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Trauma & loss in the current context: What every leader needs to know

Updated: Apr 12, 2022

By Dr Chloe Paidoussis Mitchell

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.

It's been an extremely difficult and demanding year for so many people and we as business psychologists firmly believe that even in the midst of the most challenging times, leaders can hold onto and work towards a vision where thriving and growing resiliently is the goal for all.

Our infographic below headlines the key areas we believe are fundamental to fostering resilience not only in others but in ourselves too. Our 6 part series will take you through each of these and will encourage you to reflect on what kind of contribution you want to make to your colleagues' lives.

Week 1: Trauma. In this article, we will look at trauma and grief in the current context to understand the hidden cost of poor handling of loss to business, offering you lots of practice advice on how to support people.

Week 2: Humans First. A critical review of why it matters to put humans and people first and what this actually looks like in practice.

Week 3: Recovery. Ways in which recovery from trauma and loss can be successfully navigated.

Week 4: Introspection. How leaders can promote resilience and mental fortitude in the workplace.

Week 5: Vulnerability. A detailed look at the critical role self-awareness plays in effective and inspiring leadership that boosts growth and mental toughness.

Week 6: Endings. The series will conclude with a discussion on why it matters so much to navigate endings and loss resiliently and will highlight how leaders are an integral part of such Wellbeing strategies.

Each article will offer you practical tips and advice and if you want to learn more about how to support your people in the current context.

Please sign up below to get free access to join Dr Chloe and The Work Psychologists for an online workshop: "Understanding Trauma and Loss and Embracing Mental Health at Work." Or you can buy a ticket for £25, here.

2020: The Year Life As We Knew It Changed

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) in 2019 reported that in the UK there were approximately 828,000 workers suffering from new or long standing work related stress, depression or anxiety, resulting in 17.9 million working days over a year. What the figure for 2020 will be is anyone’s guess but it is likely to be very high.

Could anyone argue that traversing the landscape of this pandemic hasn’t been demanding, mentally and emotionally draining and at worst traumatic? Millions of us are resiliently coping with the unfolding restrictions on our everyday life, the profoundly anxiety inducing financial disruption – which is actually the biggest predictor of mental ill health (MHFA England Statistics 2019) - and the loss of all of our norms socially and practically for nearly a year now. But how many of you and your team are holding on by a thin thread?

Worried, Stressed and Anxious

Image by Jacqueline Day via Unsplash

More than 90,000 UK professionals, across four different generations, have reported feeling “extremely worried”, “stressed” and “very anxious” about their income, their work and their finances (UCL Covid19 Survey, 2020). The UK 2019 figures show that approx. one in five adults suffer with depression and one in six with anxiety (MHFA 2019). The Royal Institute of Psychiatrists is reporting that these figures are expected to be higher after the pandemic, with Sheffield University (2020) suggesting this could be up by a third. Perel (2020) has reported that three, complex and unfamiliar emotional experiences are being navigated now by many – uncertainty, ambiguous loss and anticipatory grief. Have these come up in conversation in your team?

How people personally coped and responded to the lockdowns of 2020 and what kind of losses they had to deal with will have a huge impact on their mental health and on their capacity for work. Coping with a trauma or with any significant loss poorly can lead to serious mental health difficulties such as major depression, post-traumatic stress disorder or anxiety (DSM V).

Even outside of the pandemic, the cost of mental ill health is growing and it is no longer sensible or viable to avoid addressing it. Poor mental health cost global economies $1 trillion in 2019 (WHO, 2019) and £109 billion to the UK economy (UK Department of Health, 2019). Research specific on grief has found that the hidden cost of grief in the USA alone is $75 billion annually (James & Friedman 2003). What’s the cost been to your organisation in the past year?

As a leader you must understand that this is an issue you can no longer ignore. Proactively learning to support your people through grief and loss is vital.

A guiding principle is the acceptance on your part that there will be colleagues across your groups who will need you to hold in mind that not only have they lost their work life routines – working from home has brought its own set of challenges – but sadly that they have had to cope with the actual loss of a loved one, at a time of huge global crisis, without having the freedom to lean on normal networks of support. Evidence suggests that for every person who dies, an estimated five or more people are left grieving that person’s loss (Hazen, 2008).

Sadly UK excess deaths in 2020 have been on the rise (according to ONS 2020) and the pandemic has expedited the sudden loss of loved ones either due to Covid19 complications or because people have been reluctant to seek medical consultation for significant health conditions, or have had their treatment delayed or cancelled. The NHS reports that cancer-screening services were put on hold in 2020 and diagnosis were adversely impacted due to reduced GP appointments.

