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Leading While Grieving

Leaders did not become leaders because they showed vulnerability or weakness. They got there because they were successful strategists, they led the organization through tough times or a multitude of other qualities that victorious leaders exhibit like tenacity, strength, dedication, determination, courage.

It is therefore beyond our comprehension that should a leader experience the death of someone they love, that they cannot keep the emotions out of their life’s work. But grief leads to unfortunate decisions, every day.

The Grief Recovery Institute Research in 2017 indicates that the cost of grief in American organizations exceeds $98 billion per year. The numbers are staggering and let’s be honest – most organizations don’t have a sense of where to help or how to support.  

After all, isn’t that what Employee Assistance Programs are for? Not exactly. Supporting your employees’ wellbeing is not just something you can brush off onto your EAP and give yourself a big green checkmark for. It’s deeper than that, especially if you believe that to be true. 

It’s about the language we use, the understanding of what grief is, and how it shows up at work every day. It’s about ignoring their struggles when they come back from bereavement leave. It’s the constant messaging grievers receive to “be strong, that time heals.” Language and understanding cannot be fixed by your EAP – this really is an inside job. 

McKinsey came out late last year with some staggering facts in a fantastic article: Hidden perils of unresolved grief.

Nonetheless, we have been continually surprised by how pervasive unresolved grief can be (affecting fully one-third of the 7,000-plus executives we’ve worked with), how likely it is that the symptoms go unnoticed or undiscussed, and how ill-equipped organizations are to handle it. The negative impact of unresolved grief is considerable. In addition to the well-known ways that stress from grief damages our physical health, the financial cost of grief to organizations appears high: $75 billion a year for US companies, according to one study. Yet the loss of leadership capability and potential that results from unresolved grief, as well as the human suffering and pain, can seem beyond measure. 

So how can we bring grief care into the hands of those that steer the ship? The better question is how can we ensure that everyone in our organization has the chance to grieve and work in a safe and inclusive environment?  

Scalable Planning

Uncomfortable and personal topics are often heavy lifts. Grief and death are probably some of the toughest conversations to bring into our organizations so if we are going to do it, let’s make the process as simple as possible. We want to make sure that the actions available to our employees are scalable across the organization but that the individual plans can be personalized.

We can do this by first articulating what are the core differences in all the possible grief journeys (like the different types of grief or your employees’ spiritual beliefs) and making room for the most common possibilities. Often this means a review of your current processes to ensure that the experience at each of the employee touchpoints is not horrible. 

Quick Tip: when an employee requests bereavement leave, provide them with one package with all of the information they will need to know. Don’t make them hunt around in dated employee handbooks or the dreaded intranet. 

Flexibility 

Today, we have a chart that tells us how many days bereavement leave is available for the blood relation of the person that died. This, while it most likely made sense in the beginning of a nuclear family, does not make sense today. If I was estranged from my mother and raised by my grandmother, I wouldn’t get the time that relationship deserves.

A more inclusive practice would be to consider the relationship had by the employee. This flexibility makes room for all the different relationships we have in today’s beautifully diverse family systems.

Quick Tip: Can your employees use their sick days as mental health days and if so, perhaps a reminder to the bereaved would be helpful. 

Communication

I would say this is probably one of the most important parts of grief care planning. How we plan to communicate with the bereaved and their team. How can we include a community of colleagues to help support our grieving teammates? We need to ensure that the whole team has the chance to help and support. That they are fully aware of what our bereaved teammate needs and for how long. This requires leadership to have clear communication processes in place that are inclusive of our grievers’ wishes. 

Ultimately, none of this is possible if we continue to honour tenacity, strength, or dedication. We need our leaders to begin this undertaking with a sense of vulnerability. A knowing that passion-filled employees who come to work every day and work tirelessly for your organization can crack. That they need leaders to show up as examples of what it means to be human. That grieving isn’t a sign of weakness or lack of strength that grieving is actually an act of love, dedication, and value. 

