Alison Brown, CEO of Grand Rapids-based Employee Assistance Associates (EAA), believes there’s a sense of uneasiness about what the anniversary is going to be like and how those who were directly impacted are going to handle it emotionally and psychologically.
Brown, a Ph.D., has directed EAA’s employee assistance program for 19 years. Her firm has offered crisis services since the early 1990s, helping organizations deal with workplace violence, on-the-job accidents and other unexpected situations.
EAA provided both group and individual trauma counseling for about a dozen local companies that experienced fallout from last year’s attacks. Some of them had affiliates in New York and others had employees who travel routinely.
“One of the things we always stress with our client companies is that the preventive work on the anniversary of a traumatic event is really key,” she said.
“I think the whole issue with an anniversary such as Sept. 11 is to help people understand that it’s normal to have some apprehension.
“Then there are those people who are going to need more than just the normalization of those thoughts; there are people who lost loved ones and, hopefully, they will reach out to get some support for grief.”
An event such as Sept. 11 makes people question their ability to be and feel secure, so the opportunity to talk about their fears is key to the healing process, she said.
In advance of Sept. 11’s anniversary, EAA staff has been working with companies to help them identify signs of stress in their employees. As Brown sees it, it’s a preventative stance some companies are taking to prepare themselves for what might be ahead.
She anticipates many people will be bothered by disruptive or intrusive thoughts on the anniversary and that those who were directly impacted by Sept. 11 might need special help getting through it.
EAA has about 200 client companies, most of which have a national presence. The company employs 13 people locally and more than 70 subcontractors nationwide. It works with all kinds of companies, ranging in size from 10 to 10,000 employees.
“The need is really not a whole lot different whether you’re an individual working in a small office or you’re an individual in a corporate environment.
“The environment and the culture is very, very different, but the needs of a person as a human being, especially with regard to Sept. 11, are pretty universal.”
Brown’s business partner was in Manhattan last Sept. 11 doing training for a client company.
“When he called in to say he was OK, it was a tremendous relief to us,” she recalled.
Her firm immediately started setting up critical incident stress debriefing sessions for client companies that had employees working in Manhattan and had experienced 9/11 firsthand.
The core issues were safety and security and the need to talk about what was witnessed.
In the aftermath of the attacks, there was a lot of apprehension about flying and about the safety of travel altogether, Brown recalled. Those cases were typically handled in one-on-one counseling sessions.
Brown said EAA received calls from people who weren’t directly impacted by the attacks but just wanted to talk with someone about them. Most often, they were from people who tended to be “severely in need” but didn’t have a network of family and friends available.
Brown went on site at a client company on the afternoon of Sept. 11 to assist people. She found that rather than in-depth counseling, what a lot of people needed at the time was just the opportunity to talk about and “process” the events with co-workers and friends.
“With the anniversary, I think it just drives home again the fact that this event happened, it did compromise our ability to be safe, but that we can work through this,” Brown added.
She advises employers to post information letting everyone in the organization know where help and support is available.
“I think it’s also very important that employers recognize that people will be talking about this.
“In terms of magnitude, this is probably not something that is going to be forgotten by our generation — ever. Everybody will recall exactly where they were and exactly what they were doing when 9/11 occurred.
“For all of us it was such a shock that to be able to process it is very, very important. So talking about it is important. Helping children verbalize what their concerns are is very therapeutic.”
Sept. 11 taught a lot of lessons, she said.
“Very quickly we got right back to the basics of compassion and being very courteous to one another.”
There was an immediate shift of focus — from helping oneself to helping others.
“I think it really tapped that vulnerable spot in all of us. In addition to the stresses we feel in anticipation of 9/11, I think the anniversary gives us that chance to go back to some of the fundamentals of working together — which is really what makes us a great society and what makes great companies.”