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In this brand new 6-part series by Dr Chloe Paidoussis Mitchell, Associate of The Work Psychologists and resident Grief and Trauma Lead, you will be introduced to everything you need to know as a leader to help you manage and support colleagues navigating loss and trauma.
This series hopes to inform, educate and inspire you to do what it takes to safeguard the mental health and wellbeing of your people and help them THRIVE through the challenge and crisis of loss and grief.
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Welcome to Week 3 of our series on supporting colleagues who are navigating the trauma or loss and grief.
Our approach is informed by our THRIVE model, above, and this week Dr Chloe Paidoussis Mitchell – our resident Clinical Lead & Associate – will explore what role leaders can play in grief recovery to foster workplace environments that promote post-traumatic growth and wellbeing.
In week 1, we looked at trauma in the current context; last week we looked at the significance of putting humans before profit and next week we will look at the value of Introspection. If you don’t want to miss out, sign up here:
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“What can I do to help with grief? I am no expert!”
I lead many corporate mental health sessions on “Understanding Loss in the Current Context” and a similar story emerges across the board:
Bereaved people feel that they can’t share their grief at work. They hide away in toilets to cry it out, or they bottle it all up at work in fear of judgment, pretending that they are OK (when in many cases they don’t feel OK at all) to avoid being seen as lacking in drive, commitment and professionalism.
This has to change.
At the moment, the UK has the highest number of Covid-related deaths in Europe and the impact of lockdown has touched everyone, with mental health conditions on the rise (WHO, 2020).
The pandemic poses even greater challenges to those grieving, as loneliness, isolation and coping with the idea that a loved has died alone is distressing and difficult to handle.
Grief experts such as Kessler (2020) have likened the pandemic to a “collective grief event” with everyone experiencing the loss of all normality (Berinato, 2020 HBR). Repeated and prolonged lockdown restrictions have led to widespread loss of connection, and community (Perel, 2020). We all know this - we've been living in it for the last year.
Now, it is more important than ever that you appreciate the losses and traumas the people you lead and work with are going through. How you respond can make a significant difference.
It is no longer appropriate to assume that grieving is something that people do at home, away from the workplace. We sadly can’t leave our traumas in the room next door when we head to our working-from-home set ups.
You can’t resolve people's grief for them but you can play a key part in supporting them to recover from it (Dhanaraj & Kohlrieser, 2020).
You might want to reflect on the following questions with your peers:
Do you know how supported your grieving employees feel by you, their colleagues and your organisation?
Have you considered how you may play an essential part in helping them steady they resolve to keep going through these traumatic conditions?
What is Grief Recovery?
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Recovery in grief is really about adapting and learning to move beyond the loss, anchored in a sense of meaning and purpose.
There is a lot of research into recovery and leaders can’t be expected to know it all. But it would be helpful for you to have an appreciation that in most cases, grief recovery involves 7 Acts of Grief Recovery (Kessler, 2020).
These are like emotional experiences but they don’t happen in stages. Some people may experience all of these and others may experience only one.
All grief responses are normal and all you can do as a leader is have conversations that are open and accepting of whatever the personal grief journey is.
The 7 Acts of Grief Recovery are:
Initial shock and disbelief especially if the death was sudden and unexpected. Feeling numb, disconnected, disoriented and shut off.
Denial of the truth and wishing for it to be different, bargaining with the universe for things to be different.
Guilt about unfinished business, especially if the relationship ended on a bad note.
Anger that the loss has happened at all and looking for someone or something to blame.
Sadness and profound loneliness that eventually lead to an appreciation that the loss has really happened and must be accepted
A re-engagement with life and looking for meaning and purpose in connections and projects
Acceptance and Post-Loss Growth. This is about living past the loss, integrating it into the new world and learning to stay connected with the deceased loved one.
It is really important to see these as aspects of grief recovery and most people will journey through these not in a linear fashion at all, and may dip and return many times before recovery feels real.
It's also vitally important to be aware that this process is not "done" in a year. Many people spend the first year in a state of shock and numbness as they come to terms with their devastating new reality.
No two people grieve in exactly the same way and leaders can show acceptance and appreciation of this when talking to bereaved colleagues. Hearing someone affirm that what you're going through is completely understandable can be reassuring, particularly for people who worry that they are “doing grief” badly or should be further along by now.
What is "normal" grief?
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There are many types of grief and some are harder to adapt to than others.
The key message to understand is that all grief is “normal grief.” There will be waves of sadness, good days and bad days, a general acceptance that the loss has happened and a re-embracing of life.
How long this takes depends on each person and it is really important to acknowledge that all grief responses are normal.
