Psychoanalyzing the federal worker in a shutdown

Tuesday - 4/5/2011, 3:50pm EDT

Sally Katzen, former deputy director for management, Office of Management and Budget

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By Jolie Lee
Federal News Radio

Feds are people too. And talk of a government shutdown can have psychological effects on federal workers, said Sally Katzen, the Office of Management and Budget's deputy director for management during the 1995-96 shutdown.

"I wouldn't be surprised if there weren't some serious cases of people worrying about depression at this point," Katzen said in an interview with In Depth with Francis Rose.

As of Tuesday, lawmakers are still stuck in a budget impasse to fund the government past this Friday. A partial government shutdown could begin Saturday if Congress does not reach a deal.

In a shutdown, not all federal employees will be furloughed. Those determined to be an "essential employee" - based on a broad definition of a worker who protects life and property - will continue to work during a shutdown. This definition varies by different agencies and by different managers, Katzen said.

For those feds considered "non-essential," the experience "has to be dispiriting, it has to be disheartening," Katzen said.

Particularly if the person in the next cubicle is deemed essential, a furloughed employee probably won't feel very good about themselves, she said.

"And how do they feel when they come back to work? Slightly bitter, slightly angry," Katzen said.

According to an online poll by Federal News Radio, 95 percent of people who polled said the budget battle was impacting their morale.

The threat of a government shutdown is affecting how feds approach their work this week. Employees will have to decide which projects to finish in the next few days in case they won't be in the office next week. But determining how fast projects can be finished is not a great way to prioritize, Katzen said.

During the last shutdown, some furloughed employees met regularly.

"They would sometimes laugh and sometimes sing and sometimes bemoan their future," she said. Furloughed feds need to "understand that there is not anything wrong from them, that [because] they have not been classified as essential does not mean people don't value what they do, that people don't care what they feel."

Federal managers should tell their staff that they are not alone in confronting these challenges, she said.

"I don't mean to go soft and fuzzy on you, but this is Management 101 - how to make your employees understand that they're valued," Katzen said.

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