Coping with the New York Tragedy in the Workplace

As psychologists who advise North American corporate clients, around North America, some of them in New York, we’ve received calls and emails from workers sifting through feelings of shock, sadness and anger generated by last week’s terrorist attacks.

They said they feared being unable to go into office towers ever again. They questioned their shock: “Is what I’m going through normal?”

It is.

Even for people in workplaces far from New York, what they are going through is the normal response to a horrific loss. Tightness in the chest, nausea, obsessive thoughts and anxiety are all part of the process. Add in the political dimensions stemming from a terrorist attack on the world’s most powerful nation – fear of retaliation from the U.S. government – and people feel profoundly unsafe, trapped targets with no escape.

One e-mail we received said, “we’re like fish in a barrel.” People expressed feeling at the mercy of unfathomable forces and having no means to make themselves feel safe.

People stressed how the event was on an unprecedented scale. One told us, “America and American business was under attack.”

People described being alone, vulnerable, helpless and grieving. Many also feel resolutely that “we won’t let the terrorists stop us.” Our clients were surprised at the strength and resourcefulness of their staff. They told us that after the initial days, people returned to work in high numbers.

But as staff go through their tasks these days, how should they deal with their underlying feelings?

We suggest people understand there are recognizable phases encountered during loss. We advise them to: 1) Acknowledge that people have experienced a loss even though it might not have been a direct one. People have lost a sense of safety, innocence, control, of the way the world was before the attack.

2) Recognize that regaining what was lost may be impossible. For many this means reckoning with the absence of colleagues or loved ones killed in the calamity. For others, it may mean wrestling with how to live in a world irrevocably changed.

What was taken for granted before the attack may seem like a luxury now – easy air travel, the notion that the innocent are somehow immune from cruelty and the belief that peace could last a lifetime.

3) Allow grief’s full impact and know that numbness, anger, sadness, lethargy, depression and hopelessness are part of the process and over time the intensity will abate.

4) Acknowledge that many people may notice some urgency in seeking answers to larger questions: What kind of world is this?; How can hate like this exist?; How can survivors hope again?; Why would God allow this to happen?; Why should I live and others die?; or What is my responsibility to society now that I have survived this?

These kinds of questions, although unsettling, are about finding meaning in life when confronted with death and are important to coping with tragedy.

5) Appreciate that the grieving process can take years for many. Consciously soothing fears, hurts and dealing constructively with rage, anger and vengeful feelings eventually allows people to hope and re-invest in the future.

Workers should also take comfort from one another. Take breaks from the media coverage. Get physical exercise, listen to music, reach out and accept help, pray, meditate or engage in some kind of spiritual pursuit.

Try to stay within your routine. Minimize self-medication such as alcohol and drug abuse, including misuse of prescription drugs.

Find ways to help others, contribute to your community and add to the collective good in your relationships.

And although it will never be the same, it is through returning to office towers, workplaces and airports, rebuilding lives and livelihoods, that people will be able to affirm their freedom once again.

Identifying information in cases cited has been changed to protect confidentiality.

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