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Vulnerable leadership and grief: leading with courage (part 5 of THRIVE)

Updated: Apr 12, 2022

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The business cost of poor mental health is expected to rise to $2.5 trillion in 2021 (World Economic Forum, 2020).

At The Work Psychologists, we are seeing first hand the leadership challenge that 2020 and 2021 have brought to every organisation, with mental health and wellbeing becoming an urgent priority,

That's why in part 5 of our 6-part series for leaders on navigating grief, loss and trauma in the workplace, we are exploring the vital role of vulnerability in effective leadership.

If you're just joining us, you can read the previous articles here:

Next week, the series concludes with our piece on Endings. To get it direct to your inbox, plus a free ticket to Dr Chloe's webinar in March, sign up here:

Vulnerability is a choice

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Embracing vulnerability is about choosing to be a leader who is courageous. It involves stepping outside of your usual comfort zone to address the impact of grief, loss and trauma in the workplace head on, with a view to safeguarding and embracing mental health and wellbeing in the workplace.

Now, more than ever, mental health has to be integrated into every aspect of your leadership approach and not be treated as simply incident management. Organisations, and the people who work in them, are facing a number of challenging circumstances, including:

- Increased social isolation due to WFH routines

- Economic and organisational uncertainty

- Increased numbers of grieving employees and unprecedented numbers of people coping with their own illness and the loss of all normalcy.

Mental health is often seen as a nice to have add-on and something leaders do when crisis hits. Covid-19 has shown us that supporting people's mental health and resilience needs to be a major priority to scaffold the wellbeing of your workforce with a compassionate leadership approach that is anchored in shows of care, empathy, humility and vulnerability.

Our method to help you achieve this is based on our Thrive Model:

Why does embracing vulnerability matter?

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The World Economic Forum (2021) recently published research showing that about half of working adults globally say that as a result of the pandemic, they have experienced:

- Anxiety around job security (56%)

- Stress due to changes in work routines and organisations (49%)

- Difficulty achieving work life balance (50%).

The UK has the highest Covid-19 death rate in Europe. and is in the top five countries globally for overall deaths and number of deaths per million (Statista, 2021).

It is fair to assume that you will or are likely to have people in your circles – both work and personal – coping with the collective grief of the pandemic and with actual bereavement.

As Chief Human Resources Officer for Wipro, Govid recently stated:

Engage, understand and support staff. Many are still reeling from grieving the death of loved ones, are sick themselves, or struggling with remote work, social isolation, and mental health issues. The pandemic has not only changed business dynamics, but also the approach towards employee mental health. Compassion and empathy are no longer seen as extra nice to have qualities. They are now essential.”

Losing a loved one at the best of times is difficult. Losing a loved one at a time when people have to self isolate, socially distance, work from home and support their children’s online education is incredibly tough (British Psychological Society Bulletin on grief during Covid19, 2020).

It takes time, courage, effort, patience, and resilience to keep navigating grief whilst feeling very down, sad, depressed, irritable and despairing.

When grieving, it's very common to feel deflated, tired, losing enthusiasm for normal activities, having difficulty concentrating, and being prone to colds and minor illnesses (BPS, 2020). As a leader it is really important to acknowledge the demands of a colleague's grief and to be present and open to share moments of vulnerability with them.

Think of it this way: when people experience grief, they want the world to “stop and stand still” in recognition of their loss. The world however stops for no one, and returning to work, although helpful in that it offers distraction, routine and financial security, is also often exhausting and emotionally demanding.

People can’t leave their grief at home. They have to find ways to cope with it.

Consciously cultivating an atmosphere characterised by vulnerability and openness will actually lead to greater connections between your people as they will feel valued and it is how you can generate of culture of compassion (Kanov et al 2004) which is essential now.

Sadly there has been a deep seated “conspiracy of silence” in the workplace about grief (Samuel 2017).

Writing about how grief in the workplace for the Harvard Business Review, Petrigrieli et al (2019) wrote:

“On the whole, we found, managers come to work prepared to celebrate births and birthdays, and even to handle illnesses, but when it comes to death, they fall silent and avert their gaze. The default approach is to try to spare the office from grief, leaving bereaved employees alone for a few days and then hoping they’ll return expediently to work.”

This is very much what I encounter as a mental health associate & psychologist.

Often people report that returning to work was difficult because they were expected to be “back to business as usual” and nobody at work would be present with their vulnerable emotions.

Being with suffering

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Learning to be present with your people’s suffering and humanising it is now vital. It is important to be mindful that as well as experiencing heightened emotions of grief, they may also be:

1. Very worried about how they are going to cope with challenges

2. Anxious about being judged as weak if they are “too emotional”

3. Afraid that they may be seen as losing their professional drive

4. Desperate and in the grip of sadness, wishing they could just go back to being their “normal” selves.

It is so important to normalise people's lived experience of loss and to be mindful that feeling vulnerable is a normal response to an abnormal event.

