Work world grappling with terror's grip

Before that fateful day, Chris Strout had an interesting but not especially demanding job managing content on Aon Corp.'s Web site. Then some hijackers plowed a jet into the insurance giant's offices in the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, and his life, like so many others, changed.

For the past week and a half, Strout has been working long hours, updating Aon's Web site with information about 200 employees who are missing, one of them a man who was just married, another a woman who was 5 1/2 months pregnant.

Soon that part of his job will end, but nothing will be the same.

"I honestly think this will always affect us from here on out," Strout said. "Yes, business must go on. Yes, insurance policies must be written. They already are. But this will change the way we do business."

Returning to normal, getting back into the swing of things -- it's something that tens of millions of other American workers and executives long to do. They've done it before after shocking acts of violence such as the Oklahoma City bombing or the Columbine massacre.

But nearly two weeks after the attacks in New York and Washington, most workplaces are still out of kilter, people are staying put and productivity is suffering.

It's harder to get into many buildings because of new security measures. Many companies have curtailed employee travel. Others are telling workers they don't have to make business trips unless they feel comfortable doing so.

Work time is still being consumed by discussions of the rescue effort and what will happen next militarily. Top executives are composing memos to employees rather than planning strategy. Some firms, such as those in the Sears Tower, have to contend with false rumors of new attacks, which caused an impromptu evacuation of the high-rise on Sept. 20.

Such a sense of unease is inevitable given the ongoing nature of the terrorist threat and the fear it has invoked, psychologists and business experts say.

"I am not seeing or forecasting that business goes back to normal," said Laurie Anderson, a clinical psychologist and business consultant in Chicago. "This is not something that happened. This is something that is happening."

The paradigm of post-traumatic stress syndrome doesn't really apply for that reason, she said. In cases of other air disasters, where jets crash or explode over the sea, travel usually falls off for about two weeks before returning to previous levels. But no one is expecting employees' anxiety about travel or working in a high-rise is going to dissipate anytime soon.

"There is a new level of vulnerability," Anderson said.

She predicts the terrorist attack will prompt American business to rethink all kinds of things, from whether workers need to commute downtown and when they need to attend conventions or meet face-to-face with clients.

"The way we work is under examination and probably long overdue," Anderson said.

The steep falloff in business travel is one of the most obvious ways that American business has been thrown out of whack by the disaster.

"Half of business travel could be gone," warns Kevin Mitchell, chairman of the Business Travel Coalition, which represents large companies that buy air transportation services.

To be sure, severe cutbacks in business travel were under way long before Sept. 11. A survey conducted by Mitchell's group the day before the New York disaster found that most companies only expected to be doing 80 percent as much traveling in January as they were doing in September.

"They weren't cutting just to save costs in an economic slowdown. The cuts were for the long-term," Mitchell said.

And that means even when road warriors start flying again, there won't be as much business travel as there was before 2000. "I don't think it's going back to normal," he said. "Even if this didn't happen, there's a sea change out there."

Of course, how deeply people are affected and for how long depends on their personal connection to the tragedy, mental health experts say.

Distance helps

"The more detached you were in space and time, the less impact it will have on you," said Bennett Leventhal, director of child and adolescent psychiatry at the University of Chicago. "For most people who were not directly affected, they should be back to regular and full functioning within a few weeks."

However, that healing process could be slowed by repeated viewing of disaster clips and new unsettling events related to the U.S. response, he added. "If people were just a bit more measured and focused on returning to normalcy, people would be able to settle back into their lives more quickly."

Some companies already have returned to what appears to be a normal state. Susan Benton-Powers, a partner at Chicago law firm Winston & Strawn, said her office was calm one day after the attacks. With the exception of the firm's New York office, "everyone is back to work," she said, adding that tension was greatly reduced after the Chicago office heard that their New York colleagues were all OK.

But for workers in Manhattan, near the disaster site, the stress hasn't begun to dissipate even 10 days later, hardly a surprise given the visual reminders and a rash of bomb threats that followed.

Matt Kenney, manager of technical support for law firm Milbank, Tweed, Hadley and McCloy, has started smoking more. Before the terrorist assault, he was trying to kick the habit and was down to three cigarettes a day. Now he's back up to a pack.

"It's not easy being down here," said Kenney, taking a smoke break outside Chase Manhattan Plaza, just blocks from the World Trade Center. "People are thinking about what might happen next."

Kenney says he and co-workers tend to avoid looking out the windows and seeing the emptiness where the towers once stood. As a kind of personal penance, he forces himself to look "once a day."

More than ever, medical experts say, companies should be focusing on the mental health of their employees. It's hard to predict what individual responses to the terrorist attack will look like, says Michael Faenza, chief executive of the National Mental Health Association.

Individuals at high risk for developing mental health problems include those personally touched by the tragedy, those who have experienced trauma in the past and those who have sought treatment before, Faenza said.

"The United States did not appropriately address mental health problems before this crisis. Now, more than ever, we need to promote mental health and treat mental illness."

Counseling offered

Aon is on the front lines of helping employees cope with the tragedy.

The insurer is extending on-site counseling indefinitely and encouraging senior executives, who have been busy dealing with human tragedy, to seek counseling. Some healing is expected to begin after two memorial services, one on Monday in New York and one on Tuesday in Chicago.

For many, those memorials will offer the first sense of closure, said Melody Jones, Aon's chief human resources officer. Aon is moving on in other ways. It already has begun the search for new office space for its surviving 1,000 New York employees.

At Carr Futures Inc., a Chicago-based firm that lost 69 employees in the disaster, managers are keeping a closer eye on employees, looking for signs of emotional distress.

Carol Hetman, Carr's head of human resources, has organized small group meetings for her departments that allow employees to vent their grief and frustration.

Even so, "As an organization, we will never be the same," she predicts. "And we have to accept that."

Chicago Tribune staff reporter Carol Kleiman contributed to this report.