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Endings: Helping leaders talk about death and dying

By Dr Chloe Paidoussis Mitchell

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Welcome to the final part of our 6-week series on Grief and Leadership.

This week Dr Chloe Paidoussis Mitchell, our resident Clinical Lead for Grief and Trauma, will explore the value of talking about endings with your teams – especially death, loss and dying – to support their transition to a post-Covid19 world where they feel cared for as human beings, elevated in their mental health by your leadership, and business ready.

If you have just joined us, do read our earlier pieces to understand all you need to know about the impact of grief on wellbeing and to access lots of best practice advice on how to handle grief and loss in the workplace, especially during the pandemic.

Our approach at The Work Psychologists is to support you to thrive through the challenges of the loss of normalcy.

Dr Chloe is running a webinar on 26th March on understanding grief – to get a free ticket and to receive other brilliant articles like this one, sign up below:

Why is it important to talk about endings?

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Endings are an inevitable part of life.

Every single one of us has had to cope with a fair amount of endings in our lives so far – the loss of a good boss, loss of familiar organisational structure through restructures, loss of physical contact with previous colleagues or friends, divorce, loss of a loved home, loss of a steady income, miscarriage, breakups, fall outs, loss of youth, loss of health, loss of childhood, loss of possessions to name a few.

Endings and loss of all kind, as well as loss due to death are unavoidable, and the pandemic has evoked a “mass grief” response in many due to the loss of all norms (Berinato, 2020).

Facing the impact of endings head on is an important aspect of the post-Covid workplace.

There is a wide global consensus that the COVID-19 restrictions and ending of all norms has impacted people’s mental health and wellbeing (Fiorillo et al 2020).

Learning to talk about these experiences is a vital step towards normalising the lived experiences and creating workplace environments that support and elevate people by adapting and validating their losses, rather than avoiding them and side lining them.

Letting go of 'just getting on with it'

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There is a tendency to avoid talking about losses at work in the spirit of "just getting on with things" and to avoid over sharing.

However, we know that when leaders don’t create opportunity for their people to talk safely and openly about the impact of endings and grief on their life, trust is diminished.

This has a detrimental effect on the business because it contributes to the decrease in psychological safety and we know this leads to disengagement, disinterest and loss of talent (Delizona, 2017).

Fostering psychological safety is a means to business excellence and has been evidenced to boost collaboration, commitment, creativity and teamwork (Edmondson, 2020).

By side lining the impact of endings and loss in the workplace, you are implicitly demonstrating that your people’s suffering doesn’t matter to you or the business. This causes them to see you as a colleague and leader who doesn’t really value them. In this context, people don't give you or the team their best. And let's face it, why would they?

This depletion in psychological safety due to avoidance of endings causes interpersonal anxiety (Edmondson, 2020) and risks the mental health and wellbeing of your people.

Talking about endings and grief are vital leaderships now.

The leader's role in loss

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If you have been lucky enough to get through the pandemic unscathed and your experience of endings and loss has not been disruptive, traumatic or painful, it is even more important to equip yourself to understand the potential impact of a difficult loss on your colleague.

When you make the effort to do this, you become a more informed and skilled source of support, and someone who can help them through this phase of their life with compassion and care.

By opening up, talking about it and normalising discussions of endings and loss, you are creating a compassionate workplace environment. This too is a huge boost for deeper human connections and greater commitment (Worline et al 2020).

Sadly the pandemic has been impossibly tough on so many people and you as a leader can be a beacon of courage, wisdom and hope for those amongst your colleagues who have had to dig deep to steady their reserve to keep going.

I have watched many friends, colleagues and clients juggle the immense challenges of the last year and although each person is having their own personal lockdown experience, there are some evidently psychologically demanding situations that many of your people will be facing, such as:

  • Loss of work/life balance

  • Loss of organic informal colleague support due to WFH

  • Loss of education provision & in house training

  • Loss of childcare

  • Loss of house help

  • Loss of healthcare provision

  • Loss of freedom to travel and make life plans

  • Loss of social contact from personal networks

  • Loss of usual outlets – sport, entertainment, leisure

  • Traumatic loss of loved ones.

There is also little doubt that the pandemic measures of quarantine, social distancing and isolating have impacted people’s mental health (Fiorillo et al 2020).

As leaders it is essential that you notice and adapt your leadership style to support your people through their various losses.

This means handling colleague relationships sensitively, compassionately, empathically and respectfully to foster greater human connection and care.

