For psychologists who tend to federal employees, there’s a lot to work through

Correction: An earlier version of this article inaccurately misquoted Eduardo Salas, a psychologist working with NASA, as referring to the specialists as “therapists.” Salas used the term “industrial organizational psychologists.” This version has been corrected.


Eduardo Salas, an industrial organization psychologist, works with air EMTs on a helicopter landing pad at Florida Hospital in Orlando last April. (American Psychological Association)

Over casual lunch conversations in downtown Washington and on formal workplace surveys, federal workers make it clear: They are stressed out, depressed and angst-ridden.

The past few years, after all, have been what a psychologist might call emotionally draining: pay freezes, furloughs, sequester cuts. All of which culminated in what might be termed as a total dysfunctional meltdown: October’s 16-day government shutdown.

That’s why the nation’s nearly 2 million federal workers are the subject of both fascination and concern for government industrial organization psychologists, or IO’s, some of whom recently spoke to local members of Congress about the feelings of low self-esteem and existential brooding that afflicted some federal workers after the shutdown.

“They feel betrayed, like a family member or friend made them a promise for stable work and then turned on them,” said David Costanza, who directs the doctoral program in IO psychology at George Washington University and works with several government agencies. “Every organization has a culture, just like a family does. How they deal with conflict, choose new members and evolve is at the center of our work.”

Whether it’s inside the secretive offices of the National Security Agency, on a forward operating military base in Afghanistan, or with a group of astronauts soon heading to outer space, these psychologists essentially offer group therapy for the federal workplace.The government psychologists work with agencies as varied as the Department of Energy, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Department of Homeland Security. They are modern practitioners of a branch of psychology that emerged during World War I in response to rapid deployment of troops to extremely high-stress situations new to modern combat.

They address moments of crisis, helping federal employees tackle guilt and other feelings experienced by those who make life-and-death decisions, such as trauma surgeons in the field and airline cockpit crews whose performance is regulated by the government.

The psychologists also help employees grapple with long-term challenges. One of the most dramatic examples is unfolding at NASA, where government psychologists are being asked to help with a three-year round-trip mission to Mars tentatively proposed for the early 2030s. In the most extreme example of a business trip, the small group of astronauts would spend nearly half the voyage in flight and the rest conducting research on the planet’s surface.

That’s a lot of together-time. How will everyone get along? What if a dispute breaks out? Or the isolation wears on them?

“And you thought you spent a lot of time at work. Those astronauts will be cooped up together for years, and if members of a team don’t have a way to talk out their problems, and there’s nowhere to escape to, no outside boss to intervene, conflicts can have dire consequences,” said Eduardo Salas, who is leading the team of psychologists working with NASA. “People can die. We can help.”

An expert on teamwork in confined spaces such as submarines, Salas has been interviewing astronauts from various countries about what factors increase their stress and what helps them decompress after a long day. In an effort to reduce suspicion and tension among the Mars astronauts, he is involved in developing a software application that would identify for the entire team mistakes that individuals make in their work. That way, he said, “everyone feels like they are in it together and they want to help their buddies, and resentments and small disagreements won’t fester.”

Salas expects that he will help select and train the team for the Mars mission, what he describes as a “three-year team dynamic that is relatively untested.”

“Technology made the study of personalities at work more urgent,” Costanza said.“You couldn’t just put anyone in a blimp, plane or tank, where teamwork and steady temperament during extreme trauma became important.”

Much of workplace therapy is based on the findings of Hugo Münsterberg, considered the father of the field, who cautioned managers to be concerned with “all the questions of the mind . . . like fatigue, monotony, interest, learning, work satisfaction, and rewards.” Since his groundbreaking work in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the field has expanded across private industry as well as the public sector.

At the FBI, three staff IO psychologists helped revamp the agency’s promotion process after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. They added new ways of identifying qualified managers, such as using job simulations, and encouraged the bureau to put greater emphasis on leadership ability rather than expertise in a particular field, said psychologist Amy Grubb.

“Big-bang events like 9/11 or any kind of crisis are very traumatic, both in the workplace and in the country. We wanted agency leaders to be leaning forward, as opposed to being static,” she said.

More recently, the FBI psychologists studied the connection between the performance of bosses and the effectiveness of their agents and other subordinates. The IOs found that managers who were highly rated by their employees, such as being open to competing opinions, had teams that made more arrests and provided better intelligence, Grubb said.

One of the field’s biggest achievements has been to help change attitudes in the military and intelligence agencies toward post-traumatic stress disorder, which didn’t used to be recognized as an illness and was often seen as a weakness.

Psychologists such as Salas also developed a now well-known strategy called crew resource management or CRM, which has been credited with helping to prevent accidents in aviation and other high-risk professions. The approach relies on the traditional therapeutic technique of “talking everything out,” Salas said.

In the past, airline pilots would rarely tell crew members if they were sick or unable to function because of fatigue or personal reasons. But after the training, one pilot who was suffering from vertigo was able to ask his team to take over without embarrassment or shame.

The new emphasis on honest communication grew out of an investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board into the 1978 crash of a United Airlines flight in Oregon, which killed 10 people. According to reports, the captain focused on a problem with the landing gear for an hour, ignoring hints from the first officer and the flight engineer about their dwindling fuel supply.

About 60 percent of fatal airline crashes are attributed to such mistakes in the cockpit. Investigators looking into the July crash of an Asiana Airlines crash at San Francisco International Airport concluded that the crew probably did not use the CRM approach that is now common among American airline crews and may be helping to reduce crashes.

“This shows that our work really can have a powerful impact and save lives,” Salas said.

Emily Wax-Thibodeaux is a National staff writer who covers veteran's affairs and the culture of government. She's an award-winning former foreign correspondent who covered Africa and India for nearly a decade. She also covered immigration, crime and education for the Metro staff.
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