And what they find back at the office could feel like anything but work as usual.
They might be haunted by the shutdown sentiment of folks like Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who said last week that he didn’t “really quite understand why” some federal workers were lining up at food banks. He suggested workers take out low-interest loans to cover their expenses.
He didn’t exactly strike the supportive, compassionate approach leadership experts are counseling. As furloughed workers begin returning to their jobs, managers across the federal bureaucracy will face the monumental task of helping people wade through an overwhelming backlog of work, perform without being overly distracted by questions about their futures and grapple with the sudden uncertainty of once-stable jobs.
“These folks, I believe, are going to be returning to work both frightened and angry,” said Robert Tobias, director of business development for the Key Executive Leadership Programs at American University’s School of Public Affairs. “Angry that they’ve been made hostages and pawns in a fight over which they could have no control, and frightened about the future.”
Much attention has rightly been paid on the immediate financial toll the shutdown has had on individual government workers -- as well as the questions it’s raising about the long-term promise of government employment. But as federal workers return to work, a vast army of federal managers will suddenly be tasked with supervising people who’ve been furloughed for weeks.
“It’s hard to imagine a more demoralizing event for a group of people who are mission-oriented than to say they can’t do their mission," said Max Stier, president and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service, a nonpartisan group. "It’s not like a national disaster or a hurricane. We’re burning our own house down.”
After the defeat of dueling Senate bills on Thursday, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) began talks to reach a consensus. On Friday afternoon, Trump announced a pact with congressional leaders to reopen the government — temporarily — while border-security talks continue. Under the deal, lawmakers have until Feb. 15 to come up with a border security package.
The deal came days after The Washington Post reported that White House acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney appeared to be preparing for a months-long shutdown by asking agency leaders to provide lists of the highest-impact programs in jeopardy if the funding lapse dragged into March and April.
Management experts say it is likely to take longer for things to return to normal than in past furloughs, whether due to this partial shutdown’s historic length or the high number of vacancies in senior jobs and acting — rather than permanent — officials. It will be up to mid- and lower-level leaders as much as top officials, some believe.
“Once the recovery is underway, it can be top-down or bottom-up,” led by front-line managers or senior appointees, said David Costanza, a professor of organizational psychology at George Washington University. “I think it’s going to have to be very localized.”
Although there is little academic research that has studied the psychological effects of working without pay during a shutdown, experts said, one study that surveyed furloughed state employees in the Midwest found that it led to emotional exhaustion and lower performance well after they restarted their jobs.
“In a situation where you might have repeated shutdowns or furloughs, we’re not sure if exhaustion ever resets or performance ever rebounds," said Anthony Wheeler, a management professor at West Chester University in Pennsylvania and a co-author of the paper. "It creates a new floor.”
Emotional exhaustion is a category of burnout, Wheeler said. "You hear public officials say -- they’re like, ‘you have a day off, a day off is good for everyone.' " But employees are returning “in a state that’s stressed out, almost burned out, and upset. They’re not going to come back rested.”
Tobias, meanwhile, said he’s seen some evidence from the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey which showed that past furloughs where agency leaders talked about what it meant to be furloughed and spoke openly about the painful limbo workers had just experienced scored much higher than those who tried to move past it too quickly.
“Those leaders who are sensitive to this issue and face it head-on are going to help those returning heal, and those who don’t will have this lingering illness continuing," he said.
Some worry there will be substantial effects on job performance and greater safety risks in high-risk positions.
“This affects your attention, your focus, and increased likelihood of accidents and incidents,” said Paul Light, a professor at New York University’s Wagner School of Public Service who studies the federal bureaucracy. “It’s going to take a long time to restore the old normal."
Managers can take the initiative to say some of the right things. James Perry, a professor at Indiana University who has long studied public service motivation, pointed to the video posted Tuesday on Twitter by Karl Schultz, the Coast Guard’s top admiral, where he said "ultimately, I find it unacceptable that Coast Guard men and women have to rely on food pantries and donations to get through day-to-day life as service members.”
“The people who are looking at them see that ‘our leadership is speaking out on our behalf,’ ” which will go a long way when they’re back at work again, Perry said. “They’re publicly signaling to them,” he said. “Empathy can go a long way with diffusing some of the anger.”