The Anxious Face of the Workplace

With employees' nerves on edge, productivity is down across the country since the terrorist attacks and anthrax mailings

It's now the tallest skyscraper in New York. And for many who go to work each day at the Empire State Building, every minute they spend in the 102-floor tower is fraught with worry. "I'm very concerned every day," says Paul Cancillieri, a health-care recruiter who works on the 64th floor.

These days, Cancillieri is less anxious about plane-hijacking terrorists than about those who may be lurking on the ground with bombs or the anthrax bacteria that has arrived via the mail in several states, including New York. Nevertheless, Cancillieri is at his desk Monday through Friday. Like just about everyone else, he needs to get on with his life -- and get his paycheck. "What are you going to do?" asks Cancillieri, 24. "If your number's punched out, you're out."

It has been nearly six weeks since terrorists piloting hijacked jets leveled the twin towers of New York's World Trade Center and tore a hole in the Pentagon. Nevertheless, what used to be a mundane routine of going to work remains nerve-racking for some, terrifying for others.


  Thanks to the attacks in New York and Washington, it's hard to dismiss Osama Bin Laden's threat that more Americans will be killed. And if that weren't enough, it seems that hardly a day goes by without a new case of workplace exposure to anthrax, which has already claimed one life in Florida. Employees are becoming conditioned to the idea that the threats may continue. "Anthrax is so a week ago," says one media professional -- only half jokingly -- who works in a Times Square skyscraper and has obtained Cipro, the anthrax antibiotic. "I'm on to the nuclear threat."

The notion, right or wrong, that the country is under siege is taking its toll on the workplace. "I'm finding it harder to concentrate," says Cancillieri. "I'll go on the Net to see what's going on." He has company: The number of Americans going online for the latest on the terrorism aftermath jumped 141% in the week following the attack, according to research firm Nielsen/NetRatings, which examined readership at five top news Web sites.

With so many distractions, no less an expert than Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan says productivity is slipping. Other experts are noticing the same trend. "The time that it's taking to get work done is increasing," notes Allon Bross, president and chief executive of Toronto-based FGI, an employee assistance programs (EAP) provider. "People are continuing to listen to the news and to exchange views with each other, and that's taking away from productivity."


  Employee health is taking a hit, too, and that's affecting productivity even more. "People are not sleeping well," says James Pennebaker, a psychology professor at the University of Texas at Austin and an expert on disasters. Thus, "people are not functioning efficiently. I can guarantee it's affecting their work."

In a sign that people are upset, the number of new prescriptions filled for antidepressants such as Prozac and Celexa rose 16% in the first week of October over the same period last year, according to NDCHealth of Atlanta, a health-care information-services company. New prescriptions filled for antianxiety medication increased 7.5%.

The anxiety levels are highest in high-profile buildings and workplaces, says Richard Ottenstein, a psychologist and chief executive of the Workplace Trauma Center in Owings Mills, Md. Particularly spooked are employees at airports, tourist attractions, federal buildings, and skyscrapers such as the Empire State Building and the Sears Tower in Chicago. "Employees in these buildings can't get the images of the planes crashing into the World Trade Center out of their heads," says Ottenstein.


 Employees who work in less conspicuous buildings are thankful. "We're in a nondescript skyscraper, which is unlikely to be singled out as a model of American capitalism, and we are happy for that," says John Delaney, co-chair of the new-media practice at law firm Morrison & Foerster, who works in midtown Manhattan. Even so, Delaney says many of his employees remain jittery. "It's harder to sit down and review a contract," he notes.

New York and Washington -- the targets of the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history -- aren't the only areas on edge: Workers in America's Heartland are stressed out, too. Reports Ann Brown, president and owner of outdoor sign company Lowen in Hutchinson, Kan.: "People here are concerned about the water supply. We have a large reservoir."

Productivity is pretty much back to normal at her 300-employee company after coming to a standstill immediately after September 11, Brown says. But employee lunch hours are consumed with talk about what's going on in the U.S. and in Central Asia, where U.S. troops already have landed. "I think this is still in the foreground," she says.


  Life is even less mellow in traditionally laid back San Francisco. "We definitely feel like the city could be the next target," says Roya Zamanzadeh, founder of Pear Transmedia, a 15-employee Web-site design company in the city's trendy Mission district. People are more concerned about bioterrorism than about planes being used as missiles, she says, but the company has taken steps to prepare for the worst. That includes building up a stock of crackers, canned tuna, and water to last employees a few days in case they get stuck at the office. "People are a little bit more sad and down," she says. "They're still getting projects done, but business has been slow."

Amid all the distress, many workers report at least one positive: They're getting along better with each other. "This has given us such perspective," says Gary Corrigan, a spokesman for Dana, a large auto-parts maker based in Toledo, Ohio. Adds attorney Delaney: "Office politics have disappeared. [September 11] has brought people closer."

As a result, employees are coming up with their own ways to deal with the general anxiety. At MoFo, as Delaney's firm is also known, more than 40 attorneys spent about a week putting together a legal handbook for the families of the victims of the September 11 tragedy. The 41-page pamphlet -- covering death certificates, wills, Social Security claims, and other issues -- was handed out at various aid centers and is available on the company's Web site. "It was therapeutic for people who had trouble focusing on work," says Delaney. "You were using your legal background to help the people most affected."


  In a similar vein, employees at Brown's graphics and signage firm are busy making flag decals and graphics for the sides of trucks bearing portraits of a firefighter, a police officer, and an emergency medical technician. Profits from these patriotic images are going to the American Red Cross. "This has really helped our employees rally," Brown says.

Unfortunately, many other workers across the nation may not emerge from their funk soon, experts caution. "I don't think it's going away until there are clear signs of progress in homeland security and the attack on terrorists abroad," says Ottenstein. Hundreds of terrorists may still be in the U.S. and need to be ferreted out, the Bush Administration has warned -- and the war on terrorism may last for years.

Nevertheless, companies should take measures should to ease employee fears, according to experts. Ottenstein says now is a good time to go over security plans with workers. He adds that they should be encouraged to check the news and touch base with their loved ones frequently if it will give them peace of mind.


  Employers also should be sensitive to the symptoms of a demoralized workforce and provide counseling as needed, says Bross. Employees who call in sick frequently may be suffering from post-traumatic-stress disorder and need aid, he says. "Continuing guidance will help get them through this."

Willie Garrett, a psychologist and director of employee-assistance services at Ceridian, another EAP provider, also suggests that employers get creative with ways to lower tension at the office, such as offering massages or having music played in a relaxing place such as a break room or courtyard. "It's going to be months before we feel back to normal, and that's if no other events occur," he says.

Of course, that's the big if. For the time being, employees are going to have to realize it's normal to not feel normal.

By Eric Wahlgren in New York

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