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Employees and Businesses Grapple with Earthquake in Turkey

A group of people standing near rubble.

​The earthquake in the southeast of Turkey on Feb. 6 affected everyone in the country and disrupted normal life for weeks afterward.

More than 44,000 people died in Turkey in one of the country's worst catastrophes, and nearly 6,000 people died in Syria. Of Turkey's 81 provinces, 10 were placed under a state of emergency. Business organizations such as The Union of Chambers and Commodity Exchanges of Turkey (TOBB), the Independent Industrialists and Businessmen's Association (MUSIAD) and the Turkish Enterprise and Business Confederation (TURKONFED) have all contributed to earthquake relief efforts.

Throughout this, companies and workers have had to grapple with how to continue in the face of such an intense event. For individual employees, navigating work hasn't always been easy.

Working Without Time Off

Büşra Çağırgan works remotely in the translation department at an Istanbul-based company, and when the earthquake happened, her company organized large donations to the earthquake-affected areas. At the same time, little changed officially in her day-to-day work requirements. However, though work was supposed to continue as normal, it didn't. 

"I literally did not do any work for two weeks. I was not able to work for two weeks at all. It was too overwhelming. And it was like that for everyone at the company," Çağırgan said.

In order for Çağırgan to have work to do, other departments need to send her and her colleagues material to be translated. But almost nothing landed in her inbox, because everyone in the company was stunned in the aftermath of the earthquake. Still, the company didn't mandate any time off during this period. 

"After two weeks, I came out to my manager that this was going on, that I was really struggling. And she said that she had sensed it, that I was not able to focus, and she said that she's the same way and when she focuses for half an hour, then she panics again, and she must look up stuff again after that. We both tried to work in the evening to make up for our shifts, but that also didn't work for either of us," Çağırgan said. "I also had wanted to tell our HR to get us some therapy, to set up affordable therapy for us, help us with that. Even that was too big of a task for me to tackle for the first two weeks, but then I did it. The HR employee … was really understanding and she agreed with me on everything I said."

Though a therapy option hasn't been announced yet, Çağırgan is hopeful it will be soon. 

Some Sectors Put on Hold

Ulaş Yiğit works as an assistant product manager for Dokuz Serkis, a small local music company in Istanbul. When the earthquake happened, the entertainment sector was significantly affected, because the appropriateness of continuing with shows and music releases had to be measured. Most cultural events paused for weeks after the earthquake.

"There's a bit more of a mourning culture" in Turkey, Yiğit said. "There's a routine to a national mourning period. … Everything is going to stop for a little bit. So, entertainment is more affected, but also, every sector is affected."

Work continued for Yiğit, but the company refocused on finishing less timely projects because concerts and releases were on hold. It was also necessary to make space for everyone at the company who was going through all the emotions of trauma after the earthquake.

"There were a lot of people just upset. People cried in Zoom meetings," Yiğit said. "It was more difficult seeing other people in pain who are my co-workers."

Due to the small size of the company, it was easy for Yiğit's co-workers to get the flexibility they needed to take time off. "There's maybe 15 people max in the company in terms of employees, and we're in contact with our boss, the highest up in the company, who is the main decision-maker in the company. We'll see him at least once every two or three days, sometimes for long periods of time. … It was a bit informal, due to the size of our company," Yiğit said.

Many of Yiğit's co-workers took the initiative to volunteer in their spare time, fitting the need to help around their work schedules. 

"The amount of people who would work super hard, sometimes do overtime, get out of work late, and still go to those delivery centers [organizing earthquake relief] and work until 3 a.m., 4 a.m., just stay all night, get two hours of sleep, and come back to work … just the amount of people who devoted their own time, personally and from their personal lives, to help was super touching and beautiful," Yiğit said.

However, most companies in Turkey did not give any sort of significant time off in the weeks after the earthquake. Employees would have benefitted if this had been more common, "because this is really like nothing like that has ever happened in this country's history before," Çağırgan said.

Katie Nadworny is a freelance writer in Istanbul.


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