- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 17, 2013

A resolution to the federal spending fight saw hundreds of thousands of federal workers return to their jobs Thursday, some of them saying they’re still suffering the effects of being told the government could survive without them.

“This one was very demoralizing. It made you feel like a hostage,” said Karen Petronis, a lawyer for the Federal Aviation Administration who has worked for the federal government for 29 years.

While most federal workers remained on the job without pay, about 800,000 employees were furloughed Oct. 1 when the previous funding bill expired. Early in the shutdown Congress passed a bill putting civilian Defense Department workers back on the job, but that still left about 350,000 at home — many of them in the D.C. area.

Feelings of frustration, resentment and even anger are all normal when dealing with rejection, said Guy Winch, a licensed psychologist.

“Being deemed nonessential is a big blow to their ego, it’s a significant rejection and it’s going to sting,” said Mr. Winch, author of “Emotional First Aid: Practical Strategies for Treating Failure, Rejection, Guilty and Other Everyday Psychological Injuries.” “You’re coming back to a place where you were told you weren’t that important. People are dealing with hurt feelings, issues with motivation and morale.”

As workers return to their offices, Mr. Winch said supervisors should go out of their way to welcome those furloughed back into the fold, and to stress that the company missed them.

He said even those kind words won’t necessarily soften the blow. Studies show that the emotional impact of rejection can linger, even when participants are assured the rejection wasn’t personal.

Ms. Petronis, who was buying lunch by the L’Enfant Plaza Metro station Thursday, said several of her supervisors sent out welcome-back memos and gave encouragement to returning employees, though she said morale has suffered from the shutdown.

Still, the fear that it will happen again — and soon — complicates the return to normalcy. Employees seem well-aware that the funding bill that passed Congress on Wednesday only runs through Jan. 15, and will have to be renewed or else another shutdown will ensue.

Top administration officials made it a point to greet returning workers.

Vice President Joseph R. Biden brought muffins to the Environmental Protection Agency on Thursday morning. And White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough stood at one of the entrances to the presidential complex and welcomed workers.

Michael Oberschneider, a practicing psychologist in Ashburn, Va., said he’s seen patients during the shutdown who feel as if they have no control of their lives or the actions of Congress.

“It’s hard to feel important when you wake up one day and the government is politically arguing about your livelihood and you don’t matter, but all of a sudden you matter again,” Mr. Oberschneider said. “Individuals, especially nonessential ones, have to define their importance on an individual level.”

While patients have stressed about the shutdown, Mr. Oberschneider said it’s been milder than what he saw after sequestration or the economic crash in 2008. He said at this point patients feel beaten down.

“People seemed a little more defeated,” he said. “They’re upset about being home, but feel like they have no control over it What I’ve been recommending is to try to get control over what you can get control of. Obama and Boehner don’t control your mental health and how you feel about yourself.”While many outside the District viewed the 16-day break as a taxpayer-subsidized vacation — complete with back pay as has been offered in previous shutdowns — Ms. Petronis said the weeks of worry leading up to the shutdown and the steady stream of news reports made for a less than relaxing break.

Those on the other side — the essential employees who remained on the job — don’t necessarily have it better.

Psychologists said they might be dealing with a type of “survivor’s guilt” now that their colleagues are back at work.

“They might feel a little bit guilty or awkward that they were the essential people, but also they’ve probably been carrying a way heavier load that they would be ordinarily,” Mr. Winch said. “They were probably working extremely hard and covering a lot of things and probably have their own feelings of resentment about it — that they didn’t get 16 days off but had to work extraordinarily hard for the same compensation.”

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