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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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Psychological research has demonstrated that in order to feel we have solid mental health and wellbeing, we need to feel that we are meeting our potential and coping well with life (Eger, 2018). When we feel mentally well and healthy we can say that we are feeling:
1. Comfortable with ourselves and with life
2. Happy and content
4. That we are doing OK
5. Like we are functioning well
6. That where we live, what we do for a living, our finances, education, skills, our workplace, social policy and governance are all appropriate for our vision and values
7. Like we have physical health
8. That we can make a meaningful and purposeful contribution to our work, family, and social communities
9. That we have the capacity, and the potential to overcome challenges, adjusting to them resiliently and courageously.
However, the reality of COVID-19 is that so many of our mental health pillars have been shaken to their core. Most people will be going through a challenging time right now, and those coping with actual loss will need to steady themselves.
The world has changed and almost everyone is grieving loss of some kind. What this means is that many people will seek to fulfil their new identity, social and economic needs through work – and you, as their leader, play a central role in reaffirming their value on a human level to inspire them to keep going and to keep engaging. (Devine, Reay, Stainton & Collins-Naki, 2003).
In this article we'll explore what you can do and why it matters so much.
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In this series we are dedicated to raising awareness and inspiring you as leaders in your fields to build mental fortitude, resilience and post–pandemic psychological growth in your organisations so that you and your colleagues can THRIVE.
We as business psychologists fundamentally believe that no matter what life throws at us, we can learn to rise beyond and above adversity, buoyed and galvanised by a mindset of growth and resilience.
This is rooted in years of research, clinical training and “active service” – helping organisations embrace mental health and resilience through crisis and change.
Last week we looked at trauma and loss in the current context – you can read that article here if you haven't already.
This week we will do a deep dive into understanding the value of putting people first to promote psychological safety, strong teamwork and wellbeing, particularly for those hardest hit by the pandemic.
One of the most significant aspects of Covid-19 is the realisation that our world has become unrecognisable, with serious and extensive economic, political and civic disruption.
It seems that the crisis is impacting everyone’s wellbeing – especially those coping with grief and loss of any kind – and it is more important than ever that you take proactive measures to prevent your people’s mental health from deteriorating.
You are not expected to be doctors or therapists. But you are expected to lead with a “humans first” mindset:
To allow people to feel psychologically safe at work
To connect with them on a human level
To recognise when they may need more professional mental health support, and
To signpost them to the right sources.
The wellbeing conundrum
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A recent survey by the CIPD in 2020 indicated that organisations are still more likely to focus on reactive wellbeing measures, rather than taking a proactive, coherent approach.
This is problematic because it means that mental health is at greater risk of deteriorating in a workforce already navigating a global health and economic crisis.
“The term ‘employee well-being’ has often been translated by employers into one-off initiatives that aren’t necessarily part of a cohesive well-being strategy or linked to the organisation’s wider corporate goals. But health and well-being should be a continuous thread that runs through every operational decision and a cultural lens that guides everything we do and how we do it”.
As a leader, you can no longer avoid having those sensitive conversations and leading by example in putting your people first. The pre-pandemic report on the Global State of the Workforce (Gallup, 2017) suggested that 85% of the global workforce were not fully engaged with their work and reported feeling “unhappy” with management style.
How you lead and manage your people during this crisis, and especially if they are coping with grief, will have a direct impact on their productivity, their commitment to the organisation, their willingness for teamwork and on their actual engagement with work.
Putting people first means showing that you care about your employees at a human level, that you appreciate the impact of the pandemic on their wellbeing, and that you appreciate their grief.
You will demonstrate that you are able to link what is meaningful to them with the purpose of your organisation – and that you value their happiness just as much as you value the bottom line.
Leading with a 'Humans First' mindset
Leaders of people-centric companies understand that it’s people who make their company successful. As we often say at TWP, people are the greatest asset in any organisation.
A 'humans first' leader knows that when people feel valued and cared for, they do their work with stronger intrinsic motivation, a deeper sense of meaning, and a greater level of engagement. They go the extra mile simply because they want to contribute to an organisation that cares about them. (Forbes, Hougaard, 2019)
Taking a 'humans first' approach will therefore really support people through this crisis.
And if you have people in your teams who are bereaved, this approach will go a long way to reminding them that they can find solace and comfort in a group of colleagues who care about them on a human level.
At a time in their lives when the unthinkable happened, their personal crisis is huge and you – as their manager or leader – can really be a beacon of resilience, support and care.