You as a leader need to be prepared for the impact of this hidden cost of Covid on your people’s resilience and capacity to 'bounce back.' Arguably, holding the goal of bouncing 'back' to pre-Covid times isn't realistic; what we need to be aiming for is adapting to the ever-changing, uncertain and complex times we live in, because that is the nature of the world these days.

The many faces of loss in the pandemic

Image by Evgeny Tcherkasski via Unsplash

It is not beyond reason to assume that many in your groups will be adversely impacted by the pandemic because loss is happening on many fronts. We can experience grief in the face of lots of other losses – not just death. Such as loss of social contact, loss of financial security, loss of health, loss of home, loss of family due to divorce. Loss has been catapulted into everyone’s life in a big way.

Grief expert David Kessler wrote in March 2020 for Harvard Business Review:

“We are grieving on a micro and a macro level […] feeling a number of different griefs. We feel the world has changed, and it has. We know this is temporary, but it doesn’t feel that way, and we realize things will be different… The loss of normalcy; the fear of economic toll; the loss of connection. This is hitting us and we’re grieving. Collectively. We are not used to this kind of collective grief in the air.Kessler (2020)

When it comes to understanding grief and actual loss due to death, lockdown has had a deeply disrupting impact as friends and family can’t offer the usual level of practical and emotional care to those bereaved. Less support often leads to delayed grief recovery (Harvard Medical School, 2018) and digital goodbyes and accepting that elders and those gravelly ill are dying alone in care homes and intensive care units is hugely traumatic.

In many cases travel restrictions has meant facing loss alone and the pandemic on the whole has forced people to face their limits and encounter a profound sense of helplessness of “nothing I can do to prevent this from happening” which intensifies the grief and complicates the grieving process (Paidoussis, 2010).

So much of 2020 was distressing and traumatising. Leaders can help steady the nerves.

The definition of trauma is this – “an unexpected event, which threatens life, either one’s own or that of a significant other, and for which nothing could be done to prevent it from happening” (DSM V).

It is safe to say that an important aspect of your role now as a leader is to understand what your people have had to deal with and to skill yourself up in supporting these colleagues when they return to work. When attempting to cope with grief and trying to restore a changed life and manage ongoing work pressures a grieving employee may encounter work-life conflict which is likely to put additional stress and strain on them, leading to intense emotional and physical distress (Flux, et al. (2020). How you manage these tensions is a critical key in your leadership.

A conspiracy of silence

As a Business & Counselling Psychologist dedicated to raising awareness and helping leaders embrace mental health at work, I have seen that there is a conspiracy of silence when it comes to grief in the workplace; with people reporting that they are not well supported by managers and colleagues. Grief at work is a taboo subject still (Bock, 2019). Often colleagues don’t know what to say and end up trying to “fix” their bereaved colleague with optimistic suggestions such as “Time heals” or “You will be OK.”

Although these suggestions are well intended the consequence of such imposed positive compulsive fixing is isolating and alienating to a bereaved human being who can’t logic their way out of this. What bereaved colleagues are going through requires them to feel their way through grief. A shift in how grief is handled in the workplace needs to happen to make it OK for people to be vulnerable and emotional. As a leader you are best placed to set the tone and lead the way.

To leaders: Your role in 2021

Image by Matthew Waring via Unsplash

It is now essential that you have a solid understanding of what the journey of loss actually entails and you appreciate your part in creating a a culture of awareness and acceptance in the workplace.

When your people navigate traumatic loss of any kind you need to know that they are thrown into a way of being which is not only steeped in physical, mental and emotional grief (Yalom, 2018) but also tasked with trying to answer some of life’s impossibly big questions such as: Why me? What’s the point? How I’m I supposed to keep on going?

Grief is a huge journey of personal transformation and change. If the loss has happened in the natural order of things, it is easier. It may still be traumatic but the comfort of being able to rely on a narrative that sees things as having happened within the natural order helps (Neimeyer, 1998). But if your colleagues are coping with the loss of a loved partner, an adored child, a young parent, or a dear best friend these losses are so much harder to navigate and each and every employee will have their own story, their own way of responding and their own way of making sense of it.

Research has shown us that when a traumatic loss happens, about two thirds of those bereaved will suffer a detrimental effect on their physical or mental health (Murray Parkes, 1998). So how this is handled in the workplace is an important part of the grief journey.

It is not your job to be therapist. But it is your job to know how to support them within the workplace, how to have those difficult conversations without fear, confident in your show of empathy.

