Employers seek therapy for workplace during war WAR IN THE GULF


January 26, 1991|By Michael K. Burns

The emergency call was filled with panic. "The entire staff's becoming dysfunctional" over escalation of the Persian Gulf war, the manager of a Washington firm explained. "They can see the Capitol from our windows" and are brooding over the extension of the war to their back yard, he said.

Susan Hahn, director of Employee Assistance Programs for Towson's Sheppard and Enoch Pratt Hospital, quickly dispatched a counselor to talk with those employees. She expects Sheppard Pratt to do more of this workplace therapy as concern over the war spreads.

"Education and alleviation of feelings of anxiety are needed at this time," she said, as employers attempt to deal with their workers' angst.

In the past few days, calls for help from the Towson hospital's employer clients across the country have significantly increased, she noted.

In response, the hospital is planning employee briefings, taped phone messages, publications and videotapes on the psychological impact of war. It is also working to establish support groups through the work site.

Telephone lines of Employee Assistance Programs are lighting up with calls from anxious employees seeking professional advice on how to cope with their own war worries or the nightmares and fantasies of their children, Ms. Hahn said.

In one case, small boys whose father was deployed to the war zone had worried their relatives by asking "when their daddy would die in the war."

An executive was frightened by the prospect of terrorism against his company; a worker reported suffering migraine headaches and nosebleeds because of worry over the Middle East conflict; one mother was wracked with unconsolable grief over the call-up of her son to active duty in Saudi Arabia.

"As the war goes on, we need to help companies set up ongoing services to their employees," Ms. Hahn said. "Employers need to be responsive to these concerns of their employees."

Sheppard Pratt's clients are encouraged to remind employees of the confidential counseling services available to them, she noted, as well as looking to group education.

Some employers report worker attendance problems that they link to war concerns, Ms. Hahn said. "Others anticipate absenteeism may go up, because people will sit glued to the TV or because of the psychological problems that can happen. There's concern about productivity down the line if we don't keep people informed."

Dr. James D. Levy, who runs CMC Inc.'s occupational health services in Baltimore, said he was aware of a general uneasiness about the war and the need for people in the workplace to keep up with events.

"We haven't seen any direct inquiries from employers yet" to respond specifically to worker war worries, Dr. Levy said. "But it's going to become more a priority of employers as we become more enlightened about developments."

CMC Inc. has an employee counseling service that could be used more in the coming days as the impact of the ongoing war becomes greater, he said.

The main concern of employees of CMC clients appears to be the economy, he said. "They're worried if they will still have a job."

But when the war anxieties are piled on top of financial worries, individuals "may find their emotional resources for coping are limited," Dr. Levy noted.

Like a number of employers, CMC has allowed employees to turn on television to keep up with the news, Dr. Levy said. "That's one thing to help with the level of uncertainty."

"The war certainly occupies a lot of time, thoughts and discussions of employees," said James R. Booth, who is with Black & Decker Corp. "But it has not been disruptive to the workplace -- they would have been talking about other topics, such as the Super Bowl," without the war.

"People are in a kind of funk at work, but I don't know if you can pinpoint the cause," said Jeffrey Valentine of the Greater Baltimore Committee. "There's stress over the war and over the economy."

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