We must remember that human beings have the capacity to defend their wellbeing against any crisis if they can frame their experience collectively, they can anchor themselves in a shared understanding of what happened and why, and can be energised by their commitment to overcome their challenges intact, with inner strength, courage, dignity and hope.
As a leader you play a significant part in how this plays out in the workplace.
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Not everyone is fine
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You can no longer assume that everyone is fine.
Research into the psychological impact of the pandemic suggests that mental health illness is expected to increase significantly (WHO 2020) and at least 50% of professionals will be diagnosed with a mental health condition at some point in their life (Association of London, 2019).
With so many coping with grief and bereavement, it is now essential you find ways to engage with their loss and you show them that you appreciate what it is like for them and you care.
Learning to listen non-judgmentally and showing empathy really fosters a sense of care and the value in this is increased commitment and drive (Harvard Business Review, 2018).
If you don’t put your people first, the hidden cost is big. Your workforce will start to feel rejected and uncared for on a human level and will start to disengage from work – the energy required to be optimistic and engaged will start to feel pointless.
In this way you run the risk of them not only becoming mentally ill but also psychologically distracted when at work. This leads to presenteism (which alone costs the UK economy £15 billion a year) or to them needing long leave or even exiting your organisation, costing you their talent and lost productivity. So leading by putting their humanity first is vital.
You may feel that your people are strong and their mental health is not a risk. I hope you are right. But looking at the mental health picture before the pandemic, stress was the biggest epidemic and depression and anxiety came a close second – costing the global economies $1 trillion.
It is likely that if your employees are coping with a painful death, and are also struggling with other pandemic-related stresses, they could develop depression, anxiety, stress or difficulties from Complicated Grief Disorder.
The severity of their condition of course will be unique and influenced by a multitude of other personal life factors. Sadly, the vast majority of you will have people in your teams navigating unthinkable uncertainty, coping with draining and fatiguing personal stress compounded by the psychological journey of coping with significant loss.
Most people have had to deal with loss of some kind – whether financial loss, loss of social networks of support, loss of health, loss of loved ones, loss of financial security, loss of office routines, loss of norms in our everyday lives. Sadly many are coping with divorce, disrupted education, disrupted healthcare, disrupted care for their elders and of course loss of freedom to make usual life plans.
Facing actual loss of a loved one during the pandemic is one of the most difficult and distressing experiences, as the usual scaffolds that help a person navigate towards acceptance, healing and growth are compromised and restricted.
Losing a parent when you have not had the chance to hold their hand at the end, having to host a funeral with most guests on Zoom, and then going through grief alone in lockdown isolation is traumatic.
To prevent people's mental health from deteriorating severely, it is important that when they are at work, you lead by showing them empathic understanding.
You can do this by deliberately fostering an atmosphere that makes it OK for people to be sad, down, upset and vulnerable and by engaging with their grief experience compassionately, on a human level. Leading by putting people first is about showing them you care. How you do that is a skill, and very much about how you relate.
It is so important that you take time now to reflect on how you can foster a workplace culture that promotes connecting on a human level for your people and to let them know that this is an important value for you.
Being told we matter to our colleagues and our bosses is a motivating and validating experience and one which matters so much when we are thrown into the grip of grief and loss – so don’t shy away from it.
Trust that by tuning in to their lived experience of loss you will create the opportunity for greater communication, greater connection, shared humanity and greater collaboration.
Research shows that human beings can thrive in the face of acute stress and loss when they feel part of a collective (Hirschberger, 2018). The pandemic certainly has been a great leveller – nobody has got through it unscathed – and some would say we are going through a collective trauma (Turmaud, 2020), all of us navigating towards a reconstruction of meaning and purpose.
Your people are coping with a lot, and showing empathic appreciation for this goes a long way to fostering psychological resilience and safety. Take a moment to reflect on whether you have a decent understanding and appreciation for the losses your people have navigated in the last few months.
How many discussions about what they are going through have you had? What has stopped you? What is the hidden cost of this?
Remember we all have the crisis of Covic-19 in common and this is an opportunity to deepen connections between you and your teams. Human relationships are actually strengthened when we share our vulnerability and connect on that human level.
In a global bank I recently worked with, a senior leader instigated a coffee hour where anybody from any part of the team was invited to join, “just to talk”. It was intended as an informal and open gathering, where the team could chat about anything and everything except work for an hour over a cup of something warm.
