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In a normal December, the office is a blur of holiday parties, bonus distributions and vacation chatter. But this season, those rituals seem as hollow as last year’s dot-com sensation. For many Americans, the memory of that awful Tuesday in September still lingers, freshened by new uncertainties about war and bioterrorism. “Employees may be totally functional on the surface,” says Mark Helmke, a senior director at the National Mental Health Association (NMHA), “but they might be still experiencing major stress disorder … there’s no way to measure it because you can’t see it.” Experts warn that signs of posttraumatic stress disorder (a form of depression or anxiety triggered by trauma) may not surface for months, and in some cases years, after a catastrophe. But the holidays might bring some of those quiet sufferers to the breaking point. “Whether people feel loss directly or indirectly, the sadness and grief are exacerbated during the holidays,” says JoAnne Difede, director of the Acute Trauma Program at New York Presbyterian Hospital Burn Center, “because we’re not as happy as we feel we should be.” Now is the time to check your workforce for signs of distress. One of the best indicators of potential problems, says NMHA senior adviser Mary Graham, is employee performance -� namely, reduced productivity, absenteeism, irritability and numbness or withdrawal from work life. Managers must learn not only how to recognize the signs of employee distress, but also how to set policies that address their workforce’s needs. And for the general counsel, in particular, that means understanding the right — and wrong — way to respond to employees in the aftermath of a crisis. Sooner or later, says employment lawyer Garry Matthiason, a partner at San Francisco’s Littler Mendelson, managers will face performance- or behavior-related issues posed by employees suffering stress, and those problems will likely end up on the GC’s desk in the form of firings, disciplinary actions or employee complaints. Even if an employee has a history of goofing off on the job, warns Matthiason, don’t assume that the slacker isn’t suffering posttraumatic stress. The attorney calls it “a very real medical condition,” but he adds, “Don’t be naive. Some workers will take advantage” of the situation. In case of doubt, Matthiason recommends that employers ask for a doctor’s certification from the employee. But never press employees for details, he says, because “it’s an invasion of their privacy … besides, you [as manager] aren’t qualified to make a [medical] judgment.” Instead, he advises that GCs and managers urge troubled employees to get professional help. Legal and mental health experts say that managers can take proactive measures to help alleviate worker stress. Consider the following: � Extend counseling. Companies should continue counseling programs, and keep employee assistance programs on workers’ radar screens. � Offer flexibility. Employees suffering stress may be entitled to a leave of absence under the Family Leave Act, says Matthiason. He also urges the GCs to review the company’s leave policy. What’s more, he says, the Americans with Disabilities Act might come into play, which means that companies must offer “reasonable accommodation” for the employee’s condition. That might mean, at a minimum, time off during the workday for psychological counseling. Many companies, including New York’s Morgan Stanley Dean Witter & Co., have taken their own initiatives to help workers, such as suspending nonessential travel and allowing more telecommuting, as well as granting leaves. � Reiterate the company’s mission. If the work seemed banal before, says psychologist Byron Woollen of New York’s Worklab Consulting, many employees will find it downright meaningless in the aftermath of a major tragedy. To inject a sense of purpose, he recommends that the CEO or GC rally the troops and remind them of the ways their jobs help the company and the nation. � Develop a disaster plan. To relieve anxiety, Woollen says, managers need to be explicit about what the company will do in the event of a disaster — the evacuation plan, transportation options, information dissemination and the like. Having that kind of disaster protocol in place, says Sara Moss, GC of Stamford, Conn.-based Pitney Bowes, proved to be “a source of great comfort” in the aftermath of the Twin Towers devastation (The company lost four out of 300 employees at the site). � Don’t dodge the tragedy. “It behooves companies to acknowledge that this was a major event,” says psychologist Woollen. Companies should not be afraid to bring up the devastation, lest it retraumatize their workforce; in fact, he says, some workers might be resentful if management sweeps over the event. His suggestion: Talk about the tragedy in an end-of-the-year statement to employees or stockholders. Of course, it also helps if companies acted with compassion in the first place. How management handled — or failed to handle — a cataclysmic event in its immediate aftermath, says New York Presbyterian Hospital’s DiFede, can affect how well employees recoverin the long run. Take the experience of James Yellen, a senior attorney at New York’s Morgan Stanley. Though he escaped unharmed from his office at the Trade Center (the company lost six of 3,500 employees at the location), he witnessed some of the day’s worst horrors. Until Sept. 11, Yellen never used words like “warm and embracing” to describe his employer; but now he talks about the giant financial institution in avuncular terms. What touched him most, says Yellen, was management’s “aggressive announcement that people come first.” By three o’clock that day, he had gotten calls from deputy general counsel Vincent LaGreca and associate general counsel David Restaino; and later that night, two Morgan Stanley officials from its far-flung offices phoned to check up on him. Even now, Yellen notes, GC Donald Kempf Jr., roams the halls, chatting it up with the displaced legal staff. Sending that kind of “we care” message is the right — and the smart — thing to do. “The bottom line is that if management handles this [crisis] well, the company will save itself a bundle of money,” says trauma expert Difede, noting the correlation between job performance and employee morale. “You don’t have to be a bleeding heart,” adds Woollen, “but be forgiving … accept that it won’t be business as usual.”
QUIET SIGNS OF EMPLOYEE DISTRESS These are some of the symptoms, according to the National Mental Health Association (www.nmha.org or 800-969-NMHA): � Working slowly or missing deadlines � Absenteeism � Irritability and anger � Difficulty concentrating and making decisions � Appearing numb or emotionless � Withdrawal from work activity � Overworking � Forgetting directives, procedures and requests � Difficulty in work transitions or changes in routines

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