Leadership in a Time of Loss

Reposted for August 8th, 2020 because it helps as much as when it was written in 1998 by Dan Schaefer PhD.

Dan Schaefer PhD.

In early December 1998, the NJ League of Municipalities, in response to member requests, devoted a day to looking at the impact that loss [community tragedy, death, accidents, family illness] had on the community, public service professionals and their staff, as they attempted to respond appropriately.  

Those in attendance agreed that in spite of the unpleasantness of the topic, that tragic events do happen with enough frequency to warrant planning a suitable strategy.

Each of us, I am sure, can remember the annual fall fire drills in elementary school.  Since our first lesson was that there was no time to get our coats, is it my imagination or was it always raining & cold when the fire bell rang ? That observation aside, I can remember the drills but never a fire in school. In spite of  the  absence of a fire in 16 years, I would have been concerned if I discovered that the school my children attended felt that preparation for such an event was unnecessary. Our workplaces will experience and be impacted by numerous losses, both tragic and traditional, over the years, many more by comparison than school fires but strategic planning, for grief in the workplace, is often overlooked. 

There are some compelling reasons to look carefully at grief in the workplace. 

1.  Financial…..Unrecognized grief fallout  can be extremely expensive and emotionally draining  both short & long term and in addition until it is identified will continue unabated.

2.  Staff support….. Our colleagues are all affected, in different ways, by community tragedy as well as personal losses and losses experienced by co workers.

3.  Management & supervisor support…..  People who manage and guide others in the workplace agree that grief impacts on them personally and adds significantly to their challenge. Grief can place enormous pressure on the process of goal achievement.

4.   An environment that is supportive and understanding of the grief process enhances organizational loyalty.

5.   Finally………..IT’S THE RIGHT THING TO DO.

There are two things to consider as we approach this issue.  Awareness, how does grief impact on an individual and the workplace and what strategies can we have in place to assist us when events occur.

It was just three weeks after the death of Jacks  32 yr. old son that  the traffic violations began to pile up. “ First it was two speeding tickets back to back,” Jack recalls.   “A week later I passed a stop sign and shortly after that incident, I ran a red light”.  “Honestly,” Jack says “ I don’t remember seeing the stop sign or the red light. I was lucky no one was injured.”  Jack expected to grieve but was totally unprepared for his lack of concentration and surprised that a perfect 40 year driving record could fall to the grieving process.

This event may seem far removed from municipal or corporate concern.  However, the perspective changes if Jack is driving a municipal/ company vehicle or a school bus.  

With this example in mind, we might then ask the following: Are today’s managers sensitized to the impact of personal and workplace loss and life transition issues, on the individual and their work environment?  Are they prepared to deal effectively with the loss and its effects? 

Managerial effectiveness and success is dependent on an enhanced understanding of human behavior. Sadly, we discover that for a variety of reasons, there is little, if any, information, presented to people who will surely confront the grieving process, on a regular basis. What can be expected of a grieving individual or a grieving staff?  “ When Pat’s husband died, we were anxious about her return to work. We didn’t know what to expect, what to say that would help. We didn’t want to intrude but also didn’t want to say the wrong thing. Basically, we didn’t want to make it worse.”

When we speak of loss most often the focus is placed on individuals who have experienced a death of a loved one. Losses like divorce, separation, downsizing and job loss, relatives who are critically ill, aging parents and loss of a pet, all have the potential to produce reactions the relate to grieving.

There are sudden events  which get our attention immediately. Death of a police officer, firefighter, municipal official, and accidental deaths involving children or teachers are just a few.  There are other losses that, as supervisors, we become aware of. We are either approached directly, or receive news from co-workers.

In a survey conducted by the Wells Fargo Bank, it was discovered that employees decide to confide in a supervisor or co-worker much more frequently than they seek professional assistance. Their study illustrated an often overlooked dynamic. There is far reaching “ripple effect” to loss.  Whereas the focus is understandably placed on the individual who has experienced the loss this author suggests that we look at the role and preparedness of those who surround the grieving individual and who, because of their interaction with the bereaved, become part of the process. What is the impact of an employee’s grief on co workers, management, and others with whom they interact.

Each person responds differently to impending or actual loss.  And so as we look at this issue it is important to remember that the following material is not a prescription that can be applied with anticipated results.  This information should be viewed as a roadmap.  The goal then becomes  how much we know rather than how much we do.  Often the greatest damage is done when our expectations and the grieving persons expectations are set too high.

