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A Manager's Guide to Handling Painful Anniversaries in the Workplace

By William Badzmierowski, Eileen A. Piccininni | 0 comments
A Manager's Guide to Handling Painful Anniversaries in the Workplace
Our lives change in various ways when something awful happens. Some of us lose friends. Some of us lose family. Some of us lose loved ones. Some of us are close to people who suffer a loss. And others of us have no direct connection at all to specific painful incidents or events, but may find it nonetheless almost impossible to escape the intense emotional fallout from the pain that may surround us.

After traumatic events like this, the pain and fear can linger for a long time. In many cases, just as the recovery and healing process begins, the “anniversary” of an event can trigger many of those same feelings.

Just as each person’s experiences with or involvement in specific painful events are unique and personal, so are our reactions. Especially as reminders of the event increase as the anniversary draws near, handling the human, emotional aftermath of this crisis might become more and more difficult.

As a manager, you need to be prepared to handle the impact this may have on your workforce and your work environment.

As we approach anniversaries of traumatic incidents, we will be flooded with reminders of the tragic events. Television will remind us with news coverage, video footage, tributes and movies. Newspapers and magazines will remind us with harrowing stories, haunting headlines and graphic photographs. Requests for donations will begin to arrive in the mail. There will be special religious services and ceremonies held in our communities. Memories will surround us.

 

Possible Reactions

 

Emotional Reactions

The constant reminders of an impending painful anniversary may spark a variety of reactions in people. These include:
 

  • Preoccupation with thoughts about the event
  • Fear of recurrence
  • Fear of reminders
  • Anxiety about past experiences
  • Anxiety about separation from loved ones
  • Sadness
  • Hopelessness
  • Frustration or anger
  • Depression
  • Over-protectiveness of family
  • A desire to honor the memory of lost loved ones


Physical and Behavioral Reactions

Emotional reactions can contribute to physical reactions. These can include:
 

  • Fatigue
  • Restlessness
  • Sleeplessness
  • Extreme sensitivity to sound, light, or somebody behind us
  • Physical illness (headaches, backaches, nausea, vomiting, etc)


These physical reactions can sometimes contribute to a dramatic increase in:
 

  • Workplace absenteeism
  • Apathy
  • Tardiness
  • Substance-abuse related issues
  • Workplace conflict


There can also be decreases in productivity.

All of these reactions are typical for people exposed to trauma.

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It’s also typical for these reactions to diminish over time. It’s important to remember that each person responds differently.

You can’t erase the tragedy, alter someone’s reactions, or make the pain disappear.

You CAN help by listening, offering support, and calling for professional assistance for yourself and your workforce, if appropriate.


It’s important to acknowledge that employees need to be responsible for their own workplace behavior. Be realistic in your work expectations of yourself and your employees. At the same time, policies may allow managers to be adaptive and, when possible, permit employees to make choices within the work environment such as the use of leave time or being flexible with work hours.


It may be helpful to address the upcoming anniversary with employees in advance, to help people prepare for their own reactions. Discuss this option with your management team and with your Human Resources department.

 

Upper management may write a letter acknowledging the anniversary and include information outlining typical reactions such as those named above. Organizations may offer the opportunity for people to gather at the worksite as a group to discuss thoughts about the upcoming anniversary with a professional.


Being supportive and expecting the job to get done are not mutually exclusive. Managers can deal with employees by focusing on job performance and yet maintaining a sensitive, supportive, and understanding management style:
 

  • Recognize employees’ efforts and accomplishments
  • Communicate business goals clearly
  • Listen to employees’ concerns
  • Ask employees what they need
  • Offer resources such as the Human Resources department or available topical seminars

 


The Manager’s Role

 

It’s important that managers both remember and respect that their role is to manage and supervise. While this role involves supporting employees, there are limitations and boundaries to the type of support that a manager can give. Remember that:
 

  • The manager’s role focuses on workplace performance issues.
  • The manager can listen to employees and offer resources.
  • The manager cannot solve an employee’s personal problems.
  • Outside resources may be available to assist employees with personal problems that may interfere with work performance. These may include the Employee Assistance Program and various types of community resources.

