Time to Heal: Grief in the Workplace
How do you define “normal life?” What is the first thing you want to do when all the lockdowns are finally lifted? While our versions of “normal” may vary, one thing we can agree on is that we all want it back!
For millions of business owners in the U.S., returning to normal might involve increasing product production, rehiring valued staff, planning events, or turning the power back on at the office. While the experts dissect and deliberate over what the last 15 months mean for the state of our economy, managers and business owners have another critical issue to address.
According to a National Public Radio (NPR) report, the University of Washington’s Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation conducted a study that estimated that 900,000 people in the United States have died from COVID-19. The researchers involved in the study pointed out that this number (which is 57% higher than the official totals) only estimates deaths "caused directly by the SARS-CoV-2 virus," meaning this number doesn’t include those who died as a result of unforeseen circumstances related to the lockdown, such as:
Delayed medical screening and diagnosis
Life-saving treatments deemed “unessential.”
Mental health issues
What it all means?
Aside from the empathy and horror we should feel when we look at these numbers; we might also be slightly overwhelmed by what these numbers mean to our daily business operations. As businesses around the country start to “get back to normal,” we need to ask ourselves: In addition to a loss of life, how else have our employees been impacted this year? What bearing will grief have on our employees’ job performance? How can we support employees returning to work after experiencing trauma?
Answering these questions begins with our ability to understand what our employees have faced since March 2020 and how grief physically and emotionally impacts our lives.
Photo by Francisco Gonzalez
The death of a loved one
While it might be a little obvious to state that for each of those 900,000 lives lost, there is a family member or friend grappling with grief; we may be less aware of the magnitude of loss some families have faced.
For example, the loss of a single family member is not unheard of in the workplace, but I recently heard an interview with a woman who lost 35 members of her family in the early days of the pandemic. Stories of widespread loss are not uncommon, especially in unserved and minority communities.
What are the ramifications of this type of loss on an employee(s) as they return to work? Some employees didn’t experience losing a loved one during this pandemic, but they may still be grieving. What could be causing their grief?
The year we lost
As a society, it is not uncommon for us to exclusively associate grief with death. However, as business leaders, we need to remember that many of our employees and volunteers have lost more than life this year. Unexpected circumstances such as a loss of health insurance, restricted access to family members during an emergency, and burnout from a lack of work/life separation, are only some of the events that have plagued millions of people in the aftermath of COVID-19. What are some of the specific events your team may carry with them when they return to work?
Homeschooling (and the outlay of expense)
Lack of community resources
Empty supermarket shelves
Canceled once-in-lifetime trips or functions
Post-COVID long hauler symptoms
Divorce due to lockdown
And, much more!
The trauma of injustice
It is impossible to discuss the trauma of 2020 without highlighting the horrors of police brutality and racial hatred that played out in our communities and on our TV screens. The deaths of George Floyd, Brianna Taylor, and so many others did more than ignite a call for accountability. Many of our employees will be returning to the workplace deeply traumatized by what they have seen and experienced.
In addition to those injustices, the escalation of hate crimes against members of the AAPI community has provided further cause for grief. Like what happened after 9/11, feelings of resentment, fear, and heartache may transform your employees from a pre-pandemic to a post-pandemic mindset.
Are you prepared for this transformation? How will you support your team moving forward?
Photo by Charles Deluvio
Where do we start?
As an employer, how do we quantify the profound loss our employees have experienced? Our ability to face this challenge is directly related to our ability to acknowledge and adapt to our new normal. We are no longer the same companies, countries, or individuals we were when we locked our offices on that surreal Friday in March 2020.
We started the lockdown expecting to return to our abandoned files and coffee pots in two weeks, only to discover that we were facing a long-term WFH scenario coupled with unimaginable trauma. If we want to succeed and if we want our teams to thrive, we must address the elephant in the room. How?
Understanding the symptoms of grief
Grief is not a linear experience, meaning everyone will do it differently. While some people have a strong emotional reaction, others may barely cry but experience forgetfulness or impatience. There is also no set time frame for the grieving process. Many employers allow Bereavement Leave, but the truth is that grief can impact an employee for years.
When we examine the needs of our team, we need to familiarize ourselves with more than the “stages of grief,” we also need to be prepared to address the emotional and physical symptoms of grief.
Some of those symptoms include anxiety, depression, lack of interest in activities, impatience, severe fatigue, headaches, and an inability to concentrate.
These daunting circumstances might appear to be beyond the ability of an employer to address. However, we can take steps to prepare for how grief will impact our employees’ performance and how we can help our team adapt and thrive in the months ahead.
STEP 1: Ask the right questions
At some point in our professional careers, we probably sat through or conducted a performance review. This tool helps us set goals, measure accomplishments, and identify areas where growth is needed.