This approach will allow you to imbue your people with a sense of being valued, and cared for. All the evidence from mental health research shows that social and emotional support is vital to safeguard wellbeing (Chopra, 2019) and you as a leader can go a long way to promote this amongst your groups.

Learning from other tragedies

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We have not been through a global pandemic of this scale before so the long-term impact on wellbeing and mental health is not yet available.

However when we look at research from the SARS outbreak in 2003 Chong et al. (2004) found that 77.4% of health workers caring for patients during the outbreak had mental health issues ranging from anxiety, worry, depression, somatic symptoms, and sleep problems.

Being prepared and understanding that some of your people will experience mental health symptoms and conditions in response to the stresses and losses of their life is now a crucially important leadership task.

UK data is showing that at least two thirds of adults are concerned about the impact of the pandemic on their mental health (Marshall, 2020), with studies showing it worsened by 8.1% as a result of the first two months of the first lockdown in June 2020 (Banks et al, 2020).

We also know from peer-reviewed global research into the impact of the pandemic on wellbeing (Tan et al 2020; Li et. al 2020; Sonderkov et. al. 2020; Cao et. al. 2020; Moccia et. al. 2020; Mazza et. al. 2020) that there are certain predictors for deteriorating mental health leaders need to be aware of:

  • Living alone

  • Living in urban areas

  • Living in isolated rural areas

  • Having existing medical conditions

  • Poor sleep quality

  • Higher perceived stress load

  • Previous distressful life events

  • Lack of psychological preparedness

  • Perceived self-efficacy to help vulnerable family members

  • Lacking knowledge of the pandemic long term

  • Daily life restrictions

  • Relatives/friends catching Covid

  • Less family support

  • Low social capital (during isolation)

  • Unsteady family income

  • Higher social media exposure.

All of the above have been found to be associated with increased risk of depression and/or anxiety (Vindegaard et al. 2020).

So: do you know what experiences your people have had over the lockdown and how they have felt about all the endings and losses they had to deal with?

It is no longer sensible to ignore or defer these conversations. Not only will they boost the morale of your people but they will help you prevent their mental health from deteriorating.

We know that talking about symptoms and lived experiences of all endings actually prevents mental health from worsening (Bonanno, 2000; Parkes, 2010; Eger, 2019).

No study has yet focused on understanding how people’s bereavement and grief during Covid-19 impacted their mental health and wellbeing long term.

But there is research already which shows that sudden loss or any loss during a time of major crisis can be traumatic and can have a detrimental impact of mental health (Jacoby 2020).

Given that the UK has the highest Covid-19 death rate in Europe and 5th in the world, you can’t assume that all your people will be back to normal when this is over.

After the euphoria following June 21st (assuming all goes according to plan), there will be a lot of aspects of our society that need deep care and attention. Everything will not be "fine again" by summer, or even next Christmas.

Creating opportunities to talk, validate people's experiences and emotions, and offer support is hugely important now.

Given the extent of the pandemic crisis there is a high chance of psychological overload for many of your people coping with bereavement, stress and loss of many kinds (Stacey, 2020).

Breaking the silence on this suffering and learning to share it, to talk openly and sensitively about it will ensure that your work environment does not become an amplifier for more suffering of isolation and stress.

Talking about the lived experience of loss and of the impact of endings really helps people feel valued, heard and considered on a human level and leaders play a significant part in how this experience eventually plays out in the workplace.

The need for compassion in action

When the 9/11 terrorist attacks happened in the USA, employees were surveyed about how they rated their employers on compassion.

Those who rated their workplaces as excellent at offering compassion in the wake of the attacks became far more engaged in their work.

On the other hand, when employees rated their employers low on offering compassion, more than a third of them became disengaged from work (Kim et al 2004).

The pandemic crisis calls for you now to lead with a compassionate style to prevent many of your colleagues from disengaging with their work.

Embracing a compassionate leadership approach elevates your people through any crisis and offers a competitive advantage, as it allows you to safeguard your organisation against the costly drain of the teams’ lost potential which may be threatened by deteriorating mental health (Worline et al, 2017).

In the world of business your compassion can be expressed through action – your willingness to talk, to show understanding for the human experience of grief and endings of all kinds and your capacity to show humanity and care, whilst adapting and keeping channels of communication open across your organisation.

Grief is not a mental health condition but the reality is that if a member in your team is already coping with high levels of stress and suffering symptoms of anxiety, depression, substance abuse or any other difficult mental health condition, their reserve for grieving will be depleted and any significant loss will destabilise them (McGee 2020).

