Lonnie Bunch, founding director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, greets staff members Monday as the facility reopens after the month-long partial government shutdown. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)
Columnist

There’s been lots of talk about the back pay due the 800,000 federal employees locked out of work by the partial government shutdown.

There’s been lots of talk about the lack of pay many federal contractors endured when one-fourth of the government closed.

There’s been lots of talk about the hardships untold numbers of people suffered because Congress would not pay for a border wall President Trump promised voters that Mexico would fund.

But there hasn’t been as much talk about the things people don’t want to talk about — the emotional and psychological problems generated by the 35-day shutdown.

“Employees lose more than just money during a furlough,” Lisa E. Baranik, a University of Albany researcher and psychologist, said as employees went back to work Monday. “In addition to financial losses, furloughed employees lose supportive work relationships, feelings of success, and a sense of control. So even after employees have been given back pay, negative reactions to the furlough can continue. Once trust is violated, it is difficult to gain it back.”

The government, specifically Trump, violated the trust of taxpayers and federal employees when he proudly led the nation into the shutdown because he couldn’t get his way. Federal employees are defined by their devotion to mission. That sense of mission was threatened, though generally not defeated, when agency staffers were stopped from doing their jobs.

While agencies have reopened, shutdown stress continues, exacerbated by Trump’s threat to close agencies again if he doesn’t get his wall funding.

“This disruption is profound, and I don’t think it’s possible to believe anything but that it has and will continue to have a substantial impact on morale for a lengthy period of time,” said Max Stier, president and chief executive of the Partnership for Public Service. “And we’re not done yet.”

Baranik was the lead researcher for a study published last year in the Journal of Career Development based on 850 surveys following the 16-day shutdown in 2013, less than half the length of the most recent one. The research found that the forced work stoppage resulted in “decreased life satisfaction and increased work-family conflict and physical, cognitive, and emotional burnout 5 weeks after the shutdown ended."

For Steve Reaves, a Federal Emergency Management Agency safety official in Fort Worth, the stress from the shutdown reminded him of combat.

“Me and the family argued more; I was moody and short tempered. Luckily for me, I am a retired soldier and they have dealt with that level of work anxiousness before. It was real similar to my combat deployments,” said Reaves, speaking as president of the American Federation of Government Employees local covering FEMA employees nationally. “So my PTSD was barely in check and presented a more frequent challenge than normal. My girls were a blessing and helped me through it; I have already mentioned it to my VA therapist.”

It’s no surprise that work-related stress affects employees at home, or as the article says: “Furloughs represent a major stressor that affects both home and work domains.”

Charles M. Smith, a retiring 32-year Internal Revenue Service employee who acknowledged crying and no longer feeling valued because of shutdown stress, said he went to a therapist this week. “I’ve lost the dignity of public service,” he said. “I’ve lost the honor.”

Shutdowns weaken personal resources, the individual characteristics that help people deal with stress, according to the research. Federal employees are getting back pay, but personal resources, the article said, “such as feelings of hope and optimism, are harder to restore since employees may have lingering negative feelings and thoughts about being furloughed well after the furlough has ended.”

What can employees do? How can management help?

“To help manage stress and prevent burnout, workers returning from furlough need to replenish their resources and keep the demands they face manageable. This can be extremely difficult when facing impending deadlines and trying to dig out from things that have piled up during the shutdown,” said David W. Ballard of the American Psychological Association. “Despite the challenges, recharging requires carving out some time when they’re not working, or even thinking about work, actively doing things to relax and unwind, keeping up with hobbies or nonwork interests, getting enough good-quality sleep, and maintaining supportive interpersonal relationships.”

Federal employees have counseling services through their agency’s employee assistance program. Referring to that, Margaret Weichert, Office of Personnel Management acting director, said “the well-being of Federal employees is a central part of our mission." In a message to FEMA staff, Administrator Brock Long said agency leaders are committed to "ensuring that you are supported as we transition back. I encourage you all to take time to talk to each other about the past few weeks and be transparent with your supervisors about any hardships...I want to make sure that you are set up for success before jumping into your normal assignments...take the time to listen and support each other. Our Nation appreciates your sacrifice and service, as do I.”

David C. Carrone, an Internal Revenue Service employee in New Orleans, said in an emphatic email that some of his colleagues are dealing with the effects of the shutdown by deciding to leave the hassle of federal employment behind.

“Our aging workforce is now focused on RETIREMENT,” said Carrone, in his role as president of the National Treasury Employees Union (NTEU) IRS chapter covering Louisiana and Arkansas. He included himself in that category. “All this stress is not worth it and I am too far vested to change jobs.”

The emotional impact of the shutdown can be overlooked when more attention is paid to the economic impact, but that is a mistake.

“The financial toll of this shutdown has been well documented, both in terms of how families struggled without income for five weeks and how our nation’s economy was damaged,” said National NTEU President Tony Reardon. “But the emotional toll is just as severe, as strong, middle-class working families suddenly found themselves begging mortgage companies for leniency and standing in lines at food pantries. Their bank accounts will be replenished soon, but it will take time for federal employees and their families to fully recover.”

Read more:

Lasting damage remains from Trump’s shutdown folly

Unpaid federal employees recalled so they can pay federal contractors

The shutdown madness must stop. If Trump doesn’t act soon, Democrats should.

IRS workers beckoned to involuntary servitude

Feds’ twilight zone — working without pay