There is no wrong way to do grief. If anything, what is "wrong" is feeling the need to bottle it up or judging oneself harshly for how you are coping and avoid processing their grief. However, again, a lot of people talk about this; it's not uncommon to hear someone say that they lost a loved one many years ago and are aware that they still haven't grieved them. Researchers call this "incomplete grief."
As a leader it is really important you engage in conversations with bereaved colleagues that allows them to talk to you, if they want to, about their grief experience and what it’s like.
What is Traumatic Grief?
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When a loss is very sudden, unexpected and traumatic, this can lead to a Traumatic Grief which is characterised by:
A profound sense of rupture from oneself
A feeling of deep alienation from the usual way of being
A deep sense of feeling disorientated and disturbed about what it means to be alive, to function in the world and to feel psychologically and physically safe
(Paidoussis, 2010; Paidoussis-Mitchell, 2018, Kaufman, 2013).
Traumatic losses are happening a lot now due to Covid and with this kind of loss, leaders need to acknowledge that receiving reassurance and compassion is affirming and grounding.
In the face of a traumatic loss, all grief responses are normal. Recovery is more demanding but absolutely possible, with the right support.
Grief in the current context
Loss in the current context is traumatic as the usual scaffolds to process loss are not available and people are coping with both the chronic stress of the pandemic and with their personal tragedies and losses.
The legacy of how you support your employees in their grief, will be felt for generations to come (David Oldfield, 2020, Lloyds Banking director) and it is no longer reasonable to ignore it.
A simple approach to help recovery is to:
Acknowledge the loss
Engage with the experience of loss and offer emotional support through being empathic, open, compassionate and non judgemental
Refer and signpost to further sources of support if necessary.
As a leader you can be mindful of the degree of isolation your colleagues are coping with and you can play a big part in encouraging connections.
Simply checking in regularly via video call or telephone will go a long way and practicing altruism like that can really help the bereaved person feel connected, valued and part of a community – especially with the challenge of working from home (Ishikawa 2020).
If you can show your people that you understand and appreciate what recovering from grief is like for them, you are laying the foundation for that post traumatic growth to unfold.
Grief is not actually a mental health condition but if not adequately processed it can cause a number of difficult conditions such as major depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTDS), or anxiety and panic disorders.
Leaders need to know what grief is like, especially if they have not been hit by loss themselves, and what conditions promote a good grief recovery.
If you feel that this does not apply to you or your team right now, think about it this way – you may need to know this in the near future sometime; given the ongoing increase in Covid deaths, as well as the increased death rates due to undiagnosed health conditions, disrupted health care provisions, increased mental illness and limited mental health services available.
Ignoring grief is no longer a reasonable approach.
Work is an important scaffold for bereaved and traumatised people who are navigating their way through a complex recovery path.
There is good news: with compassionate human support, people do get through traumatic losses and find meaning on their way; reporting feeling stronger, wiser, more energised and grounded in their purpose and authentic connections (Eger, 2019).
When a traumatic event happens, a person’s view of the world is shattered (Kaufman, 2013) and recovery involves reconstructing meaning and purpose, with a renewed sense of post traumatic growth (Paidoussis-Mitchell, 2019; Neimeyer et al 2002, Barak et al 2017, Fleming et al 2001, Frankl, 1985)
Recovery is about adapting to the loss, finding ways to re-engage with life, to assimilate the loss into a life narrative that feels meaningful (Stolorow 2011) and feeling centred and anchored in one’s life, buoyed up by strong bonds with both those who are alive and those who have departed (Mitchell 2018).
Leaders can’t be therapists but being aware of what this journey is like will help have those conversations that feel compassionate, empathic and holding to the bereaved.
How long does recovery take?
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Recovery is not linear. It does not happen in stages and there is no fixed timeframe for it.
Everyone will have their own lived experience of loss, and acknowledging this is really important (Walsh et al 2007).
As a leader, do not make assumptions and do no track people’s grief progress. It is vital that you don't put a deadline on their grief.
So much depends on the bereaved person’s:
Life story and what they tell themselves about themselves and loss
Circumstances of their loss
Significance of their loss
Emotional support accessed
Mental and physical health
Ability to engage with that turning point of any traumatic event – to shift from feeling at the mercy of meaningless chaos to personal agency and commitment to embrace a meaningful and purposeful way of navigating life’s journey
As a leader the best you can do is offer to help in whatever way the bereaved colleague would find helpful and:
Use their language
Listen actively with one intention: to validate them
Reassure them that you make no assumptions
Don’t track them
Don’t interject with your story
Don’t offer optimistic instructions and
Don’t tell them what and how they should be handling it.