People spoke about life, hopes, dreams, sadnesses, stresses, children, the pandemic, coping strategies, anxieties, worries…. And the impact was massive.
It took one man to open up for another to do the same and the hour became a precious weekly routine that helped people communicate their stresses and seek support and guidance. The more they did this, the more efficient and the greater collaborators the team became.
The initiative was a simple thing but had a hugely positive impact on the energy of the team and demonstrated that connecting at a human level goes a long way to enabling wellbeing and fostering resilience.
The power of a simple question
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The pandemic has been a massive stressor on everyone and you can take positive action in response. You can start by taking a snapshot of how everyone is. Engage people in reflective chat about what have they learned.and asking them questions like:
What is it like for you right now?
What has been difficult about the last year?
How can you support and help?
How can the team support?
Get those conversations started and be confident in this because the more you understand and empathise with their actual lived experience of this, the better a leader you will become.
This is a recommendation for all in your team but especially for those coping with grief and loss. This is a period in their life filled with negative emotions, sadness, and your empathic support reassures and builds a positive feeling for them.
Bereaved colleagues will look to you and their workplace colleagues for ongoing validation, human connection and will be energised by a positive experience which in turn leads to greater commitment for team work and collaboration.
People look to their leaders for inspiration, to find answers, assess how they have coped and to be seen, heard and understood. It is normal to turn to those we share our projects with for emotional and mental support. It is what we all do, and when it is lacking, it can create greater stress in us, as we feel the threat of even more isolation, alienation and rejection. We'd encourage you to embrace the opportunity to share your own wisdom and what you have learned over the last year.
It is a basic human need to feel psychologically acknowledged, understood and held by others in our life and your role as a leader is now more important than ever.
When in crisis, human beings want to feel that they have the security of the pack, their community, safeguarded by a group that share their perspective and care about them. It really matters.
Recognising this and making sure you don’t avoid it is an important aspect of learning to put people first. Reports still suggest that work and death are seen as segregated topics – but they both make and define us as humans (Charlse-Edwards 2009a. You as a leader can really help set the right tone, reaffirming for all your colleagues that you value them as people first.
So take time to show your group that not only you “get it” but you also care.
It is absolutely essential you give up on your traditional stiff-upper-lip “command and manage” approach.
Such an approach is old-fashioned and does nothing more than promote psychological avoidance and increase the risk of “shut down” – a significant risk factor for deteriorating mental health.
Such a mindset can often result in coping strategies that are fundamentally anti-resilient. These include: numbing or self-medicating, hitting the roof, finger-pointing, social withdrawal and isolation (Brown, 2015).
Looking after your millennials
It is also really important to appreciate that half of the workforce in 2020 is made of millennials (Brack, 2020). Many of them have grown up in fluid families, changing jobs often, and coping with quickly changing technological demands which means that they are mindful of what contributes to their wellbeing and mental health. They expect to work in teams and for people that promote and embrace wellbeing and in organisations that show they value their people first.
What this means is that command-and-control management approaches no longer are effective. Because millennials are the great collaborators, they don’t view their managers as content experts because they can access information via tech; instead they view managers and leaders as coaches and mentors. Theirs is a generation that invests in learning, is achievement oriented, socially conscious and highly educated – the most highly educated generation of all (Newman, 2010).
This is important to note, because it is no longer appropriate or effective to take an individualistic approach to work, as your workforce will crave team-based work collaboration and sharing on a human level. Millennials value meaningful work more than high pay, and many of them expect leaders and managers in their organisation to embrace and promote wellbeing and mental health by putting their people’s happiness first.
So given the crisis and given the nature of your workforce, understanding what contributes to a deteriorating sense of wellbeing and creating a human-first leadership approach will be an important strategy for any leader in any field.
How you have these conversations, how you spot deteriorating mental health and how you foster that culture of sharing is perhaps something you need to explore and build.
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To summarise your key “take aways” for today:
1. Putting people first means showing you value their happiness more than the bottom line
2. Focus on prioritising engaging with people on a human level
3. Let go of performance managing or judging emotional vulnerability and instead acknowledge it and make it acceptable
4. Keep channels of communication open, where your team can share with you and each other without judgement
5. Actively listen, empathically and without judgement
6. Make time for relating and understanding your employees' experience – not just their performance
7. Check in with your team and discuss their sense of wellbeing regularly
8. Sometimes, just talk and acknowledge that learning and great wisdom can come from facing adversity and emotional pain
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.