All of Us

On the 20th Anniversary of 9/11

by Mike Critelli

I recently received an email from a former operations VP at Pitney Bowes. He was part of the New York City unit hardest hit on September 11, 2001. Now retired, these many years later, he still took the time to thank me for a call I made on September 11 when they lost four employees and had several hundred others displaced from customer sites in lower Manhattan.

I actually made many calls that day and evening and in the days immediately following. I led multiple group meetings, and broadcast emails and voicemails following the events of September 11. At Pitney Bowes, we focused heavily on the well-being of our employees and their families as well as the customers served in Manhattan. It was the right way to help us all heal from the tragedy. It also ended up being good business.

Well before 9/11, we created and nurtured a health focused culture at Pitney Bowes. Our leaders' behaviors during the crisis were a natural and predictable manifestation of that culture.

It drove leaders to care. Without any directive from the senior leadership team, Associate Medical Director Dr. Brent Pawlecki set up a grief counseling center at our Midtown Manhattan office. He conducted sessions with employees, family members, and customers. NBC News did a story on Brent's work—one of many stories of heroism and compassion that emerged from our response to the crisis.

We were dealing with multiple issues:

  • Management Service lost four of their colleagues when the 2nd Tower was hit. They were grieving and fearful.
  • We had to account for every employee beyond the four we knew were lost. One of our top sales professionals had been scheduled to meet that morning at Aon on the 101st floor of One World Trade Center. We thought we had lost him. Fortunately, he had a last-minute dental emergency and was sitting in a dentist's chair when the plane hit the Tower. Landlines, cell towers, and email communications were down for a couple days. We learned this only days later when his manager drove from New Jersey to the employees' apartment in Manhattan.
  • Many employees around the country didn't use direct deposit for paychecks. We had to get them paid in some way on Friday, September 14. We worked with the Bank of America to create local check printing services that could do the job.
  • There were many rumors and frightening news stories that we had to address in broadcast communications, since there were many who thought that other terrorist attacks were planned or already underway in other parts of the country.

People told me this was their most memorable time with the company. A few years ago, one appropriately quoted the line at the beginning of Charles Dickens' Tale of Two Cities: "It was the best of times; it was the worst of times."

The attacks triggered our war in Afghanistan. An atmosphere of fear hung over us, amplified by the anthrax bioterrorism crisis that hit a few weeks later and took us up to Thanksgiving week.

I realized that fear, anxiety, and burnout would always be with us. We worked harder to get our employees the best possible mental health services. The memory of 9/11 and anthrax would fade, but subsequent tragedies would activate and amplify pre-existing anxieties. We would never return to the pre-9/11 world, just as we will not return to the pre-Covid 19 world.

Over the remainder of my time with the company—almost 7 1/2 years—I communicated with all employees practically every single week. I sent out four minute voicemails, with the text also emailed and posted on bulletin boards. It was an interactive voicemail system, so I responded by voice with every employee that made the effort to leave me a message.

Both during and after my Pitney Bowes tenure, these cumulative efforts to connect with employees were important. They were more important to their health and well-being than the health insurance, onsite clinical care, wellness programs, and preventive screenings.

My retired operations VP made a sad comment on the present. He feels the camaraderie our country’s response to the 9/11 tragedy nurtured not only disappeared, but also failed to reappear in subsequent crises, especially the current pandemic. He correctly asserted that recreating the sense of unity achieved at that time would be exceptionally difficult today.

A health focused culture is based most of all on the situational awareness of people’s needs in difficult times—for employees and for the broader society.

Today, with the MakeUsWell Network I co-founded, the marketing of cultures of health is more important to me than ever. It should not take tragedies like 9/11 or the COVID crisis to activate caring for other human beings.