Although you may feel that your suggestions are helpful, what you are actually doing by offering solution-focused suggestions is telling them about yourself, rather than opening up to listen to them and effectively isolating a human being who is already in a lot of pain.
They are immersed in the process of trying to find ways to bear living in a world without their loved one, coping with huge questions about what and how to deal with the pain. Your way through it might not be their way.
Having this awareness is vital and leaders who don’t show this level of compassion and empathy can have a detrimental impact on bereaved colleagues (Charles-Edwards, 2007; Thompson (2009).
What conditions promote good grief recovery? The 3 Cs
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Grief does bring growth but it takes time. There are certain conditions which help, and these are things leaders can encourage and support people to cultivate (Escalante, 2020). The conditions that help promote recovery from grief are known as the '3 Cs':
Seeing the loss as within the natural order of things and having internal agency and control over how to cope with the mental, physical and emotional impact. This means processing emotions and practicing good self-care to manage the physical and emotional symptoms of grief.
Feeling psychologically coherent in grief, open to reconstructing a meaningful life again and able to embrace a positive mindset around the ending.
This doesn’t mean being happy about the loss. It means feeling positive that there was a good ending – with opportunity to say what needs to be said, or to forgive what needs forgiving, to feel anchored in a life well lived with the comfort of happy memories and the joy of the privilege of having lived together.
Investing in being connected with supportive people and receiving emotional care, support and help from others in appreciation that this a basic human need and not a sign of weakness. It also means being resilient and having healing strategies for staying connected with the deceased as a way of moving beyond the loss in a new kind of normal.
As a leader it is really important you have awareness of these conditions, and you reach out to those in your teams who may be coping with extremely difficult situations.
Research is showing that managers and leaders are considered supportive when they first acknowledge the bereaved employees' situations and demonstrate sufficient understanding of their employees' grief (Flux et al. 2020).
Grief can be a growth experience
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Coping with grief and trauma is tough and as leaders you have an opportunity to show compassion and care to your bereaved groups, so they can trust you and feel assisted in moving towards post-traumatic growth.
History and psychological research into trauma and loss has shown us again and again that human beings are meaning-seeking beings (Frankl, 1985; Eger 20189, Tedeschi, 2020) and are able to move beyond the devastation of any traumatic event when they can reconstruct a life that feels anchored in purpose and meaningful connections.
Leaders play a significant part in affirming this for their bereaved colleagues – by acknowledging and accepting the grief experience and by explicitly demonstrating compassion and openness.
Research highlights that the ability to connect with others who have been bereaved and the receipt of empathy are two of the most valuable means of support (Dyregrov 2004; Peter et al. 2016).
How the workplace environment contributes to the principles of embracing and promoting psychological safety for all is vital.
When people are able to navigate a crisis of loss, the growth experience is profound and it is really important that as a leader you acknowledge this and you create opportunities to share this learning.
Create space to better understand your people and spread resilience and hope by sharing how people are weathering their storms, and how this may prepare them for future crisis (Hutcherson 2020).
Having conversations around loss, grief, and the trauma of the pandemic will allow you as a leader to sniff out inappropriate assumptions in your group and remind everyone of the value of collective empathy and humanity.
Your most powerful form of influence is in what you model.
With the right support a high proportion of people do respond resiliently and remain psychologically stable (Zaki, 2020). The essential ingredients for increased wellbeing after trauma and loss remain everything we discussed above.
The Work Psychologists are committed to raising awareness and skilling leaders up to handle grief in the workplace well.
In summary it is really important you:
1. Show appreciation for all losses your groups are coping with
2. Engage and offer empathy and compassionate support
3. Refer to further sources of support if you see that a colleague is struggling with grief and starting to deteriorate in their mental health
4. You don’t performance manage issues in the wake of a loss but rather you discuss, support and offer understanding
5. Build greater cohesion with your groups by sharing the wisdom gained and you motivate your people by sharing inspiring human stories of surviving tragedy and loss.
Our infographic below provides some key principles to help you support bereaved colleagues. You can download a copy here (pdf) or here (png).
Turning information into conversation
We would love to know what your key takeaways are from this article. What are the one or two key insights that really stood out to you? Head over to LinkedIn and share your thoughts.
Information is one tool; conversation, connection and vulnerability in action are another.
Join us for more
Dr Chloe Paidoussis Mitchell will be leading a workshop on “Understanding Trauma and Loss for Leaders – Helping Your People Thrive” in early March 2021. Sign up below for the rest of this series and to get a free ticket.
About Dr Chloe
Dr Chloe 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.