4 Reactions Employees May Have in the Workplace Around 9/11 and How Employers Can Help

Sep 9, 2021

By Kendall Browne, PhD

This Saturday marks the 20 year anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States. An anniversary that comes in the wake of the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan and a new refugee crisis brought by the end of a war triggered by these very same attacks. Additionally, the last eighteen months have marked an era defined by its tumultuous nature–leaving many of us feeling depleted. Between the recent events in Afghanistan, the COVID-19 pandemic, racial injustice, and political unrest, the upcoming anniversary of 9/11 may be more emotionally significant than it has been in years past. 

Your employees may have strong reactions to this anniversary, including the following: 

1. Strong and frequent memories 

Many who resided in the US can point to the exact place they were and precisely what they were doing when they heard news of the September 11th attacks. This memory and related memories can come vividly to the forefront of your employees’ minds on this anniversary. This is typically true for upsetting memories in general but something as impactful and far reaching as the attacks on 9/11 can be especially jarring. 

2. Distressing thoughts and feelings

Your employees may experience a wide range of emotions, including sadness, grief, shock, anxiety, fear, frustration, helplessness or even a sense of numbness. 

First responders, military service members, veterans, victims of the subsequent islamophobia, and family members and loved ones of each of these groups may be particularly impacted by distressing thoughts and feelings arising on this day.

3. Trauma triggers

According to the National Center for PTSD, “On the anniversary of a traumatic event, some survivors have an increase in distress. These ‘anniversary reactions’ can range from feeling mildly upset for a day or two to a more extreme reaction with more severe mental health or medical symptoms.” With that in mind, those directly exposed to traumatic events during or in the wake of 9/11, including those living with mental health disorders that can onset following traumatic events (e.g., PTSD, depression, anxiety), may be particularly impacted by this anniversary and could experience worsening mental health symptoms.

4. Impacted behavior

All of the above experiences can understandably impact an individual’s behavior, including in the workplace. You may notice or hear an employee making statements about:

    • Being distracted
    • Avoiding conversations or reminders of 9/11
    • Withdrawing or isolating 
    • Increasing substance use 
    • Disrupted sleep/feeling tired

It’s important to remember that everyone responds to distressing events differently–while some employees may seem fine, others may appear heavily impacted. 

How employers and managers can help

Managers and employers can help their workforce navigate this emotional anniversary by: 

1. Acknowledging that this is a difficult anniversary and supporting employees

This anniversary is likely affecting most of your workforce, but may be doing so in different ways. There is no right or wrong way to feel, but there are certain behaviors that are more productive than others. Acknowledge that this is a difficult moment in time and focus conversations on how people can take care of themselves in observance of this anniversary rather than discussing topics that could be polarizing, triggering, or harmful. 

With this in mind, be kind to your employees and to yourself. If you find your employees are distracted or having difficulty performing at their best, encourage taking breaks and time off to process emotions or practice self-care routines. Invite employees to prioritize tasks and meetings so they can have room in their schedule to take care of themselves. Know that some employees may not feel comfortable asking for permission to take time off, so consider offering it proactively. 

If you find yourself struggling during this anniversary, consider applying the above strategies in your own life and have compassion for yourself during this time. If needed, think about how you would respond to a loved one and consider how you can provide that same level of care and concern for yourself. 

 2. Leading by example

Acknowledge your own experience and share your ways of coping, such as prioritizing self-care or connecting with others. This can be as simple as sharing an emotion you’ve felt, describing how it has impacted you in the workplace, and noting what you’ve done to cope (e.g., “I’ve felt a profound sense of sadness and it has made it hard to focus at times. I’ve tried to be mindful of taking breaks throughout my day to do something restorative–for me that’s a short walk”). 

The intention here is to demonstrate that it’s normal to have an emotional response to this anniversary, to demonstrate that you recognize the need to stop, honor and/or acknowledge what has occurred in some way, and to share coping tools. Communicating with empathy and understanding will help to create a workplace culture that promotes help-seeking and increases the likelihood that employees will be open about their needs.

3. Using wellness check-ins 

Check in with your employees, whether that’s over instant message or email, by walking around the workplace, or during 1:1’s and small group meetings. Keep the focus on how people are doing and how you can support them. Consider scheduling more formal check-ins with impacted employees individually or in small groups based on employee preference.

4. Reminding your employees of company mental health resources

Remind your employees of available mental health resources, including an EAP or an external mental health benefit. Your benefits provider should be able to support your employees with educational resources and tailored, culturally sensitive care for a range of mental health needs. 

Ultimately, acknowledging this difficult moment in the workplace, leading by example, having open lines of communication, and providing access to a robust mental health benefit can create a supportive environment and culture where asking for help is ok. These strategies will serve your employees now and throughout their tenures at your company.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Kendall Browne, PhD is the Program Manager, Workforce Mental Health at Lyra Health and a licensed clinical psychologist. Dr. Browne has over a decade of experience in the development, evaluation, and use of evidence-based interventions for mental health conditions, including anxiety disorders, trauma-related disorders, and substance use disorders. Throughout her career, Dr. Browne has provided educational trainings and consultation to healthcare leaders, administrators, frontline clinician providers and employees. In her current role, she consults with employers on workplace wellness and mental health strategy and contributes to the development and delivery of Lyra’s educational content.