Learning to talk about the lived experience of the pandemic, and about any endings suffered is absolutely vital now, more than ever.

Better to be prepared and equipped to face it head on.

The power of emotional support

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Many pride themselves on avoiding talking of these issues.

However we know that avoidance is a major predictor for deteriorating mental health (Dijkstra et al, 2016) and as a leader you can play a major part in normalising vulnerable feelings your groups may be experiencing and actually help dissipate them by vocalising them, making sense of them and validating them.

Feelings diminish in their intensity when they have been expressed and creating opportunity for this at work can be a life affirming and validating experience.

Talking is caring.

When your people feel heard they will also feel validated and this experience of care and support fosters an internal confidence to cope with the impact of distressing life events.

When we feel that significant people in our world not only care about us but understand us and support us we feel that we can believe in our capacity to get through this.

Human beings are social beings, and this psychological holding by a leader like yourself can really bolster a colleague in a time of difficult endings.

In psychological terms this is termed self-efficacy – evidence that a belief in coping actually assists in coping and this is another means to business excellence (Tahmassian et al 2011).

You, the leader, can listen, show care and offer support to foster this sense of self-efficacy and as such help enhance wellbeing (Bandura et al 1994) for your people.

People who doubt their capacity to cope, who feel neglected and misunderstood, become socially withdrawn, start to avoid difficult tasks because they see them as a personal threats and are prone to depression and stress (Bandura et al 1999).

As a leader you can prevent this from happening by learning to reach out and talk about their experience and to face endings head on. In talking your colleague can make sense of it and learn to move through this.

Numerous studies over the last few decades have shown the value in receiving social emotional support as a strategy for maintain good psychological health (Ozbay et al, 2007) and your role as a leader is now to embrace this through open and empathic discussions on endings of all kinds and on grief.

What kind of support can I offer?

Having conversations with your colleagues and team members about their losses and their lived experience of the pandemic need to be both regular and emotionally and practically supportive.

Evidence tells us that if you can marry up that kind of structural support with the functional support and adapt to individual needs, you will enhance wellbeing and mental health in your vulnerable people (Charney et al, 2004).

Reflecting on how best to reach out and talk with your people, how often and what kind of empathic and compassionate support you can offer is now a priority for you as a leader.

First you need to appreciate what experiences of endings your people have had. For example how many of your colleagues have coped with traumatic endings, have struggled with isolation, have struggled with the ending of all norms?

Discussions to engage and understand are very important and will foster team cohesion and collective support.

Coping with Traumatic Endings

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A lot of your people may be coping with the trauma of losing loved ones who died alone.

A sudden unexpected death is classified as traumatic and grieving this has been shown to be more complicated than grieving someone who did not die suddenly (Rando, 1988).

Losing a loved one to Covid-19, even if they were hospitalised for some time, will mean a traumatic loss for the bereaved as many things that would normally happen - like being able to console them, to be with them to hold their hand at the end of life, saying goodbye and sharing love and care for them at the end of life – will not have happened.

This is likely to make grieving for this loss more like a sudden and traumatic death (Stacey, 2020).

If you have people navigating such losses it is essential you prepare and equip yourself with knowing how to help.

Rando (1988), a leading grief specialist, has suggested that the lack of rituals and being able to come together for a funeral, a wake, a getting together for emotional support is detrimental to the grieving process. She says:

“The lack of touch and social support – someone wrapping you in their arms and comforting you while you weep – is very significant, because that connection allows us to release many of our emotions.” (Rando, 1988)

While we are not in the position to hold people physically right now, creating opportunity for your bereaved colleagues to talk about this aspect of life and to normalise their grief will go a long way to supporting them and building commitment to you and the team.

It is also really important to acknowledge that if your colleagues are grieving a significant loss at a time of social isolation and lockdown restrictions, the emotional support and care received from others will be limited which causes greater distress and pain.

As a leader you can do a lot to help with that.

Reach out and offer support and non-judgemental space to talk about what has happened, what it is like and how they are feeling as well as what support they need from their colleagues and where else they may access mental health support.

Social isolation has made it tougher for people to share their losses as have the lockdown restrictions and WFH demands.

I have heard many people say to me “I have no time to go to pieces now. I need to get on with it and focus on what I need to do for the family.”

The lack of opportunity to meet up with friends and family to share in grief and to reflect on endings of all kinds is detrimental to mental health.

