posed an acid test for employers, often fundamentally changing the employer-employee relationship.” Early studies showed high levels of stress nationwide in the days after the attack, confirming the impact of on all Americans, not just those in New York and D.C.

More recently, studies have touted the amazing ability of U.S. workers to “get back to normal.” A study of 145 companies conducted by the Bureau of National Affairs in Washington, D.C. found that, while employee anxiety increased after the attacks, these fears did not translate into lower productivity, increased absenteeism or reduced work quality. A study published in last month’s Journal of the American Medical Association found that, while New York City residents faced higher rates of post-traumatic stress disorder in the two months post-attack, the nation as a whole did not see a rise in psychological problems. And, even in New York, the rates of PTSD and depression fell by two-thirds in the four months after the attack.

So what does this mean? Has the longer-term impact on the workplace really been negligible? I think it depends on what you’re measuring. On the one hand, the stress reactions immediately after 9/11 were most likely normal responses to an abnormal situation. On the other hand, in light of the events of the past year, I can’t imagine any employee’s life really being “back to normal.”

How many of us hesitated before opening the mailbox before the anthrax scare? How many of us scanned our flights for suspicious-looking characters? How many of us feel more vulnerable, more patriotic, more security-conscious? It takes a lot to disrupt the American psyche. And yet, our life assumptions, such as our sense of invulnerability on American soil, are changed forever. Have I become more depressed over the past year? No. Am I fundamentally changed? Forever.

Maybe It’s the Boss Whose Changed

Striking the elusive work-family balance. Staying informed about workplace security. Becoming multi-culturally sophisticated. These admirable goals are not the result of 9/11, but I think the events over the past year have accelerated them. In a Red Cross survey, for example, 36 percent of the respondents said they were spending less time at work and more time with friends and family than they were a year ago. Since 9/11, hiring managers, already attuned to the increased risk for workplace violence, have become even more proactive in their use of background and reference checks.

Maybe it’s the employer who has changed the most. The recession and resulting layoffs that followed 9/11 has temporarily put employee retention concerns on the back burner, yet many employers have remained amazingly flexible about telecommuting, flextime and work/family issues. In addition, the events of 9/11 have been a much-needed reality check for employers who have been reluctant to assist their employees’ with personal concerns. The old adage, “leave your personal problems at the door” has never been a workplace reality, and 9/11 precipitated an unprecedented use of employee assistance programs.

Perhaps the shift in employer commitment was prompted by the fact that the vast majority of 9/11 victims has one characteristic in common: they were at work when they lost their lives. Bond traders, firefighters, computer programmers and flight attendants were imperiled simply because they showed up at work that day. It’s one thing to talk about the personal sacrifices employees make for their jobs; it’s another to witness thousands of punctual employees make the ultimate one.

On Our Anniversary

My husband hates anniversaries, birthdays, and all formal holidays. He’s one of the most generous people I know, and, I hate to admit, is much more likely than I to leave a surprise present or a love letter on my work desk on any random day. Yet he fervently rebels against the idea of forced giving. My sister, on the other hand, would probably consider a forgotten anniversary as suitable grounds for divorce.

I think the same may be true of the anniversary of September 11th. There will be a roller coaster of emotions. There will be those of us who want to pause and remember and there will be those of us who want to persevere and forget. As a result, human resource professionals may be unsure on what actions to take or not to take to commemorate the event.

Some businesses are making televisions available in break rooms, spending a few minutes in silence, or having a red, white, and blue casual day. Many organizations plan to review safety information and reassure employees that their safety is a primary concern. I don’t know what’s the right thing to do any more than I know what’s the right thing to say. I’m not the right person to tell you anyway, not when you can monitor your employees needs and wants directly.

I can tell you what I’ll be doing this week. I’m going to write my husband a surprise letter telling him how much I appreciate the sacrifices he’s made for our family over the past year. I’m going to the gym so I can manage my stress and be a more patient mom. I’m going to watch a little bit of TV, but avoid any attack footage. I’m going to sing the National Anthem at the top of my lungs and talk to my kids about how brave ordinary people can be. And, I’m going to try a little harder to climb that ladder and be less afraid of snakes.

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