Lessons from 9/11 Shed Light on Post-Disaster Workplace Productivity

Nancy Grover

Sarasota, FL (WorkersCompensation.com) – Businesses affected by disasters understandably want to get back on track as soon as possible. But their efforts to do so may actually backfire. Instead of looking first at their business operations, employers could have more of a positive impact on their bottom lines by first focusing on their employees’ needs, suggests new research.

“Although workplace responses focused on business improvement were likely intended to improve workplace performance, the current study’s findings indicate that it did not have the desired effect and may have inadvertently served to reduce job satisfaction,” according to a study published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine. “The workplace response findings suggest a tension between the focus of on individual needs versus productivity needs of the workplace.”

The Study

The researchers studied job satisfaction and performance among employees affected by the 2001 terrorist attacks on New York City’s World Trade Center. They collected data on employees who were stably employed three years after the attacks to learn about job satisfaction, job performance, and employee perceptions of their workplaces’ responses to the disaster.

“Affected workplaces have needs to continue carrying out their operations, but most studies have focused on disaster workers and emergency services personnel rather than on affected workplaces,” the authors explained. “Learning directly from employees of disaster-affected workplaces about their perceptions of specific workplace responses and effects on their job satisfaction and performance may inform workplaces in future disasters of how best to support their employees’ adjustment and wellbeing in post-disaster circumstances.”

The 255 employees included in the study worked at eight separate workplaces that were affected by damage and loss to company property, employees who were killed, or employees who worked at the Ground Zero site in the aftermath of the tragedy or worked with survivors of the attacks. Four of the companies were located either in the towers or close enough to the site that the attacks damaged the buildings and were referred to as “Ground Zero” employees, while the others were considered “non-Ground Zero employees.” All employees included in the study were working for the same company both on the day of the attacks and three years later at the time of the assessment.

“Job satisfaction and performance appear to be strongly interrelated. Job satisfaction may be an important determinant of employee productivity, and conversely, rewards from greater job performance may enhance job satisfaction,” the study said. “After major disasters that severely damage or destroy workplaces, effects on employees can be substantial. Importantly, emotional and psychiatric difficulties can potentially compromise employee satisfaction and productivity. Little research has focused on issues of employee job satisfaction and productivity and how these issues might relate to companies’ responses to the situation and to their employees’ needs.”


While the overall reported effects of 9/11 on job satisfaction were more negative than positive, job satisfaction was higher among Ground Zero than non-Ground Zero employees three years following the attacks. That may be have to do with the employees’ efforts to make meaning of their subsequent workplace situations after the attacks that could aid their decisions-making about staying with their companies.

“Those who remained with these companies 3 years after the attacks likely developed positive meaning structures that contributed to long-term job satisfaction,” the authors wrote. “The finding of greater current job satisfaction among employees of the companies that were most affected, i.e., the Ground Zero companies, suggests that the processes of meaning-making were especially positive for them.”

The responses of employers following the attacks that were viewed more favorably by employees were those that focused on their needs, rather than the needs of the business. Mental health services and compassionate gestures from company leadership and addressing individual employee needs were cited as positive, while disruptions in business continuity, infrastructure changes and resumption of productivity demands were the most frequently mentioned negative workplace responses post 9/11.

“The high job satisfaction of Ground Zero employees may be a product of the proportionately positive workplace responses described by the employees, which were predominantly focused on employee wellbeing,” the researchers noted. “This employee focus was likely perceived as supportive and personally nurturing.”

Employers willing to help employees in a variety of ways were viewed more positively, resulting in higher job satisfaction and job performance. “Specific helpful gestures described by the employees included trying to help people feel more comfortable at work by providing appealing workstations, provision of transportation to work, and placing employees needing emergency housing in hotels,” the authors said. “Other appreciated gestures included gifts for the employees, ‘a flower on my desk on the day after 9/11,’ and ‘unexpected hugs’. Employees appreciated that their employers also provided outreach and assistance to family members and provided ‘all types of services for family members who lost people.'”

Employees who reported more negative job satisfaction and job performance complained that they were expected to return to work too soon and to quickly meet high levels of productivity. They said that since much of their work-related needs, such as files, data and equipment were lost, it was hard for them to do their work. Their new office arrangements were often cramped and heading to different locations presented transportation problems for some.

“These extensive workplace disruptions that were an apparent source of reduced job performance could have in turn reduced job satisfaction,” the authors surmised. “Workplace responses focused on individual wellbeing might be expected to promote job satisfaction, just as workplace responses focused on productivity were likely designed to reestablish workplace wellbeing. The quantitative finding that current job satisfaction was high, especially among Ground Zero employees, was flanked by qualitative data reflecting effective workplace responses to the 9/11 attacks.”

The authors said the study can help employers develop post-disaster policies and practices that benefit their companies as well as their workers. A focus on employees’ welfare are highly valued by employees.

“Because job satisfaction increased the most in the most damaged companies in the WTC towers and these were the companies with employee perceptions reflecting the highest amount and quality of workplace responses, it suggests that the most severely disaster-affected companies may have the greatest opportunity to respond to the needs of employees with the most positive effects,” the authors concluded.