As we return to our offices after this long ordeal, we should not wait for an employee’s employment anniversary or the end of a fiscal year to perform a review. The first step in helping our employees thrive in their new normal is understanding how this last year has affected their worldview and goals.
Some employees may feel pressured to “dive back in” and “move on,” but the trauma they have experienced could present roadblocks to their intentions. Giving your employees a safe space to articulate their experiences will help build their confidence in the workplace, and better prepare them for returning to normal.
This conversation should not be a formal debrief of the last year. For example, you could have a cup of tea on a park bench, turn off your phones, and above all, ask the right questions.
Even if our team continued to work through the pandemic via telecommuting, we should not expect their transition back to the office to be without bumps and emotions. For example, a friend of mine who recently went to Costco for the first time in 15 months was surprised at how large and loud the store felt. This form of sensory overload is not uncommon. Many of your employees have endured months of isolation with limited face-to-face contact. The pace of the office, the time added onto their schedule as commuters, and the anxiety over personal safety could all negatively impact your employee’s ability to acclimate.
By starting an employee’s return-to-work with a review of the last year, you give them room to breathe and express their concerns. As a result, they will adapt more quickly.
Questions to ask during a BTW review
What are you most concerned about now that you’re back at work?
How did the events of the year impact your goals?
Did you lose anyone you loved to COVID?
Have you moved since the lockdown started?
Did your needs change during the last year?
What work schedule or setup meets your needs?
When we ask respectful questions, we are more equipped to address employee needs and recognize warning signs that could hinder their growth. These questions also help our business add value to our employees and increases our ability to grow as a company. All these things will also reduce unnecessary employee turnover.
STEP 2: Have a plan
A few years ago, I lost a co-worker to suicide. The trauma of Cole’s loss deeply affected our team. For the employees who found out about Cole’s death at work, the pressure of continuing to conduct “business as normal” was overwhelming.
Our manager decided to hand out a pamphlet about grief in the workplace and say, “take all the time you need,” while ten minutes later, asking why a morning task had not been completed yet.
Similarly, on September 11, 2001, my manager walked into the office and responded to her teams’ devastation that morning by handing us all ice cream bars and telling us to get back to work because “life goes on.”
As business leaders, we need to do better. Remember, every person in our department or company has experienced some form of disruption or trauma. In this case, a plan is essential to any good leadership model.
Ideas to get you started
One plan that is gaining popularity is utilizing a hybrid work schedule that allows employees to fulfill family and emotional needs while still spending a few days in the office. While this may take some outside-the-box thinking, it may help to remember that we could never have imagined that our entire company could successfully go mobile just a few months ago.
When your employees are in the office, avoid the “whatever you need” approach. While the statement may be heartfelt, it leaves the employee without a clear understanding of your expectations. They, in turn, might feel obligated to ignore their emotional needs in favor of the immediate obligations of the company. On paper, this could work, but employees are much more productive in the long run when they do not have to compartmentalize their lives.
Another practical approach to helping our employees regain their equilibrium in the workplace is to start small. The thrill and panic of getting back to normal as quickly as possible do not account for the fact that most employees will need to familiarize themselves with what it means to physically and emotionally be back in a group setting.
On the surface, it might not appear practical to slow down our pace when we return to the office, but it will pay off. This approach will allow us to evaluate how our industry has changed; and how our customers feel about the products or services we offer. Most of all, it will enable us to ask the most critical question: Does our business align with our community’s views on inclusion, social justice, and the environment?
STEP 3: Get outdoors, exercise more
A vital piece of managing grief in our work environment is linked to our ability to get outdoors and exercise. When we exercise, we increase our energy level, improve concentration, and release mood-boosting chemicals in our brain that help us manage stress.
Instead of hosting a meeting in a conference room, move the team into a green space while the weather is nice. When you have a business meeting outside of the office, choose to hold the meeting on a telecommunication platform. This decision will cut out a chunk of your travel time, leaving room to work a “mandatory” hour of exercise into your team’s day.
If you don’t work in a setting that allows for this type of flexibility, try to bring nature to your team. Install more live plants, water features, tranquil sound machines, or fish tanks. Not everyone can have their cat or dog in the office due to allergies, but a pair of Love Birds is an ideal way to bring tranquility and life into any office.
Another great way to incorporate exercise and outdoor activities into your team’s culture is to provide incentives for completing activities or events centered around a physical activity or giving back to the community.
A brighter normal
A return to our offices may feel like a joyous reunion or a continuation of the status quo, but don’t fall prey to that approach. Take time with your team, a whole day if you can, to discuss what being back to “normal” feels like for them. How did they cope with the lockdown? What experiences impacted them the most? Despite the heartache, we have experienced individually, and as a community, we can help each other heal. Our “normal“ may never look the same way again, but there is hope, and together we will find a brighter path.