A majority of people in the US are considering quitting their jobs right now according to the New York Times. This is obvious to me because in the months after the towers fell, my world was my recovery support groups — and in my groups, the conversations were all about who is going back to work.
My groups were mostly people in banking, insurance, and tech because that’s who worked at the World Trade Center. But within the groups, there was a wide range of people. I remember a man saying the Red Cross paid his rent for six months and he’d never felt so financially secure. And I remember reading quotes in a newspaper about stock prices from a man I saw crying about blood stains the day before.
The groups were sorted by type of experience. My cohort got hit by falling body parts, stuck in places with no air, blinded for a period of time. We felt safe in our shared experience.
But then we started talking and some people wanted to get right back to work. Some people thought they would never go back to work again. I had tried to go back to work, but hearing our CEO talk about closing deals and keeping customers happy sounded absurd. I couldn’t make myself care. I quit by the end of September.
I raised my hand and told the group about one of the VPs in my company. Our building was next to the Twin Towers. When we heard the buildings were on fire everyone went outside to see. Except for that VP. He kept working. He kept working the day his mom died, so why would he not keep working while people were jumping out of buildings?
Another person decided to leave the group after just two days and go back to work. He talked about how he has to keep the company making money so they can support all the kids of the parents who died in the towers. He felt personally responsible for making sure those kids could have a nice house and go to camp and college just like his own kids. It wasn’t just a coworker who died, it was his friend. And he couldn’t stand not working knowing that his friend’s kids needed him to work.
Many people said something similar.
Some people talked about how they worked at a small firm, and if they didn’t go back then their coworkers wouldn’t be able to make a living. Interdependency in the workplace meant interdependency during crisis felt natural. Even though the work wouldn’t allow them to take time off to grieve, they didn’t feel like they needed our group as their support system. Work was their support system.
I tried to understand the people who wanted to go back to work. I wasn’t the only person — just as people started visiting the groups and taking notes to study trauma, people started taking notes about what makes work fulfilling to study job embeddedness, which is what makes someone go back to work after a major life trauma and how they evaluate if a job is worth going back to.
Today’s post-pandemic job resignation feels like a large-scale version of my 9/11 experience. So I want to tell you that trusting your instinct is a really good idea during a turnover event — that’s what researchers call times in your life that are so shocking to your system that you can’t help but stop and evaluate what you’re doing with your job.
Times like this — not just a terrorist attack or a worldwide pandemic but also other big moments in life like childbirth, divorce, death — you have a feeling about what’s right for you, just like people in my 9/11 support group did. It was very clear to each of us who felt passionate about going back to work and who felt going back to work was insane given the world’s events. I remember the psychologists in the room saying there is no right answer — there is only the right answer for you.
I repeated that advice back to myself when I had a baby. I got two job offers and I turned them both down. The idea of leaving my baby at home to go into an office every day didn’t make sense to me. Even though I could see that most women did that, there was no way it was right for me.
In both cases, it felt awkward being the person who chose to not work because I see myself as a person who likes to work. But I quit a job where I was interchangeable to do the job of taking care of my child, where I was most important. I chose to live at the very edge of poverty while I figured out another way to support my family.
I was scared but I knew it was time to quit. I saw what it’s like to care so much about people in your work that you won’t let them down in a turnover event. I wanted a life full of that type of work more than I wanted financial stability.
9/11 taught me that if I’m deeply committed to people I work with the money will come. This is probably why even twenty years after nearly getting killed at work on 9/11, I still write a blog about careers.