Coping with the Emotional Fallout After an Act of Terror
On a map, Harvard Business Review's offices look far from the site of yesterday's Boston Marathon bombing, seven miles up the winding Charles River. But in a city that feels more like a town, everyone in the area — as well as in cities and countries far beyond — has been shaken up by the Patriots' Day explosions. And recently, we learned that one of the people killed, 29-year old Krystle Campbell, is the daughter of a longtime Harvard Business School employee. Her brother also works at Harvard, and Krystle had put herself through college working at the HBS dining hall.
In our sadness and reflections, we remembered an interview conducted after the September 11 attacks that we found helpful in understanding how to cope. Diane Coutu, a longtime HBR editor, interviewed Dr. Steven E. Hyman, who served as the director of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) from 1996 through 2001. Today, he directs the Stanley Center for Psychiatric Research. What follows are excerpts of their conversation from over ten years ago that have given us strength and perspective today.
On the impact of an event like this on people who witnessed it on TV, but may not have been present:
Most people will have at least transient trouble concentrating, and many will be irritable or depressed. Some people may feel that normal tasks are not meaningful anymore, so they may lose their motivation. These symptoms can obviously affect interactions among colleagues at work, and they can negatively affect productivity. For most individuals, these symptoms will recede with time.
Unfortunately... the current situation is one of continuing uncertainty, and the fear of new attacks is a rational one. It's impossible to escape this reality, but we should not panic. Like most emotions, fear is highly contagious. The infectious quality of fear and anxiety is part of our species's warning system for shared dangers; but when anxiety becomes chronic, it is no longer adaptive. That's why we need to develop strategies for coping.
On some of the coping strategies that may be particularly helpful for businesses at a time like this:
Corporate leaders must speak and act calmly, despite their own concern. They must provide honest, accurate information insofar as that is possible. Leaders should say what they know — and what they don't know — and then relate the steps they are taking to control the situation. It is critical that managers not mix their attempts to provide information with efforts to reassure employees. Confusing the two calls into question the reliability of the information at hand.
At the individual level, employees can take steps to improve how they cope. They should stay connected to their social networks because isolation heightens the risk for anxiety and depression. Within their social networks, both at home and at work, people should be solicitous of one another. They should offer to listen if someone needs to unload, or make a concerted effort to keep plans. At the same time, they must be wary of becoming intrusive. Some people want to tell their stories and discuss their concerns, but others do not. Pushing someone who isn't ready to talk about his anxieties is not helpful. In fact, forcing people to face their raw emotions can retraumatize them, unless they have a safe setting and appropriate coping strategies in place. Parenthetically, this is why poorly trained stress debriefers or grief counselors can actually do harm.
People should also take care of themselves physically. The activation of our bodies' fight or flight response — with the accompanying release of stress hormones — may actually strengthen traumatic memories in the brain, prolonging or worsening symptoms. And so it is terribly important to get rest, even though sleeping may be difficult. Eating well and getting exercise are also important, as is avoiding excessive alcohol or caffeine. Sleeping pills may be helpful for a few days, but their use should not become long-term. An overreliance on sleeping pills may create more problems than it solves — including the risk of dependence.
Finally, we must try to re-create a sense of control over our destinies and restore a sense of meaning to our lives... Work is a vital aspect of that: People feel healthy when they think they're contributing to society. Indeed, finding significance in life is crucial for mental health.
On what managers do to help employees deal effectively with feelings of depression or grief:
While this is hard for smaller businesses, many larger businesses have invested in well-publicized employee assistance programs. These programs have been very effective in helping employees resolve personal problems that affect their job performance and their personal well-being. But the critical thing is to make sure that your EAP staff and referral network know what they're doing. It's great that companies are making interventions with employees — especially at a time like this — but the interventions have got to be the right ones. It should be well understood that EAP professionals are generally not physicians or clinical psychologists; their job is to offer referrals, not to make diagnoses. It's also essential for EAPs to maintain confidentiality so that the company's employees feel safe using them.
This post was updated April 17, 2013.