Losing a loved one is never a normal event and grief mobilises people to negotiate continuing bonds with their deceased loved ones (Bowlby, 1980), but this takes time.

A lot of time, and suffocating vulnerability at work is isolating, depressing and causes the bereaved to feel that they don’t matter.

Sadly none of us were prepared or equipped to deal with the impact of this pandemic, but to deny the reality of death and loss and its impact on mental health is absurdly illogical and deeply inhuman.

In order to be equipped to handle death and grief, we need to face it head on (Thompson, 2009). Sanitising it, avoiding it, compartmentalising grief (or asking others to), pretending it is something that happens only at home and not at work are no longer appropriate or sensible approaches. Telling people to stop moaning and whining is also unacceptable, particularly from senior leaders, who set the tone for an organisation's culture.

Leading your workforce to a post-Covid business ready place means being mindful of what losses your groups have suffered, what impact these losses have had on their wellbeing and to normalise feelings of vulnerability.

There is no way through grief except to ride the emotional rollercoaster. This takes time and requires support both personally and professionally.

As a leader your priority is to be able to lead by example and really engage in discussion, showing that you not only care but that you understand.

Vulnerability in practic

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One of the most important things you can do is to broaden your awareness and understanding of what grief is and appreciate what support your people will need from you, to aid their recovery.

You can’t be there for them continually but in your role as a leader you can reassure them and make them feel that you stand alongside them in support.

You can explicitly inform them that experiencing difficult and negative emotions at work is not something that you would ever judge or use as a measure against their performance.

Your priority is to:

  • Normalise their vulnerable emotions

  • Understand their lived experience

  • Accept them non-judgmentally

  • Support them empathically

  • Collaborate with them to ensure they are coping well and have all the support they need from your teams.

I'd encourage you to really think about how you relate to your colleagues and attempt to infuse your exchanges with expressions of sympathy, empathy and compassion.

Noticing how well you manage on this front is now a big part of your role and deepening your capacity for reflectively tracking your progress with handling mental health and grief in the workplace is vital to help your organisation be business ready.

Practical suggestions

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There are many practical things you can to demonstrate these intentions and here are some suggestions for you:

1. Reach out to vulnerable colleagues and let them know you have heard their news and that you are very sorry for what has happened.

2. Show care explicitly by saying that you care about them, that the team cares about them and that you wish to offer them your ongoing support.

3. Ask them what support you can provide them with.

4. Ask them how they would like you to handle their news with the team.

5. Ask them what they need to know about bereavement leave, answer any return to work questions clearly.

6. Be reassuring that you understand what grief can be like and that you invite them to use you as a sounding board if they want,

7. Let them know that you would like to listen to them anytime and that you are available to talk.

8. If you make a commitment to provide information please make sure that you deliver on what you promised.

9. Provide information for sources of support if they ask for it.

10. Normalise their grief responses and explain that you are available to talk and to listen to them.

11. Check in with them regularly.

Listen to people's lived experience

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Listening to your people’s lived experience is another essential now and can really create a space for human connection, a profound life affirming sense of being valued and of belonging.

When people feel heard, they feel valued; as a leader it is now vital that you step outside your comfort zone and listen to your people’s vulnerable experiences of loss.

It is through sharing vulnerability that human relationships are deepened anyway (Eger 2018).

Bronstein, the Chief Human Resources Officer for Bank of America, has recently written for the World Economic Forum newsletter (2021) and said:

As employers we have an obligation to provide our team mates with opportunities to talk openly about their mental health and to secure the support they or their families may need. We must continue to lift the stigma on this, which in our case has been having a CEO and management team who are vocal advocates.”

Being an advocate for mental health is not something you do at a launch event and then return to your normal “control and manage” style. Being an advocate for mental health and supporting your people in grief is really about normalising vulnerability and fostering a workplace community that considers it normal to “check in” with its people and listen to their experiences.

Some organisations are starting to do this listening via surveys - such as HSBC. Arden, the Group Chief Human Resources Officer, recently wrote:

Ask your people how they are doing and what they need. HSBC is using employee and manager surveys to dictate strategy and gain valuable insight into what people need. By relying on lived experienced, business will get to the heart of what really matters most, develop suitable solutions and measure the impact on their mental health.”

(World Economic Forum, 2021)

Listening to your bereaved employees can go a long way to aiding their recovery and making them feel valued.

Being a leader who really listens means connecting with people from your organisation far and wide, and adapting to their needs - such as permitting a hybrid workforce (some people working in the office with others at home).

Being adaptive like that demonstrates commitment and goes a long way to evoke good feeling in all, engendering human connections and generating greater collaboration and commitment.

Lead by example

So often when a colleague or a loved one suffers a grief, we feel the overwhelming compulsion to fix them and instruct them on what to do, what to think and how to cope.

