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Welcome to week 4 of our 6-part series on how to support colleagues to navigate grief, loss and trauma at work.
If you're just joining us, you can read the previous articles here:
This series is very close to our hearts, as we at The Work Psychologists are passionate about supporting you – whatever your role – to shape organisational cultures that are compassionate and supportive at a time when workforces are exhausted by the collective grief experience of the pandemic.
Our message over the last few weeks has been informed by our THRIVE model below, and the emphasis has been on highlighting the value of leading through acceptance, openness, compassion and empathy.
This week Dr Chloe Paidoussis Mitchell (our Resident Grief and Trauma lead) is exploring the value of introspection in leadership. Dr Chloe has spent more than 20 years investigating grief & trauma as a Psychologist and works with many groups to educate, inform and prepare them to embrace and safeguard mental health and psychological wellbeing at work.
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The pandemic and the increasing number of employees coping with loss of all normalcy and grief call upon you now to appreciate the value in compassionate leadership and introspection; to demonstrate a personal awareness of the difficulties your people are encountering and to foster empathic connections that show sensitivity, respect and care in your handling of colleagues at work.
Reflection and introspection are two key tools that allow you to deepen your own personal wisdom.
The value in this is that you can use this learning to become a leader, one who relates through respect and empathy with others.
In the grip of a crisis, people turn to their leaders for guidance, understanding and support. Your ability to lead your workforce in this compassionate way is vital.
This has never been more important as you face the triple challenge of providing quality services or products, whilst maintaining your workforce’s wellbeing and sustaining organisational effectiveness during the pandemic and all of the restrictions.
Introspection breads empathy. It is by understanding your own emotional and physical experience – especially if you have processed loss and grief – that you can better demonstrate that you understand and validate someone else’s feelings of grief and loss (Flux et al 2020).
Introspection, empathy and compassion are now essential to your leadership approach given the current context and its impact on mental health.
The current picture
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Research is showing us (Royal College of Psychiatrists, 2020) that the cumulative emotional and mental drain of the pandemic is impacting the nation’s mental health and the cost of this to business is yet unknown.
Past cost of deteriorating Global Mental Health is approximately one trillion USD per year (WHO, 2019) but the cost of this crisis is human, and you as a leader are at the helm of your ship.
UCL’s survey (2020) of 90,000 adults across the UK reported that a high proportion of those surveyed are feeling “extremely worried and anxious” about the impact of the pandemic on their life, their work.
A big proportion felt that they were not coping well.
The risk to mental health and wellbeing is increasing, and the drivers for deterioration as published by the Health Foundation (2021) are:
Job loss and financial stress
Disruption to education
Disruption to healthcare
Housing insecurity and quality
Working in a frontline service
Loss of coping mechanisms due to lockdowns and lack of social norms
Reduced access to mental health services
Increased number of deaths in traumatic circumstances.
It's vital to remember that you can’t make assumptions about the experience your people are having in lockdown and how they are coping; especially if they are navigating grief and loss.
You need to foster communication, be open and have respectful conversations that appreciate and accept where your people are, how they are coping and be a source of compassion, care, respect and support for them.
Research highlights that the ability to connect with others who have been bereaved or who are able to show empathy are two of the most valuable means of support (Dhanaraj & Kohlrieser 2020; Peters et al., 2016).
Conversations that normalise the human experience of loss will go a long way to affirm to your colleagues that you not only support them but that you value them. As leaders it is essential you help create those very important scaffolds of respect and care that foster psychological safety (Edmondson, 2020).
Taking time for introspection is essential now.
Introspection will allow you to gauge unhelpful habits that are “reactive” and will show you where and how you need to adapt your responses so that they foster compassion and empathy.
What is Introspection?
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Introspection really means reflection. This is about:
Tuning in to your own “internal world” and understanding what you observe, naming the feelings you notice and accepting these feelings in self compassion
Turning your feelings into wisdom and valuable learning
Making choices informed by reflection, insight and understanding.
Introspection requires you to turn towards yourself, to invest time and energy to observe yourself and to understand your internal experiences. Introspection offers you growth in awareness, understanding and empathy and can help you inspire others with your openness and care.
Suffering has been shown to be a source of great wisdom throughout history and people are wired to search for meaning no matter what the context and conditions of their crisis (Frankl, 1985.)
You have an opportunity to inspire and support your people by sharing and discussing your insights, being open and accepting of lessons learned, wisdom gained, changes made, messages shared and differences understood.
The value in inspiring others through your own humanity and capacity for reflection is that it provides the ground to foster deeper relationships with the people you work with and lead.
Watching this happen is always inspiring.
During a recent webinar for leaders on Understanding Grief in the Current Context, a discussion emerged where different executives talked about their experience of loss and of the ways in which they found to maintain resilience through it.
Once one person spoke about their personal difficulties, others opened up.
What mattered was their openness and their ability to reflect on their internal worlds and on what it had taught them about their personal challenges and how to move beyond these.
Creating such opportunities for sharing and talking goes a long way to affirming to your people that they matter and that they are supported by you their leader.
Tune in to check in
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Tuning in is a skill and sometimes needs to be taught. What it requires is a time commitment and an emotional commitment to trust that tuning in leads to useful insight.
If you yourself are coping with loss and grief during this pandemic, it is absolutely essential that you practice this tuning in so you can lead by example and allow yourself the journey into grief.
Tuning in is a practice of naming your feelings and asking yourself questions such as:
(a) How am I feeling today, honestly?
(b) What are these feelings showing me about my life and work?
(c) What do I need to do to diffuse these feelings?
(d) What is the personal wisdom here?
