After a relatively calm hurricane season this year, Hurricane Sandy just took much of the United States and the Caribbean by surprise. Most of the east coast of the US was effectively shut down for the early part of the week. Schools were closed, public transportation was suspended in some of America’s biggest cities, and even the New York Stock Exchange was shuttered for the day.
At the encouragement of state governors, many businesses were also closing shop n Monday or sending employees home early once it became clear that the storm was not going to be a false alarm. For a small, but significant, group of people the storm was a catastrophic event. People lost their lives in the Caribbean and on the coast several people lost their homes. For most of the 60 million people reported to be affected by the storm in the US, however, the storm was simply an inconvenience.
The streets were empty but twitter and other social networking sites were hopping, at least as long as people’s power stayed on. If the pictures on Twitter and Instagram were to be believed, alcohol was flowing up and down the east coast as people hunkered down with friends and family to ride out the storm.
With very few exceptions (notably first responders and hospital workers), the people I was communicating with were thinking about anything but work on that day. There were discussions about the effect of the storm on the upcoming presidential election, pictures downed trees and power lines, and bets on who would be the first intrepid television reporter to be knocked off his feet by the heavy winds, but nowhere were people talking about their work except to note that they were not at the office. Even most bosses and clients remained relatively quiet and undemanding as they too weathered the storm.
The storm seemed to take several million people out of their usual routines and create a large-scale mental health day for those with an unexpected day at home. Those returning to work on Tuesday and Wednesday are going back to the office with a different perspective and the desire to hit the ground running to catch up on missed work.
In an ideal world it would be great for the workplace to integrate these unexpected breaks into the year without requiring a potentially catastrophic storm. As we all know, weekends and holidays, while wonderful, tend to fill up with obligations and leave very little time for simply doing nothing. These weather related days off however, tend to carry very few obligations outside of staying safe and securing the deck furniture. As it is highly unlikely that a universal day without obligations will exist any time soon, we should simply look for the silver lining of this storm cloud and make the most of Mother Nature’s unexpected mental health days.