Sharing the Load with Co-Workers
H.J. Cummins, Star Tribune
Star Tribune [Minnesota]
March 20, 2004
Susan Fuchs-Hoeschen brought her personal life to work one day, about two years ago. Her very personal life.
She confided to a colleague that she'd been sexually abused by a parish priest when she was 10 years old. The memory had shuddered back into her days and nights because that priest had just publicly admitted to molesting four other girls, going back 20 years.
Fuchs-Hoeschen turned to fellow social worker Michelle Bettin. At intense times, the women talked daily.
"Sometimes she would just disappear at work; she was crying a lot," Bettin said. "It really affected her ability to work."
Work-life boundaries continue to fade. Thirty years ago, it was a bold move for parents to put their children's photos on their office desks. Later, gays and lesbians came out at work. More recently, working people decided to stop hiding problems of domestic violence, divorce or depression from the people with whom they spend most of their waking hours.
Given those trends, it seemed inevitable that the issue du jour -- child sex abuse -- would find its way into the workplace. It has, and for all the same reasons, experts say: Friendships form at work, so it's only natural to be open there. Also, many employers now are convinced that people's private lives, happy and sad, affect their work.
And that has led to a proliferation of work-life benefits that automatically bring personal issues to work. You can't ask for time off under the federal Family Medical Leave Act, for example, without explaining who is sick.
But all that is not a vote for a let-it-all-hang-out workplace.
"I favor work-life integration as a philosophy," said Robert Drago, professor of labor studies at Pennsylvania State University. "But there are still boundaries, things you don't want to tell people. You use common sense."
Most people speak up if something could affect their work, Drago and others said. They choose to tell people they trust, whose judgment they respect, paying less attention to whether those people are their boss or a subordinate. The relationships that form might become very close, even if they never go beyond the workplace. And a common theme among the supportive colleagues -- including Bettin -- is admiration for their suffering co-workers' ability to maintain a level of composure despite the crisis.
"She presented herself like she was handling this, she had it under control," Bettin said of Fuchs-Hoeschen. "Only months later did she tell me what a bunch of goo she was inside."
A safe haven
Late one winter afternoon four years ago, accountant Scott Trobec stopped by an office down the hall from his in the St. Paul office building where he works.
"Do you have a couple of minutes?" he asked Richard Jones, president of T.T. Jones, a specialty woods company. Then for almost three hours, Jones listened to his colleague's account of physical and sexual abuse as a boy. Trobec was reeling from the recently recovered memory of abuse, and his therapist counseled him to have a "safe person" wherever he spent big chunks of time -- in case of a meltdown.
"Dick is the go-to guy there," Trobec said, "and I sensed a compassion in him."
The connection at work was especially important for him. His abuser was a family member, making it hard for him to reach out to many relatives. His wife -- the person he'd most confided in -- was getting overwhelmed. Also, the office was a logical place for two self-described workaholics to strike up a friendship. They now break for coffee together, almost every day -- although until recently, neither had even met the other's wife.
In the meantime, Trobec has become more public about his abuse, talking to groups and even telling some of his clients.
"Sexual abuse is a crime of secrecy," he said. "I'm convinced that opening up is necessary."
Jones said he has been astounded both by Trobec's horrible stories and by his determination to recover.
"I can't imagine a better spokesperson," Jones said. "I never once felt sorry for Scott."
Ways to help
Child sex abuse is in the headlines and the movies. Tim Robbins won an Oscar for portraying an abuse victim in "Mystic River."
"People read the paper, and they come to work and say, 'Did you see this?' " said Rosalind Barnett, executive director of Brandeis University's Community, Families and Work Program in Boston. "The range of socially sanctioned topics has broadened enormously."
The topic of violence particularly hit home with Drago, after one of his daughters was sexually assaulted recently at college.
"For me, it was good to be able to tell people -- it was an overwhelming urge," Drago said. "My daughter said everybody told her they felt that way, as soon as she told them. It's just a weight you'd carry around if you're not able to talk about it."
How much opening up is good? That depends, people said.
The workplace is probably not the place for a detailed discussion of child sex abuse, said Kenneth Collins, a health care consultant to corporate clients in Orinda, Calif. If a co-worker needs to talk, he advised finding a private room, listening, and then offering ideas to find help -- through company mental health benefits, for example.
"We're social workers, care-givers, listeners," Bettin said of herself and Fuchs-Hoeschen. "If we were in a business cutting money deals all day, maybe we'd have to be more restrained, but I was never uncomfortable talking about this with Susan."
Whom you tell, and how much, depends on your relationship, Trobec said. But generally, openness is good.
"To be in a company where people really feel connected, I think they're much more productive," he said.
H.J. Cummins is at email@example.com.
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