Essentially we are talking about fostering an atmosphere where psychological safety can be nurtured. This is fundamental to strengthening team collaborations and communication (Edmondson, 2014). It means that everyone in the team will feel secure that they won’t be punished or judged for showing vulnerability, admitting mental health difficulties or asking a question about grief, trauma and loss. The key attributes you need to harness to foster psychological safety are being open, accepting, treating others how you want to be treated, giving your employees a voice and promoting effectiveness not only efficiency.

Often leaders ask me what it actually means to promote wellbeing in the workplace. There are many aspects to this but the headlines are:

  • You can support your colleagues by normalising their response, reassuring them that support is available.

  • You can signpost them to the right sources of professional support if you notice that their mental health is deteriorating.

  • You can lead the way by modelling an open and accepting workplace culture that makes it OK for people to not be OK.

This allows people to feel that they can be their full selves, which is important for teamwork and work collaborations (Attfield, 2019)

If you can acknowledge that feeling upset, sad, down, desperate, angry, depressed, exhausted, fearful or hopeless and in grief are normal responses to a very abnormal situation this goes a long way to helping your colleagues feel that they are in a humane organisation that understands people and values their wellbeing. This is a huge comfort and an important psychological scaffold that will steady everyone’s ability to adapt and grow. (Harvard Business Review, 2019; Petrigielri & Maitliss)

As a leader you need to be mindful of the fact that your bereaved colleagues are both professionals hoping to keep functioning as best they can and extremely sad and vulnerable human beings still in the grip of an intense grief. Leaders now need to be comfortable and able to show empathy, to reach out and have those conversations about handling their return to work and managing the boundaries between work and loss, whilst not tracking their progress and not “performance managing” difficulties.

The bottom line is that colleagues coping with the trauma of loss and significant personal change depend on their workplace leaders to help them stay resilient, aware and open to accessing support.

The timeframe of grief

Image by Nathan Dumlao via Unsplash

Another question that comes up often from leaders in the “Understanding Grief for Leaders” workshops is whether grief has a timeframe. There is one clear answer to this one. How long it takes for a bereaved person to feel that they have processed their grief and adapted to it depends on a multitude of other personal factors such as:

(1) Accessing personal and professional emotional support

(2) Type of loss suffered

(3) Context of the loss

(4) Other losses suffered

(5) Current mental and physical health

(6) Age, and

(7) The bereaved person’s EQ and ability to understand grief and process emotions safely (Mind, 2020).

We know that a significant factor that helps bereaved people adapt and cope well to loss is their workplace environment (Sandberg, 2020). Grieving employees thrive and remain committed to their teams and organisations if they feel that when their life fell apart and the unthinkable happened, their colleagues and especially their managers were empathic, compassionate and able to have those conversations with them without fear, appropriately and were able to hold them reassuringly through this awful time of their life (HBR, 2019).

Being human and being a manager are not contradictory.

As a leader you have the power to inspire your colleagues to talk, to open up, to be non judgmental and to normalise vulnerability. It is not possible to go through such pain of loss and suffering without feeling the pain. The only way to go through grief is to actually go through it and a workplace culture that validates compassion, empathy, joy, affection and sympathy can be a huge source of support and as leader you can lead the way.

Looking ahead

In the next article we will look at what it means to lead by putting humans first and how to actually have those difficult conversations about wellbeing, mental health and grief. Human beings are incredibly resilient when they can anchor themselves in purpose and sometimes it is that meaningful and compassionate conversation with a manager that reminds us we have the capacity for this kind of transformation. The more grief is normalised in the workplace the better for all.

We hope you have enjoyed this article and found it useful. To reinforce the key points from this piece, here are the key take-aways:

1. The conspiracy of silence around grief and trauma at work is no longer a viable option

2. As a leader you do not need to be a therapist but you do need to have a strong understanding of how mental health and wellbeing may be threatened by trauma and loss

3. As an inspiring leader you can affirm people’s value by normalising their responses to grief and loss and give them permission to be a talented and dedicated employee still in the grip of grief

4. The workplace that says it is OK to not be OK is more likely to employ people who value their Mental health and take positive action to prevent it from deteriorating because awareness and accessing support are key

5. Having those grief conversations will create a more inspired and thriving workforce, that will actually enjoy greater human connections and be more creative and resilient in the face of challenge

6. You can learn how to have those difficult conversations and how to show empathy if these are skills you have not had much experience in.

About the author

Dr Chloe Paidoussis Mitchell is a leading Counselling Psychologist with 25 years experience of coaching and helping organisations embrace mental health at work. She brings her wealth of clinical and business expertise to an area that none of us expected would be so relevant today.

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.

All images via Unsplash.



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