These suggestions although well intended are unhelpful and do not generate a sense of compassion and care in the other. They are completely human, so if you notice this instinct in yourself, this is something to be aware of rather than judge yourself for.

Embracing vulnerability in oneself and in others is a huge asset as it can generate so much good feeling, demonstrating respect for the human beings you work with and the good news is that this can be contagious.

If you lead by example and normalise vulnerability, others will too and you will create a workplace that is collectively empathic and therefore greater at coping with mental health challenges.

Revealing vulnerability really forges connections between human beings and generates a deep sense of belonging. Human beings are social beings and everyone experiences psychological safety in groups and communities that represent them, value them and respect them (Johnston, 2019).

Take a moment now to reflect on how often you talk with your people and how much opportunity there has been to share the human experience of the pandemic, with the difficult knocks on everyone’s wellbeing.

Have you got team members who have suffered a bereavement? If so, how much time have you spent connecting and listening to their experience of grief and what it’s been like for them?

How often do you create opportunity for meaningful discussions like these?

Have you reached out and connected?

Doing this is really about acknowledging the experience of the other, avoiding the compulsion to fix and being kind, supportive and caring in your approach.

The Davos agenda in 2020 highlighted that no individual on their own could address the impact of the pandemic on institutions, nations and organisations.

You are not expected to single-handedly change your organisational culture – but you can make a significant contribution by leading in your own example and demonstrating that you:

  • Value understanding the lived experience of your teams

  • Encourage openness and vulnerability

  • Commit to generating greater human connections

  • Understand the experience of grief

  • Normalise informal conversations where people express vulnerability

  • Adapt operations and team tasks.

Facing vulnerability is really about being courageous

Photo by Oliver Cole via Unsplash

Not every one of your employees will want to share their vulnerable emotions. That is fine.

If they choose to keep it private that is a personal choice and there is nothing wrong in needing to have very distinct professional and personal boundaries.

However, this doesn’t mean that you are off the hook as a leader. You still need to reach out, show empathy and care.

No matter how much your people choose to share, it is your responsibility as their leader to create opportunity to acknowledge their grief and have channels of communications open to spot any associated mental health difficulties and to create a culture where people feel psychologically safe enough to speak up if they want to.

The most important thing is that you create space for openness, real conversations about the lived experience of coping with grief, the pandemic, work and life in general. In that way you can adapt and respond to the issue at heart.

Sadly many people report to me the disappointment of being poorly supported by colleagues and managers upon their return to work after bereavement. A lot of work is yet to be done on this front.

One client in senior management lost her son suddenly and returned to work after 3 months to a “silent team” where none of her three senior colleagues mentioned her son, his passing or her grief, behaving as though it was business as usual. Although resilient and able to apply herself to work, the experience of being blanked like that was wounding, confusing, alienating and led to her eventual resignation.

Another young man in his mid 20s who lost his father to illness took 2 weeks of his job and found that upon his return he could not cope with the tasks on his to do list. He kept forgetting things, felt dizzy, tired and emotional.

Instead of raising his concerns and sharing his lived experience and exploring how his grief may be impacting him, he became anxious and fell quite behind with his workload. His manager did not speak to him about how he was, how he was coping or what support he needed.

He was under the impression that his manager wanted him to focus on work and he felt that he would be judged as weak if he spoke openly about his struggle.

After a few weeks, this led to a performance issue, a talking to by his manager and an appraisal discussion about lack of commitment and drive. His manager’s advice was to get counselling, which although may have been well intended caused the young man to feel that he was unsupported in the day-to-day business of the office and actually made him feel like was a problem.

He eventually resigned in search for kinder bosses.

There are many cases where the lack of understanding and general avoidance of grief at work has led to a performance issue and a breakdown in communications. None of these clients had had any conversations with their leaders about their loss, what it was like, how they were coping, what support they were receiving, and how the team and managers could be of support.

Navigating grief and loss, especially now during the pandemic is exhausting and having good days and bad days is normal.

It is very important that you don’t translate inconsistent behaviour into a lack of drive or commitment.

The value in talking and really listening, as well as opening up to vulnerability is a big deal because it will prevent you from losing valuable members of your team due to misunderstandings and will generate greater loyalty.

Acknowledging your people’s experience and responding empathically will promote a sense of greater understanding and instil a sense of being valued and not being just a number in the corporate machine (Flux et al. 2020).


In summary, by embracing vulnerability in yourself and in others you can really foster greater connections and generate positive energy that translates into productivity and creative collaboration.

You can embrace vulnerability by:

1. Acknowledging the lived experience of your people

2. Demonstrating empathic understanding and care

3. Engaging compassionately and adapting to their needs.

We'd love to hear what your one key takeaway is from this article. Leave a comment or head over to LinkedIn and join the conversation.

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.

Join us for more

Dr Chloe will be leading a workshop on “Understanding Trauma and Loss at Work – Helping Your People Thrive” in March 2021. Sign up below for the rest of this series and to get a free ticket.



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