 


Secondary Assault

 

Unfortunately, sometimes even with the best of intentions, we may say something hurtful. This is known as secondary assault. This often happens when we simply don’t know what to say. We might say something that was said to us in the past without thinking how our words may affect a person in the present.

 

Examples of Secondary Assault include comments such as:
 

  • “At least you are still here.”
  • “Things could always be worse.”
  • “There were not as many deaths as they expected.”
  • “You didn’t even know anybody that was involved!”
  • “You have strong shoulders to carry this burden.”
  • “Be thankful for what you have.”
  • “It really is time for us to move on from all of this!”
     

Secondary assault is harmful because it minimizes someone’s emotional pain despite the true intention of the comment. Allowing a few moments of quiet to fill in the gaps may feel awkward, but it will be less awkward than someone’s reaction from a comment taken the wrong way.

 

Anniversary Reaction

 

An anniversary reaction is a re-triggering or re-experiencing of a traumatic event that occurs because of a time cue. A time cue can be anything that was associated with the time that the trauma occurred, from the season of the year, to a particular day, date, or hour (Panos, 2001).

 

While there is no quick fix for the emotional healing needed to recover from these events, it is reassuring to know that most responses are normal—even though the events themselves are abnormal. Anniversaries are reminders of these abnormal events.

 

Honoring the Anniversary

 

Consider Your Organizational Culture

The manner in which your organization handles a significant anniversary largely depends on the personality of your organization.

 

Every organization has a unique culture. It has its own special history of how the organization has been managed, its own set ways of approaching problems and conducting activities, its own mix of managerial personalities and styles, its own established patterns of “how we do things around here,” its own legendary set of stories and heroes, its own experiences of how changes have been instituted—in other words, its own climate, folklore, and organization personality (Thompson and Strickland, 1987).

 

As time goes on, people tend to grow through the pain and may even get stronger. We see this evidenced when people within organizations facilitate fund drives or contribute volunteer time to help a community cause in memory of a significant person or event.


Some organizations may wish to honor major anniversaries by commemorating them in some way. This could help employees continue to integrate these events into their lives and maintain customary productivity levels. If it involves a series of tragedies that impacted the entire world in some way, it might seem unusual for any workplace to allow the anniversary to pass without remembering it in some way. However, the manner in which your workplace remembers is personal to your organization. The remembrance may be as simple as the acknowledgement discussed earlier, and may be as elaborate as a memorial service.

 

As a manager, you may wish to let organizational culture guide you in your decisions about how you might commemorate the event. Something that’s helpful and meaningful in one organization may not work within another.

 

An individual’s personality often defines how they approach life and what feels natural. Many things, including personal history, upbringing, life experiences, and cultural norms shape personality. In much the same way, an organizational culture defines an “organizational personality.”


The respective organizational culture will be important in determining if, how, when, and where to commemorate the event. What is good for one organization may not be good for another. Keep this in mind as your organization approaches any formal or informal remembrance of painful anniversaries.


Many organizations have acknowledged the anniversary of significant events in a variety of fashions. We have incorporated these within our list of suggestions for possible commemorations.

 

Some dos and don’ts include:


Do
 

  • Acknowledge the anniversary of painful events. This can be done through an employee newsletter, an internal website, advance discussion in regularly scheduled meetings, or a special letter from Senior Management.
  • Involve your staff in decisions about any memorials or commemorations.
  • Ask employees how you or the organization can help.
  • Accept the fact that employees may be concerned.
  • Concentrate on what employees are saying, and be careful about making assumptions.
  • Convey empathy.
  • Expect that employees will be able to perform their jobs.
  • Inform employees if the organization intends to promote formal or informal commemorations.
  • Remind employees about available resources. These may include a Human Resources department, available seminars, and outside resources.
     

Don’t
 

  • Say anything if you don’t know what to say.
  • Be defensive or argue.
  • Make assumptions about what people need.
  • Assume that everyone needs professional counseling.
  • Interrupt when an employee is expressing concerns.
  • Be patronizing or impatient.
  • Give advice.


