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RESPONSE TO TERROR

Work Sliding Down on List of Priorities

As many workers rethink their lives in and out of the office, psychologists say the shift is a normal reaction to trauma.

November 04, 2001|RONALD D. WHITE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A workaholic corporate executive is in discussions with her boss about downshifting to part-time.

A lawyer is saying no to the business conference circuit that has been a main source for new clients and billable hours.

A freelance writer has put off indefinitely the kind of foreign travel assignment she relished before Sept. 11.

Many American workers have undergone a dramatic shift in their views of work and of their lives outside the office since the terrorist attacks. Opportunities pursued for years no longer seem as important as spending more time with family and friends. Workplace disappointments that would have been severe blows in the past are taken in stride. Priorities not only have shifted, they are reversed.

"I've always had a classic, type 'A,' driven work personality," said Ann Fahey-Widman, manager of public relations at Abbott Laboratories. "But I've just talked to my boss about the possibility of working part-time. I want to be able to spend more time with my son. Life is too short."

Fahey-Widman said her defining moment came in the middle of the attacks on the World Trade Center. She knew it was going to be a busy day, but her immediate need was to go to her son, Jake, who was at a nearby day-care center on the 1,200-acre Abbott campus north of Chicago. "I needed to hug him and kiss him and touch him," she said. "I needed that grounding."

In the Century City high-rise office of the Littler Mendelson law firm, managing shareholder Jaffe Dickerson learned that a close colleague at another company was on United Flight 175, one of the two airliners steered into the World Trade Center.

"There were two camps at work: Those who had an immediate reaction and went into a deep depression for two weeks, and those who had a delayed stress response. I was in the former group," Dickerson said.

He said the change in him wasn't clear until he was contemplating another grueling business trip of the type he never thought twice about before: a red-eye flight to Montreal, arriving three hours before he was to give a speech, then flying back just two hours after the speech.

For Dickerson, the reward was going to be a prime audience--the general counsels of colleges and universities across the nation--an audience he had been trying to corral into one location for years. Dickerson's specialty is trends in higher education employment law and this would have been the perfect segue to billable hours.

"All of a sudden, I'm canceling the trip. I didn't want to go. My wife didn't want me to go. This past weekend, I skipped another conference in San Diego. It would have been another great grip-and-grin on labor and employment law," Dickerson said. "I promised I would go, but I didn't need to. If I don't need to, I can't justify it. So I spent the weekend with my family."

That might not sound like a big deal to many Americans, but it is to workaholics who consistently work late and customarily head into the office on weekends, experts say.

That kind of shift in behavior "is both expected and normal" after a national trauma "so inconsistent with what we have come to expect in our lives," said Emanuel Maidenberg, a clinical psychologist specializing in anxiety disorders at the UCLA school of medicine. "There is more reassessment. We want to spend more time with family. We revert to very basic instincts, self-preservation and comfort."

But are these permanent changes? Steven Berglas, an author and a UCLA instructor in management psychology, says the answer is no, adding that the nation goes through a cycle like this after a national trauma, such as the Vietnam War,, "when our belief in the power of success is shaken."

"People always get religion after a trauma, but it does not last," Berglas said.

But Dickerson said he doesn't think he will ever be the same person he was before Sept. 11. He's enjoying the family garden and has taken on home improvement projects. At work, the Post-It notes that had been accumulating on his computer for two years with the names and numbers of friends and colleagues he always had intended to call are coming down, one by one, as he reestablishes contact.

"You never know when or if you're going to have another chance to tell someone how much they mean to you," he said.

Some workers say they don't have the luxury of seriously considering a lifestyle change amid layoffs and a foundering economy. Others admit to being just as fearful of more terrorist violence and possible anthrax infection, but they don't have the option of letting go of their financial and professional obligations.

"Given an ideal work situation in which I had unlimited options, certainly I would choose working in a building with a lower profile and I would choose to spend more time with my family," said Connie Michaels, a mother of two who, like Dickerson, works at Littler Mendelson.

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