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Coping with Workplace Grief

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Beth Killough

Even before COVID-19 subtracted so much from our lives, workplace grief was a corporate crisis. Now, as we have faced the loss of loved ones, missed occasions and celebrations, and isolation from family, friends and colleagues, the losses in our professional lives compounded with the effects of the global pandemic have become much more traumatic.

Let’s stay with that word, traumatic, for just a moment. Too often, we dismiss our own traumas or those of others and we miss the significant effects which trauma has on the brain, body, mind and spirit. Yet, if we want to prevent long term mental health issues and promote authentic connection to ourselves, our teams, and our families, we need to see through that lens.

Corporate change has been swift since the pandemic’s early days. But even before then, departments reorganized, and positions disappeared or were redefined. There were massive layoffs and radical leadership transitions. And, for far too long, we have underestimated the impact these changes have on individuals and groups. Though there is extensive thought leadership and training around change management, we do very little to genuinely support people through change and loss.

When I transitioned from my private practice as a therapist to corporate leadership consulting, I assumed the wounds at work didn’t cut as deep and hearts and lives weren’t shattered the way they were too often at home. I couldn’t have been more wrong. I have found countless examples of confusion, fear, and devastation as people crawled through change and job loss. More recently, layoffs and forced shuffling of employees, as well as the almost overnight shift to remote work and learning at the pandemic’s start, have been disorienting to human beings. We are social mammals, after all. When change and loss hit, our sense of safety and security collapse, and there is no way to fast-track the process of recreating stability.

If we want to foster the sense of psychological and physical safety that makes a productive, collaborative, and healthy workforce, we need to start with the basics. We need to see each other and treat each other with our common humanity and emotional lives front and center. We are feeling beings, driven by connection and community. When our work lives are in upheaval, we need relationship centered work, genuine care, inquiry, and deep listening.

So how can we do better? How can we attend to our colleagues and families who are suffering and how can we 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 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 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 we can face just about anything if we don’t have to face it alone. We are often scared to talk about 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 – even virtually– for honest conversation.

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. 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. This has been especially true during the pandemic. Expect this and plan for it. Let people know it’s okay 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 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 impact 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 pay attention to signs and symptoms and walk toward conversations and solutions rather than ignoring or denying the realities around us.

As employees begin to return to their workplaces, whether daily or as part of a hybrid onsite/remote model, we need to make more human-centered choices. People who work together can bond deeply and teams can become a source of community. When we consider re-organizing teams and or we are faced with inevitable layoffs, there’s a new conversation needed here — one about cultural and social impact. It considers capitalistic concerns such as efficiency and profit/loss ratios but also it takes seriously the relational needs of people and their lives. This conversation puts heart and humanity first.

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