Leaders having regular check ins with their people to ensure they are feeling ok, coping ok, receiving adequate care and support from others, looking after themselves and managing appropriately can really foster hope, optimism, trust in the leader and commitment to the workplace.

It is not a leader’s role to be a therapist. But a good relationship with your people will really help to catch any potential deteriorating mental health issues and offer preventative support.

Prevention is so much better than cure in the case of mental health.

How to talk about endings and grief in the workplace

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Many leaders are uncomfortable talking about death and grief with their colleagues for fear of causing upset, triggering feelings of angst, or being seen as intrusive.

It is really important to establish good boundaries and to consider how to get the balance right - between being available to talk in an emotionally supportive way and not be too intrusive.

A guiding principle is the following – find an approach to be present with the lived experience of your colleagues and do not try and fix them or tell them what to think and feel and definitely do not impose optimistic solutions.

Although these may be well intentioned, what they do is implicitly reject the experience of the other and cause them to feel unheard, misunderstood and rejected.

Phrases like "It could be worse,” "Chin up," “You need to get closure,” or “You need to move on” have been found to be the least helpful in supporting people through grief (Eterneva et al, 2020).

Being present with people's suffering and listening non-judgementally is the best you can do. Ask them open questions about how they are feeling, what is and isn't helping them, what more you could do to support them, how they want the team to support them to generate collaboration and teamwork.

Reassure them that you care about them, and validate what they are sharing with you. This can be extremely affirming and help them express their grief, normalise it and move through it.

One of the most important things you can do is keep the channels of communication open and don’t judge how long someone is taking to adapt to their grief.

As has been mentioned in earlier pieces, grief is extremely personal and many different factors can influence a person’s ability to recover.

Your role as their leader is to foster open acceptance and compassionate care so they can really see how they are doing, can take responsibility for their wellbeing and get further support if necessary.

You can’t fix their suffering but you can support them with it and be there through it. It really does matter and fosters deeper human connection.

Overall your commitment is to lead by example and be led by what your bereaved colleagues need of you. Be a beacon of respect, treat them with dignity and humility and show them that you care more about them as human beings than you do about profit.

The value in this approach is that not only will you foster good feeling, greater sense of connectedness and safeguard your people’s wellbeing, but you will also be able to gauge new knowledge and share learning across your team, and feel better prepared for future crisis (Hutcheson et al 2020).

This approach is the best you can do to prepare your people to resiliently adapt to a post-pandemic world.

For more on how to support your people, download our '10 key principles for supporting a bereaved colleague'.

In summary

In summary for today’s final piece on endings, it is really important that when you talk with your people about their grief you:

1. Recognise their loss.

2. React to the loss. Ask them about how they are experiencing their grief, explore whether they are accepting it and allowing themselves to or if they are avoiding it for now.

3. Speak with them about the deceased person and be prepared to have conversations about the relationship lost.

4. Help them relinquish the world they used to have and acknowledge the world they now have.

5. Talk about how they can adjust to their new reality, how they can honour their loved and create a new relationship with the person died, in what way can they can establish a new identity for themselves.

6. Support them in reinvesting their life. Talk with them about how they are putting energy into new people and goals and the cultivation of meaning.

Grief is a long journey and you will need to gauge how to talk endings with each one of your people and be mindful of where they are.

A huge whoosh of creative momentum and energy is generated when people survive trauma and you can shepherd your people towards this by fostering open discussion and compassionate leadership.

People have an innate capacity to find meaning and receiving care and support through compassionate conversations can really help bereaved people navigate towards that.

Coping with loss and grief is a huge task and the experience of encountering humane respect, care, and support through loved ones and leaders is a huge life affirming experience, which motivates the bereaved to adapt and embrace life again following their loss and invest in meaningful life projects and people.

About Dr Chloe

Dr Chloe Paidoussis Mitchell is a Chartered Counselling Psychologist with a PhD in Trauma and Loss, as well as an experienced Mental Health at Work Consultant and Coach and is committed to raising awareness on Resilience and Post Traumatic Growth. She shares her understanding of the opportunity leaders now have to step up and deepen collaborative relationships with colleagues to foster post-pandemic growth.

Dr Chloe is running a webinar on 26th March on Understanding Grief. If you would like to join her sign up here (subscribers get a free ticket - so do subscribe here if you don't want to pay).

We will be very excited to work with you and support you in nurturing this compassionate care for your people.



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