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Corporate Grief: When the Workplace Breaks Your Heart

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Beth Anstandig

When I transitioned from my private practice as a therapist to leadership consulting in the corporate sector, I figured the psychic heaviness of my role would lift some. I knew that people’s work lives were ridden with relationship conflicts, extreme stress, boredom, and career confusion. They showed up in my therapy office with work complaints that often mirrored the struggles in their personal lives. We take ourselves everywhere we go, after all. Yet, I assumed the wounds at work didn’t cut as deep and that hearts and lives weren’t shattered the way they too often are at home. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Regardless of industry or job title, workplace grief is an epidemic. There is a veil of secrecy and silence around the ways that corporate practices abuse and neglect their talent in much of the same ways harassment has been swept under the rug. The machine of corporate change never sleeps and with it comes innovation, development, and growth. It can be a tremendous source of creativity and a needed palette cleanser when cultures are outdated. Departments reorganize, positions disappear or are redefined, massive layoffs, and radical leadership transitions. There’s really nothing wrong with it at first glance. For far too long, we have underestimated the impact these changes have on individuals and groups when we do literally nothing to support people through change. We seem to do a better job fostering homeless dogs and helping them to move through an adoption process.

When I discovered this was “a thing,” I became incessantly curious just how far-reaching the problem really was. So I started to ask the difficult questions, the ones that people don’t want to ask in the workplace. I found countless examples of confusion, fear, devastation as people crawled through change and loss in their jobs with absolutely no support offered. To best illustrate, we share with you here, a story offered to us by a client who generously offers her experience so we can see more vividly the plight of today’s professional and can hopefully reconnect with our humanity and make some simple but impactful changes.

One Friday in May 2008, I walked into the corporate job I’d held for a year, and dropped by the bathroom before going to my desk. Inside was a young woman weeping, hands covering her face, her tears hitting her white blouse. It was disturbing, but I said nothing to her. I had no idea how to respond to someone sobbing at work, so I ignored her, assuming it was a private affair and would be rude of me to intrude. I walked around her to the stall, washed my hands as she sniffled and blew her nose behind me, and walked past her as I left. On the way to my desk, I passed several others who were crying. “What in god’s name could be going on?” I wondered. Crying? In the open at work?

My boss’s boss had scheduled a last-minute meeting with me on this Friday morning. I was 29 at the time, this was my first job in a huge corporation, and I didn’t know what that meant — I didn’t even worry about what it could mean. Now I know. Layoffs.

About 25% of our division was being laid off. I didn’t cry after my meeting, I shook. I tried explaining my projects to the people who were to take them over, and my boss’s boss came over and told me to close my laptop. I needed to stop working immediately. The others would figure out my projects. I would have 5 weeks to try to find another job internally — jobs that didn’t exist — and I would have to stay home in the meantime. Don’t come into the office, they said.

Work was supposed to be “family.” A section on the yearly employee happiness survey was all about whether you could bring your full self to work, and experience psychological safety, although they didn’t phrase it that way. Our full selves were expected to be happy, and maybe a little quirky or passionate about hobbies. The definition of full selves didn’t include grief.

My best friend worked on the same floor as I had. She was not being let go. She continued to work, after comforting me for a while as I cried in her cubicle. At some point, she had her regular meetings to go to, and she went. People who were retained were expected to go back to work immediately, stiff upper lip, and work hard to save the ship from sinking in the 2008 recession. The departure of 25% of their “family” wasn’t discussed. If 25% of your actual family suddenly stopped being your family, wouldn’t you want to process it? Understand why? Grieve it?

There’s no space for that in the corporate world. Maybe you can’t bring your full self, or be treated like a full human being, at corporate work. This place, where you spend half your waking hours, bypasses grief like it’s a dirty secret. Keep your head down, and plow on. Drink your bafflement and tears and shock and anger away at one of the many booze stations in the office, or after work with some remaining coworkers, and at home. Don’t speak to those who have been let go. Give them space — even though they need support, and you need support. Don’t get too close or you could catch what they got. There but for the grace of god go you.