Commemoration Suggestions

Some possibilities are listed for both individual and group activities that could serve to respectfully commemorate an anniversary. Some of these ideas may or may not relate within your organizational culture. Regardless, be open to the creativity that these ideas may spark in your management team:
 

  • Acknowledge an upcoming anniversary through a letter from upper management.
  • Research local scheduling of public memorial services in your community through civic groups, the Chamber of Commerce, houses of worship, or your local American Red Cross Chapter. Publicize the information internally and allow employees to attend.
  • Schedule a moment of silence at an appropriate time on the day of the anniversary. Choose a time appropriate to your organizational culture.
  • Plant a tree or flower in honor of this date.
  • Raise money for an employee chosen non-profit organization.
  • Invite an outside religious or community leader to conduct a memorial service at your workplace.
  • Light candles.
  • Visit a loved one in the hospital or in a nursing home—this may be a difficult time for them as well.
  • Take a walk.
  • Visit any of the multitudes of websites dedicated to respectfully memorializing a painful event. Some even invite visitors to light a “virtual candle.”
  • Give each employee a flower or other small memento on the anniversary date.
  • Attend an outside memorial service.
  • Write about lessons you’ve learned from the painful event.
  • Donate blood.
  • Write a thank you letter to a rescuer.
  • Schedule a debriefing.
  • Sponsor a relevant seminar.


If your organization chooses to honor the anniversary in some way, keep in mind:
 

  • Organizational culture
  • The diversity of your workforce
  • Departmental and individual work schedules
  • Personal, cultural, and religious customs within a diverse workforce
  • Some employees may prefer privacy in their own commemoration of an anniversary
  • Some employees may prefer to refrain from acknowledging an anniversary
  • Individual differences exist between and among employees


Your employees will appreciate being offered the opportunity to participate in planning any commemoration that takes place.

 

We strongly advise that an individual’s participation in activities related to the anniversary be completely optional. Requiring participation or attendance might be a form of secondary assault and could do more harm than good. This really needs to be an individual decision by each employee.

 

Take Care of You


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It’s important that managers realize that there are limitations to what can be done to help employees through this time. But also remember that you must help yourself first. You are of no use to your staff if you don’t feel healthy yourself. Often, managers overwork themselves or over-commit themselves to the needs of individual employees. While this is done with good intentions, the results can be disastrous. Manager burnout is high among those who deny their own needs for respite and re-energizing.


During one of our recent training programs, a Flight Attendant Manager was concerned about “self-care” being the same thing as “selfishness.” Recognizing the good intentions of this manager, we asked about a pre-flight instruction we received on our journey to the training site. Our pre-flight instruction pertained to the possible loss of cabin pressure during flight. We were informed that during such an event, our oxygen masks would automatically drop from overhead. We were instructed to put on our own masks first. Lastly, we were instructed to assist our children with their masks. The grateful Flight Attendant Manager immediately saw our point and thanked us for this important lesson in self-care.

 

Self-Care for Managers
 

  • Get adequate rest. Be sure to stay consistent with your normal sleep patterns, and be careful about getting more or less sleep than usual.
  • Acknowledge your own reactions to the anniversary.
  • Talk with the people that support you (spouse, partner, family, friends, colleagues).
  • Say what you need.
  • Be clear about your limitations.
  • Remember that your job is to manage rather than counsel.


 

Going Forward

 
More Resources
Read more about workplace violence prevention training.

While we cannot erase—and should not try to erase—the memory of tragic events that happen in our lives, proactively preparing and dealing with upcoming anniversaries and the day-to-day reminders can make for a healthier work environment.

 

This article was adapted from an FEI Behavioral Health internal publication written by the authors in preparation for the first anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States.

 

Eileen A. Piccininni, MA, CASAC, MAC, CEAP, was Senior Account Manager for FEI Behavioral Health in New York, NY. She now is Senior EAP Consultant with Mellon Financial Services in New Jersey.

Bill Badzmierowski has served as a crisis responder during Hurricane Iniki in the Hawaiian Islands; countless tornadoes, fires, and floods in various parts of North America; the Southern California earthquake; the Wisconsin train derailment; the Egypt Air crash, Air Transat crash, and Alaska Airlines crash; the shootings at Columbine High School; the September 11, 2001 terrorist incidents in the United States; the Marriott Hotel bombing in Jakarta, Indonesia; and a number of other major crisis events throughout the world.

 

Endnotes

 

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