During the last week of October, the tri-state area was hit by Sandy, a storm with 100+ miles per hour winds and intense storm surges, which incapacitated neighborhoods for at least a week. Many people lost power and water, while others lost their homes. Some even lost their lives. Over a month later, we are still in recovery. Like the storm itself, our reactions are powerful and come from many fronts – amongst them: anger, helplessness, faith, and a generosity of spirit. Personally speaking, I have a newfound empathy for people who already lead chaotic lives and who now must work through the added complexity of this particular crisis.
Where does my new empathy come from? While I can thank my lucky stars my house is still standing, I didn’t have power for a week and an 80 foot tree still lies broken on my fence. For the first few weeks immediately following Sandy, I opened my house to friends and relatives who were less fortunate than I. I don’t regret doing that, and, I wouldn’t hesitate to do the same thing again should another disaster occur, but I did find that it was virtually impossible to focus on work, return calls or think clearly. Power on, power off, power on again. Friends in, friends out, relatives on sleeping bags, extra kids, extended family, creative and resourceful cooking, limited access to cash and gas. Ultimately, we survived. Sometimes, it was even fun. But was there time and energy to think about work? Hardly. I was able to maintain status quo but it was impossible to get ahead of my professional priorities. When the opportunity to return to work was at last available, I was never more thrilled for the momentary escape of the seemingly overwhelming, continually unresolved issues left behind at home.
This got me thinking — is this what it’s like for people from lower income households? Multiple family members sharing rooms/beds and limited resources? I’m reminded of my years working in the inner city schools of New York City, when I counseled students who had trouble with what I thought were relatively mundane tasks — i.e., getting to school and completing homework. Back then, I just shook my head — there was always some excuse. Only, were they really excuses? It eerily echoes my life in the weeks following Sandy. As an HR professional and career counselor, it’s my job to help minimize the extent to which personal issues interfere with performance in the workplace. Sure, many of us have had to, at one time or another, work around a sick child; wait for the plumber because the pipes burst in the middle of the night; or, put up with significant transportation issues. All of these I’ve just mentioned are occasional interferences – something that is generally tolerated by reasonable employers. Until it becomes commonplace and a pattern, at which point, employers have no choice but to discipline.
Having taken for granted the more-than adequate child care and resources prior to Sandy, will I now be more tolerant to others when I have my HR hat on? This is yet to be determined. I do know these few things, though: that people are resilient, some more so than others; that some will find any excuse not to go to work while others will climb mountains, walk or bike if there is no other way; and, that the next time someone tells me that they can’t get their work done, I will take the time ask more questions because maybe, just maybe, they’re going through circumstances that warrants a little more empathy. This is what Sandy taught me.