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“Grief should not be locked away, because once you put the sadness in the box, if not dealt with, it will reemerge at the most inopportune times and in far less controllable forms.”
Many of us are grieving in some form today. COVID-19 continues to take our loved ones at a horrifying rate, and has crushed our traditional means of preserving mental balance and cultivating human connections. The virus shifted our roles and power dynamics in our family, community and professional context.
The pandemic is bringing many moments of crude realizations — about our society, politics, and economy.
For some the experience is the loud grief of immediate loss — the pain and death inflicted by the virus, either directly or from the mental anguish its impact causes. This grief falls on us like a Steinway piano from an apartment window, crushing us in an instant and leaving us to try and emerge from the wreckage, navigating the dazed silence that follows.
Then there is the slow, quiet grief that comes from the loss of our identity, community, or faith — the kind of disruption that may come from, say, a life-altering global pandemic. Without the support of those around us, this grief gradually wears us down, leaving us anxious and alone, unable to lift our head to see the light tomorrow may bring.
Our experiences and individuality determine our thresholds for processing loss and for suffering. And our coping mechanisms are imprinted over time as we learn from our parents, mentors, surrogates and experiences.
Our specific vulnerability to grief, our inability to fix it or master it, terrifies us. To cultivate a conspiracy of silence around grief is to give some small, false, comfort that we can control it. Some of us are struggling more — and more visibly–than others.
What we have in common is our unpreparedness for the transformation that grief brings and our difficulty discussing it. The old tools we had are gone in lock-down. Grief and loss are to our time what sex was to the Victorians. We don’t want to talk about it, even though (or perhaps because) it surrounds us.
Grief is generally taboo in the workplace, despite evidence that it erodes performance both short and long term. We spend most of our waking hours working, building our lives and identity around work and colleagues, letting traditional religious communities and extended families fall away. Yet, too often, when the window to grief cracks open, we are left shivering, alone, as the room grows cold.
As 2021 opens, managers who themselves may be grieving must help their team members. When tragedy unmoors us and we drift into the dark seas of grief, the stability, structure, and purpose of work offers a raft that can help carry us back to shore. Companies have a moral and practical obligation to find healthy and productive ways to manage their employees’ grief. How can managers do that?
According to the Kübler-Ross model, when we are first struck with loss, we react to our loss with anger. To alleviate our feelings of helplessness and frustration, we often lash out at external forces: God, fate, the enemy, the opposite political party. Then we wonder what we could have done differently to avoid our misfortune and might promise to do better or differently next time.
After this so-called bargaining stage comes sadness and loneliness: we realize what we have indeed lost and may never recover. We might experience signs of depression, such as sleep issues, substance use, or changes in eating habits. We struggle with the changes in family dynamics and identity attributes that loss invariably brings.
Acceptance closes the cycle, allowing us to move forward. The sadness may linger, but it should no longer paralyze us. We should emerge transformed from the grieving/feeling/healing process.
Each stage of grief drives a personal transition; a leader’s ability to support a team member in this process can reduce the risk of losing personal identity and avoid severe compartmentalization that prevents growth in the grief.
We all, as humans, instinctively know how to cope with pain and what we need for our own survival. Armed with our instinct, we can decide if we want grief to be a constructive moment of renewal or a circle of self-destruction. Supporting renewal in ourselves and then others requires a deep and honest process of self-reflection and introspective questions, such as:
· Who and what have I lost since the pandemic? (people, routine, illusions, community?) How has it impacted my ability to function and lead?
· How do I feel about it? Do I still mourn this loss despite me? (in the family, at the workplace?)
· How can I best face, process and overcome this dragging grief? Which internal and external resources can I resort to (and later share)?
Workplaces that promote cultures, even identities, of urgency and hardiness are particularly likely to avoid genuine confrontations with grief. For example, invisible injuries have long been disregarded in the military, either as personal weakness or corporate inconvenience. This derision is underwritten by the secret fear that we are not as immune to grief as we like to think. We desperately hope that if we can quarantine the leprosy of grief, we can save the herd, and ourselves.
Compartmentalization, or putting sadness in a box, is suitable for short-term stints, but it is imperative to understand why we are sad, mad, or depressed over the long haul. Many of us are in all three of these mental states simultaneously, and we get used to it. We have a problem and may not feel the agency to address it. However, if we ask for help and stay the course, we may find that our collective efforts can be far more productive. Unresolved grief accounts for 15% of mental health disorders.