(e) What positive and inspired action will help me?
(f) What can I do to create greater balance and harmony for me, my family or my groups?
It is by mobilising deep feelings that you can gain insight, growth and healing. It is really important to appreciate that by pausing to reflect and practice introspection you can:
Create space to make grounded and well-informed choices
Break reactive fear-based habits
Bolster your own wellbeing and mental health.
Many leaders struggle to take any white space in their week. I'd urge you to see this time of introspection as your opportunity to turn up for yourself and be present in your life. It's an act of self-care that will ensure you can bring your best to the rest of your day and week.
Through introspection you can feel that you are investing your energy in making meaningful choices that allow you to bring your full skillset and self to the multiple challenges you are no doubt tackling on a daily basis.
This attitude can be incredibly inspiring to others in your life. Sharing this experience is a big part of your leadership task now, and in this way you can make a positive difference to the lives of others.
The risk of not practicing introspection
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You may feel that your role as a leader – especially during the pandemic – is to seem unshakeable, “un-phased” and entirely in control of the situation. This may be due to your instinct to stabilise the threat.
Although this may be an approach that is well intended, it is risky because it shuts off the feelings of others and creates emotional distance and isolation.
By taking time to reflect and gauge your own emotions you are deepening your own awareness of self and others, which makes it OK for others to do the same.
It is through openness and compassion that you can demonstrate to your people that you understand and care about their suffering and that you are compelled to help in whatever way is appropriate and effective for you.
The priority is to deal with the unfolding human tragedy and support your people during this time (Nielsen et al 2020), not to look strong and clever.
In order to elicit this experience of compassion in your people, you need to develop your own capacity for introspection and reflection first.
This will allow you to demonstrate an appreciation and an explicit understanding of what your people need from their workplace cultures to aid and support their “recovery” from the traumas of the pandemic.
Your leadership task is no longer purely about being strategic, task oriented and operational. Now, you need to also be deliberately people focused, fuelled by values that embrace the humanity of your people’s suffering and safeguard their mental health.
This is all about your becoming a compassionate leader.
Why is Compassionate Leadership important?
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Compassionate leadership is absolutely vital and an essential approach for any leader leading in the pandemic. Your role is to prepare and shepherd your people to be business ready (Ilbert 2005) whilst at the same time being humane and considerate to your people’s struggles and in many cases to their grief and loss.
“Compassion is an irreplaceable dimension of excellence for any organization that wants to make the most of its human capabilities.” (Worline et al, 2020)
Compassion matters to us because it is a central value across all societies and has been shown to elevate people of all cultures.
It is an invaluable resource to you because it spreads a positive and cohesive sense of collective care, human dignity, respect and care.
These values are so important now as they can lead to a greater sense of belonging; which is vital during a crisis, and foster collaboration as well as innovation and hope.
Leading by being compassionate spreads the message that you “get it”, that you care and that “we’re all in it together in some way.” (Caza et al, 2020)
The challenge is profound and as Amy Edmondson – esteemed Harvard professor – highlighted in her Harvard Keynote in July 2020 the connection between compassionate leadership and psychological safety is crucial (Edmondson, 2020).
“How are you doing?” is now a key question and of immeasurable value when you seek to support your colleagues who are coping with unthinkable sadness and loss.
When people feel they have compassionate leaders who understand and value them on a human level and are compelled to act and help in the face of their suffering, this fosters psychological safety and in turn this facilitates growth, learning, belonging and eventual wellbeing.
The business case for introspection and compassionate leadership is clear.
Research is showing us that when people feel they are in the hands of compassionate leaders they feel they can trust them and therefore can be more open about issues when they have made mistakes, or have concerns about overload, or need to call out issues of bullying, harassment and discrimination all of which lead to greater team cohesion and effectiveness (West et al 2021).
The leadership challenge on your doorstep is that you as leaders are now being called upon to guide your people through this pandemic, resourcefully and positively.
Compassionate leadership, invested in introspection, is your route.
Stepping into your own experience and checking in with those on the circumstances of their pandemic and their losses, will help you generate collective wisdom and lead to greater resource in preparation for the post Covid world.
Before we conclude for today, I would like to share with you what conditions promote Introspection.
Here are some practical suggestions:
Make a daily commitment to reflect and ensure you keep it up. Spending time in reflection is a way of life and the more you build it into your routine the more grounded and present you will feel with yourself and the more you will feel that you are expressing who you really are. This is good for your own wellbeing and mental health.
Keep a journal and start each day with a 5-10 minute period of reflection. This is extremely helpful because not only will it help you moderate your mood, it will show you what today’s challenges require of you and can be your process for de-cluttering the build up of negative and draining feelings. Having a journal can also be a document of your insights and reflections and can be a useful record of what you are learning.
Share your valuable learning with those who matter and create channels of communications to foster a sense of belonging and support. This is good for everyone’s mental health. Being a leader through this time is incredibly demanding and sharing your insights and experiences with others in a similar boat to you can be affirming and useful. Often leaders feel that there is nobody they can talk to but this process of introspection can help you connect with others on a human-to-human level.
In summary for today’s piece I want to really highlight:
Introspection is a valuable opportunity to deepen your capacity for compassionate leadership, the bedrock of which is empathy and respect for human suffering.
Introspection means taking time for reflection and being present with yourself for yourself
Practicing emotional literacy helps ground you and fosters a positive habit of self-care (for more idea on this read last week's article) and can be incredibly helpful for your own mental health.
Making informed choices that are informed by your introspections always feels meaningful because it allows you to express yourself in line with your values and your personal wisdom.
I hope you have found this interesting and helpful and I welcome your thoughts.
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.