Dealing with the grief pandemic

31 May, 2021

In these times of loss and mourning, how can leaders support their team members?

Over a year into the pandemic, everyone I know is coping with some kind of loss. For so many people, tragedy has struck close to home, taking away a family member, friend or close colleague. For others, grief has arrived in the form of a collective mourning for all the lives lost, for all the suffering around us. As Gianpiero Petriglieri observes poignantly in his Harvard Business Review piece:

These days are so full of loss – of loved ones, of work, of proximity, of a way of life.

In pre-COVID times, people had a chance to mourn together, to participate in certain rituals that helped them process their grief. At the office, too, comfort was offered organically, perhaps in the form of caring co-workers bringing home-cooked food or simply sitting quietly with a team member who was grieving. That is no longer the case, as Petriglieri notes: 

This year, grief is everywhere…but we have nowhere to mourn, except online. With social and working lives going virtual many have lost access to familiar customs, gatherings, and routines that used to comfort the bereft. Those combined losses can put us at risk, and they require managing.

So, this week, my message focuses on how leaders can support their teams as they cope with loss.

With its routine-oriented nature, work can offer much-needed stability amidst grief.

In order to facilitate healthy mourning, however, leaders need to shift workplace culture to be more open towards difficult feelings. Sharing grief isn’t a common practice at the workplace – we generally mourn in private, away from the gaze of our co-workers.

Anna Ranieri, a former counsellor for corporates, explores the reason for this reticence in her HBR article:

Because we may worry that that personal grief may be seen as unseemly at work and worrisome to our colleagues…that our tears or sadness seem unprofessional, or that our minds are simply not in the right place for the time being. So we may soldier on alone or try to exhibit only an upbeat persona at work while accepting the kind wishes of our co-workers with a “Thanks, I’m doing better. How did the staff meeting go?”

When loss isn’t openly acknowledged, socially validated and publicly mourned, it mutates into “disenfranchised grief”. As people withdraw into their shells, unable to process through their feelings in a natural way, the mourning period stretches indefinitely. Work performance dips, and loyalty is eroded. Conversely, when employees are given adequate support during the mourning process, it increases their wellbeing, productivity and loyalty to the organisation.

Here are nine ways in which leaders can help team members manage their grief:

1. Acknowledge loss.

Employees take the lead from their manager. If you pretend like everything is normal, they will feel compelled to do the same. If you appear uncomfortable when someone talks about illness or death, they will put on a smile even if they’re dealing with a personal tragedy. Leaders can break through this unhealthy taboo by acknowledging loss. This is especially crucial for teams who have lost one of their own. As Ranieri explains, there are benefits to grieving together: 

It’s important for the group to communicate the situation that they’re in, both internally and to the outside world: “We have lost our colleague and we are in mourning.” Internally, the group experiences a solidarity in proclaiming this; externally, those outside the team are informed so that they can offer their condolences, acknowledge their own feelings, and feel more connected on a human level to the team they have until now known only through their business transactions or the product they represent.

2. Make room for feelings.

As a leader, start the conversation by being open about your own feelings – sadness, anxiety, anger, frustration. Then invite your team members to share their emotions. Work should provide a setting where we can talk about our grief, and offer each other empathy and comfort. Managers whose teams are working remotely can bring the group together over video calls and even create a chat group for day-to-day check-ins.

3. Follow up with individuals.

Along with collective discussions, it’s also important to check in specifically with those team members who have suffered a loss. In her book, Option B, Sheryl Sandberg talks about grief as the elephant in the room. When she met friends or colleagues who didn’t mention the recent loss of her husband or ask how she was doing, she felt invisible and isolated. This usually happens because people don’t know what to say, or they feel awkward bringing up the subject. As leaders, we need to be better about broaching these difficult topics so our team members know we care and that we’re here for them.

4. Pay closer attention.

Despite being well-intentioned, some leaders may not realise the true impact of a loss on their team member. In her piece for HBR, Jennifer Moss gives the following example: 

One man told me how he was written up for “low performance” after he missed a meeting, even though he’d explained to his manager that he’d been in the bathroom crying about the recent death of a staff member. His manager was unaware that the pair were that close. (The man who died was going to be the best man at his colleague’s wedding.) The lesson here is that leaders need to remember that work and life intersect.

While grief is a universal human experience, it plays out in different ways. Some people throw themselves into work harder than ever; for others, it manifests as withdrawal and disorganisation. If you notice these signs in an otherwise well-performing team member, make the effort to find out if they’re dealing with a personal problem.

5. Offer support when needed.

Grief isn’t linear: it ebbs and flows. While some days may be better, intense sadness can arrive unexpectedly. As leaders, we must lend support to our team members when they require it most – not according to a theoretical timeline. Resist the urge to “solve the problem”. Instead, focus on being present and ask the griever to tell you what they need. Be as flexible as possible with regards to workload and timelines.

6. Make room for celebration.

While we cannot bring people back, we can certainly take the opportunity to celebrate their life. Be it a spontaneous conversation or a formal memorial service, leaders should create space at work to remember and honour those we have lost. Sharing stories, expressing gratitude and talking about what the person meant to them can be an important step in the healing process. Moss mentions a heart-warming example: 

I also heard the story of Rick, who died after 20 years as a senior staff member at his company. When he passed away, leaders at the company decided to share “Remembering Rick” stories for 21 days. At the end of those 21 days, they gathered all the images and text that had been shared and published a memory book for Rick’s widow.

7. Return clarity to the workplace.

In times of emotional turmoil and disorientation, clarity at work can restore a sense of balance. Unfortunately, the past year has also created a lot of ambiguity at the workplace – a natural side-effect of strategic pivots, departmental shake-ups, and switching between physical offices and WFH. Now, leaders must make time to simplify routines and lay out clear objectives for team members. Doing so has a wonderfully anchoring effect, as Petriglieri explains: 

When we are anxious and remote, it helps to focus on clear and concrete goals, to know what is expected and what is enough…. Knowing where, when, and how long people are expected to work, for example, is grounding. Grief hijacks the imagination, filling it with catastrophic projections. Just like mourners can find some comfort focusing on their breath, a meal, or regular exercise, there is value in manageable work. 

8. Create longer-term rituals.

As the intensity of grief slowly fades, leaders would do well to create rituals around remembrance that can be repeated year after year. Moss shares this touching example: 

One woman told me that her boss still asked about her husband, even years after she became a widow. He would mark down the days of her wedding anniversary and the day he passed away, and on those days put some chocolate on her desk or bring her a special coffee. It was nothing extravagant, she said, but it meant a lot. “These gestures,” she said, “warrants him my loyalty for a lifetime.” 

9. Enact better policies.

Senior leaders should start thinking about how their organisation can better support employees through periods of loss. For instance, offer sufficient bereavement leave and provide the option of counselling. Stronger HR policies would also mean that managers don’t have to resort to ad-hoc actions to help their team members.

In recent years, companies have increasingly focused on humanising management and building a sense of community at work. This must include developing a better approach to grief. Leaders are best positioned to transform the workplace into a source of healing and support. And what better time to start than now, when your team members need you most?


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