Quick Tip: Ensure your team knows how the bereaved would like to be communicated with during their leave.

There is so much more to this experience than just the operational undercarriage and if cared for properly, it can have a significant impact not only on your employee’s experience but the inclusive nature of your organization’s culture. It is a chance to put your organization’s values into action.

Learn more about our Leading through Loss Program here at Grief Advocacy.

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Sarah Hines
Sarah Hineshttps://www.griefadvocacy.com/
I met a man one blurry night in Manhattan, and little did I know, he would be the soil in which my passion for grief work was to be planted. He had been rejected by his family for his life choices and was preparing for death without them. Helping him through his struggle to come to terms with his love for them and in turn his forgiveness while going through treatments, rejection, and coming to terms with his own death and grief was an unimaginable amount of stress and it literally set me in activism mode. It was shortly after his death, I completed training in Palliative Care Home Hospice. I volunteered in men’s homes for 5 years before the medications became reliable and being gay wasn’t always breaking family ties. Some of the most amazing times I have had in my life have been in the homes of dying. Strange, yes.. but so beautifully honest and raw. I then completed the Children’s Palliative Care Training and dove into the heartbrokenness of dying children. It is in these years I really came to understand just how fickle death can be and how much we embrace death and our grief. It seems that in times of what we would consider the most unimaginable, we are able to find glimmers of beauty, cracks of light and the nourishment in tears. Over the last 20 years, I have carried on with my education in a variety of ways including Coach and Leadership Training, Orphan Wisdom School and Grief Groups. My connection into corporate grief has been slow. It’s something that most organizations do not want to think about. I am inspired by those that see value in bringing grief work into the way they lead teams through uncertainty and the trust this work builds.

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4 CONVERSATIONS

  1. Mourning is a difficult time of change. The deep and constitutive bond that binds us to other people implies the danger of losing ourselves by losing those who are dear to us. At the same time, mourning is a potentially fruitful period, like all situations that require an important change, reflection and revision of one’s life, one’s priorities, one’s relationships and one’s choices.
    Our civilization too often does not elaborate, does not reflect, does not invent rituals and social customs on the experience of death, and relegates the difficulty of mourning to the interior of the individual. It is therefore not surprising that mourners often find themselves in profound solitude, little received, little accepted by a culture embarrassed by human pain and even more by death.
    Instead, we must put aside the discomfort and the fear of being intrusive, to stay close to those who have suffered a bereavement, avoiding creating in him / her the painful sensation of being shunned and pushed away, which causes him to fold in on himself. First of all, offering listening and sharing memories: empathic emotional support, which must however be able to continue over time. The relationship of help that is created in these cases is particularly precious and enriching, both for those who have suffered the loss and for those who offer her availability.

  2. Great post,Sarah and is timely.

    We live in a VUCA world and this means people lose direction in the darkness of Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Volatility. People lose trust and it is the authentic leaders that can think their way and show the compass for their followers. It is not an easy task, but can be done.

    IN my last article here on BIZCATALYST I discussed that only one sperm can fertilize the egg of a woman out of millions. We need the rare sperm-leader to lead in these difficult times

  3. What an amazing and important read Sarah!
    Thank you for bringing this conversation into the light with such tenderness. Grief is such a personal and sacred process and hard to get our head around. Love the highlight here: “We can do this by first articulating what are the core differences in all the possible grief journeys (like the different types of grief or your employees’ spiritual beliefs) and making room for the most common possibilities.”
    It is time for organizations to be in and embrace this conversation. #leadersgrieving

  4. Sarah – Such an important subject and your insights are priceless. Thanks for bringing this discussion to the forefront bin this forum. I lost my grandson in 2012 will working for a local government agency and when I returned to work, the awkward silence from my co-workers indicated that the leaders had no idea how to help someone in my situation return to the workforce. I hope your article gets leaders talking.

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