Crisis in the Workplace: The Role of the Occupational Social Worker

By Ribner, David S. | Social Work, May 1993 | Go to article overview

Crisis in the Workplace: The Role of the Occupational Social Worker


Ribner, David S., Social Work


Ask any adult who he or she is, and chances are the initial response will relate to work: "I am a teacher, an executive, a homemaker, a legislator." Our occupations help define our identities (Chestang, 1982; Erikson, 1950) and assume a fundamental significance that transcends financial reward or an alternative to empty hours.

Because of the critical importance of work, any disruption in the homeostasis of the workplace may have a profound impact on the worker. In such situations, generally experienced as crises, the worker's sense of identity may be threatened, with the precipitating events leading to feelings of worthlessness, loss of purpose and meaning, and a sense of nonbeing (Dixon & Sands, 1983). The emotional impact may be devastating "when dreams and a way of life are threatened with extinction" (Van Hook, 1987, p. 277).

Social workers know well the potential of workplace problems to affect various aspects of individual functioning (Perlman, 1982). More familiar examples of such crisis-fraught situations are management changes, product obsolescence, modifications of production quotas, or plant closings. In more unusual circumstances, these crises may be the result of cataclysmic phenomena, such as natural disasters, significant accidents or illness, or war. The latter possibility is the focus of this article.

The Gulf Crisis

From the time Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990 through March 1991 when the war ended, Israel experienced a number of interrelated financial and social upheavals. To a small country already struggling with a rapidly expanding pool of Soviet immigrants seeking jobs, a 20 percent annual inflation rate, and double-digit unemployment for the first time in its history (Odenheimer, 1991), the economic impact of those eight months was decidedly negative:

* Tourism, a major source of dollar income, fell to less than one-third of prewar levels (Gordon, 1991b). This drop affected primarily hotels and tourist attractions and their employees and secondarily businesses like souvenir stands and restaurants whose viability depends largely on foreign visitors (Kaye, 1991).

* All international air carriers except El Al, Israel's national airline, ceased flights to the Middle East by the beginning of January. In addition to sharply reducing the flow of tourists and business people, this action also severely curtailed the exportation of certain locally manufactured or grown products and significantly delayed international mail.

* More frequent military call-ups of longer duration forced seemingly endless changes in the workplace. Shifts, schedules, management structure, production expectations, and employee availability all experienced a state of flux and uncertainty.

* Many businesses in Israel, particularly the construction industry, function predominantly with Arab workforces from Judea, Samaria, and Gaza. When these territories were placed under curfew at the start of hostilities, construction and related work essentially came to a halt.

* During the weeks of the missile attacks on Israel and for several weeks afterward, all educational institutions were closed by decree of the civil defense authorities. In addition to temporarily furloughing employees of these institutions, this decree also forced working parents of young children to seek alternate child care arrangements. Frequently, school closings meant that one parent had to remain home from work.

* When the SCUD missile attacks first started, all nonessential businesses and industries were declared closed as a civil defense measure designed to keep the majority of the population as near to their sealed rooms as possible. This decree was modified and subsequently removed when it became evident that the missiles posed an unlikely daytime threat. Nevertheless, the disruption caused a pervasive tremor in the national economy (Gordon, 1991a).

Thus, the Gulf crisis was experienced as considerably more than a time of security concerns and military strategy. …

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