Managers may be tempted to hide their own grief, out of the belief that they need to keep it together for their employees, but shared grief can be a powerful tool of empathetic leadership. When we expose our grief we free others to open up about their own struggles; just feeling accepted, supported, and heard can help people start to feel better, and reconnect with work. We must give voice to sorrow; the grief that does not speak will break us.
If a manager can be present and patient, lending a hand and a light into the dark hole of grief without leaping in themselves, they can build a powerful relationship with the bereaved. Making the workplace a pillar of recovery fulfills the communal role of corporations, and engenders tremendous loyalty and dedication from employees. In the military, units that know how to grieve together build unparalleled unity; the “band of brothers” stereotype rides on the back of tragedy — shared and digested as a team.
In The Gift: 12 Lessons to Save Your Life, Auschwitz survivor Dr. Edith Eger argues that we cannot heal what we cannot feel. Despite this, many of us battle grief with busyness and distraction, confusing numbness with healing. This reduces our ability to emote and to listen to others in pain. We deprive ourselves of feeling. When we are always on, we keep the body in the fight, flight, or freeze mode and make it impossible to start to feel secure enough to embrace change.
At work, creating this space might mean adjusting bereavement allotments. Managers can provide employees more time off for grieving, but also more flexibility with how, when, and for whom they use that time. It means also accepting that colleagues will be forever changed. The pain becomes part of our makeup and the way we feel and see the world. The pain never goes away; time allows for it to be worn differently but not be rid of it.
Grief is difficult, unpredictable work, and we all have people outside our immediate family — such as a godchild or mentor — who’s deaths would incur substantial grieving that requires time and space to handle. Some therapists recommend finding a place (perhaps a car) where no one can hear you and yell. What equivalent can you think of for yourself and your teams? What tools can you provide your people to allow them to work through grief, and bring their best to work?
Sports and the military expose individuals to the transformation that some of us are struggling with — role and identity changes — to create mental models on how to deal with danger and pressure and extend our challenge threshold. For example, the military on-boards civilians and creates Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines, and Coast Guardsmen through a crucible experience — bootcamp — designed to put trainees under an immense amount of stress.
The process is similar to interval training. The only time one slows down and takes a rest is when they sleep. Bootcamps help individuals manage and isolate discomfort over time. The military favors exposure therapy — “sweat in peace so you don’t bleed in war.” Consider jumping out of a functioning airplane at 1,250 feet. Not a good idea if you are afraid of heights. However, for those assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division, it is an occupational imperative. Many soldiers are scared of heights and still jump when required. How? Why? Because they can compartmentalize discomfort, this also translates to individual fears or finding themselves in life-or-death situations.
How can we use COVID-19 as a crucible moment to make us all more resilient and better able to develop tools to cope with grief? A rite of passage in American football is the summer “2-a-day” workout. After two or four months of break, teams are thrust into an intense bootcamp-like experience. Upperclassmen (who have gone through it before) understand what is happening to them, have a mental model from previous years and are more likely to persevere through the challenge. However, first-year students may have never experienced anything this difficult in their lives. They have no idea what to expect, and it is questionable whether they have what it takes to finish practice on day one.
A certain strength can be found and promoted in response to tragedy, for example rallying in response to an attack. A unit going through combat together can genuinely share both the tragedy and the concomitant grief. However, despite the fact that 400,000 Americans have died from COVID-19, it remains a cruelly individual experience for most. A death in the family feels somehow private and coworkers can mentally isolate the grief to those immediately related to the event, even if that event is repeated millions of times across a community.
When COVID-19 is presented as an individual experience and not a shared tragedy, the grief it creates feels like a thousand pebbles, slowly piled around the afflicted. But COVID-19 also provides individual and teams a crucible moment, which could help transform their capacity for ingenuity, empathy, and resilience.
Compassion, compartmentalization, and patience should encourage managers to create space, provide time, and invest in resources to help their teams work through grief and loss — emerging stronger on the other side.
Dr. Hise O. Gibson is an Academy Professor of Systems Engineering at the United States Military Academy at West Point. He graduated with a B.S. in Operations Research from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and a Doctorate of Business Administration in Technology and Operations Management from Harvard Business School. His expertise is the intersection of operational effectiveness and human capital development to enable more effective ways to maximize the integration of Technology, People, and Processes throughout an organization.
Carin-Isabel Knoop leads the Harvard Business School’s research and case writing group and has co-authored more than 200 case studies on organizations and managers around the world. To help make their challenging lives better, she writes about mental health in the workplace and human sustainability. She is a pragmatic idealist and fanatic postcard writer.