I got my job back. They’d made a mistake in the layoff algorithm, they told me. But my team got re-organized, just one in countless re-organizations I’d be part of. Minor and major ones. One later team that truly did feel like a family — at the head of it, the most inspiring leader I’ve experienced as our manager — was blown apart in one re-org. The managers were all replaced with new managers, the roles were all distributed or eliminated, and anyone who had been part of this thriving and vibrant team left quickly, except for me. I did what management on high told me. I gritted my teeth, careful not to publicly lament how fucked up it seemed for my highly effective team to be upended. Not express my anger. And not express how stricken with shock and sorrow I felt to have my work family moved and shuffled like chess pieces.

I recently moved to a new team, voluntarily, and heard from my old co-workers that it was just in time. They’d just completed the seventh re-org of my old team in seven months. I went back to their part of the office, and recognized only 3 out of 20-odd people. It was silent, and people looked grim, as if bracing for, or recovering from, a shock. They said that early in the re-orgs, a manager had emailed out a PowerPoint presentation on how to deal with change. They were supposed to read it, and move on. The somewhat threatening message explicitly told to us throughout all the re-orgs was, “If you don’t like change, you don’t belong here.” My translation: do not grow bonds here, and do not mourn, and don’t come to us with complaints or that growing seed of resentment in your belly. Suck it all up and move on.

Layoffs and forced shuffling of employees are hard on human beings. We are social mammals, after all. If the intention of the company is to have happy employees, and to foster the sense of psychological safety that makes a productive, collaborative, and healthy workplace, we should all treat each other like human beings. Capable of emotion. Driven by connection. We need a honest dialog after upheaval. We need a place to cry that’s not isolated in a bathroom.

So how can we do better? How can we attend to the human beings who are suffering and help them along? How can we embrace change but offer sources of stability so people can cope?

The answers are easier than we might think:

Acknowledge the loss. People need to know that the pain they are feeling is real and normal. With all change (positive or negative) comes elements of grief. The worst thing we can do is pretend people aren’t affected. Offer people a voice, a place to talk about their feelings. Be sure to listen without trying to solve the problem or offer advice. Just listen.

Rally around. It turns out that we can face just about anything if we don’t have to face it alone. We are often scared to talk about the feelings associated with grief and loss, so we avoid those who are in pain. What they need most is kinship and community. Provide opportunities for people to come together for honest conversation. We need each other.

Support uncertainty. We don’t always have answers but it’s essential to be transparent with the information we can provide and to let people know where we are in the process of stabilizing. Look for elements of stability and routine and actively use them as a group moves through change. Let people know they can ask questions and offer compassion for what it’s like to sit with those questions that cannot be answered. Humans struggle and flail in wide open space.

Practice patience. During times of stress or pain, we often move slower and are less efficient. Expect this and plan for it. Let people know that it’s okay for them to take more time for self-care. We need to adopt a gentler, more humane approach to change. Rushing back into productivity only prolongs people’s emotional process. It’s counter-intuitive. Slowing down and making more space for feelings actually allows us to move through them more quickly and thoroughly.

Relationship first. Take the time to truly get to know the people you work with and to actively build and shape the relationships. During times of stability, it makes work so much more rewarding. During times of change, those relationships are an invaluable resource. When we are connected in a genuine way, we are way more likely to help each other when change needs to happen. It isn’t that change itself is negative. On the contrary, it’s a necessary and beautiful thing to see a company, a team, or an individual evolve. And, it’s extraordinary when we can move through those changes and stay committed to the core values of our humanity.

Take signs and symptoms seriously. Massive change and loss impacts our brain chemistry. So does stress. From a preventative perspective, leadership can consider that adequate support for big transitions can make a huge difference in a person or a group struggling with issues like depression or stress-related illness. This is a major healthcare issue and the costs for medical treatment outweigh the costs for building positive support systems. We can start to paying attention to signs and symptoms and walk toward conversations and solutions rather than ignoring or denying the realities around us.

It’s possible to make more human-centered choices in the workplace. Like this individual’s story tells, people who work together can bond deeply and teams can become a source of community. When we consider re-organizing teams and layoffs, there’s a new conversation needed here and it’s one about cultural and social impact. It considers capitalistic concerns such as efficiency and profit/loss ratios but it takes seriously the relational needs of people. This conversation puts heart and humanity first.

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