Consider the following normal dynamics of grief and the implications they might have.

Grief lasts much longer  than most expect. [ Often years]

Grief changes. People often describe the experience as being on a rollercoaster. Downs often occur at holidays & anniversaries.

People report:

Short attention span….  “I have trouble remembering things”

“ In the two weeks following the death of my husband

I locked the keys in my car four times. Twice with the motor running” 

Impaired decision making…..a difficult position for when a job involves important decisions.

Time distortion…..losing track of time.

Concentration difficulties…… while driving, completing multiple tasks.

There are also physical reactions that are important to consider. Restlessness, weight gain or loss, headaches, sleep difficulties, heart palpitations, fatigue, blurred vision, exhaustion, illness are all possible symptoms.

People report feeling extremely sensitive, preoccupied, bitter, irritable, disorganized, angry and depressed. Once again, all normal response.

In addition to the more common managerial challenges of today’s workplace, failure to anticipate and develop strategies to respond to these issues surrounding loss, routinely result in costly errors, omissions, and accidents. 

Productivity, morale, customer relations and public image all  have the potential to be impacted by employee loss experiences.

Awareness  improves our ability to respond to the individual appropriately keeping in mind that

1. People[ CO-workers] are affected emotionally, physically and psychologically by a wide variety of personnel losses.      

2. People often exhibit behaviors and reactions consistent with  bereavement dynamics [anger, anxiety, depression etc.]

3.  People are often not aware of the origin of their feelings, reactions and behavior. 

4.  Individuals  may be affected by previous loss experiences.

5.  People who have a better understanding of the origin of their feelings may exhibit more effective coping skills

The staff member’s family also experiences, both consciously and unconsciously, a variety of reactions consistent with identifiable grief reactions.  As the  family members cope with a variety of losses and transitions, they may fail to recognize or anticipate, in advance, their own emotional and behavioral reactions to this change. In addition, as difficult as it might be for this recognition to take place on the families part, their reactions are often complicated by a profound lack of understanding from those in their support system. It is important for us to be conscious that issues are being brought into the workplace.

When we acknowledge that family members are affected emotionally, physically and psychologically by both recognized & unrecognized losses it enables us to better understand the additional pressure placed on  grieving individuals.

This pressure may further complicate the emotional and psychological state of the staff member. The availability of information on the normalcy of grief dynamics may provide a better understanding of the origins of their feelings and enhance coping skills.

Susan, a branch manager for a local bank, found that her ability to cope with her responsibilities began to diminish and noticed personal errors increasing as her mothers terminal illness progressed. “ Managing, supervising, decision making and public relations became monumental tasks.” Susan recalls. “ Lucky I was in a caring work environment with people who understood.”

Grief is a process that requires a coping strategy rather than a problem that will respond to a “quick fix”.

As grief dynamics are frequently unrecognized, misinterpreted or not spoken about, in particular by those most affected, the importance of recognition lies in the support given to staff as well as the interventions chosen. Supervisors and staff must deal with a variety of both personal and job related losses while under the pressure of tasks that require exceptional performance.

A staff person, who confides a terminal diagnosis of a family member is, in fact, informing a supervisor of the potential for a wide range of feelings and reactions that may be experienced over time and  that may increase as the illness worsens. The supervisor may also anticipate a period of time in which the individual may be grieving, if a death occurs,  followed by a healing process.

What strategies have been effective? When planning a strategy it is important to re visit awareness. If the people designated to respond to grieving families or a grieving community are unprepared the results will be less than desirable.

Much of responding to families is found in sensitivity. What not to say 

becomes as important as what to say.  Ask anyone you know, who has experienced a loss, to tell you the words, said to them, that hurt. 

Flexible work and vacation schedules, offering assistance with projects,

relaxed work loads, team support are just some ways that grieving people have commented on as indicating true concern for them and understanding of their loss.

“ I found myself, sitting at my desk, unable to hold back my tears” Cathy recalls.  My boss said “ Cathy, when a bad time hits you, feel free to use my office”

“ I can’t tell you how much that meant to me”. 

An  organization, that recognizes grief as an ever present part  of the workplace and a process that requires a sensitive coping strategy, will go a long way toward providing a nurturing environment for valued employees as well as a caring outreach to the community.

Written by Dan Schaefer PhD. call or text:
917-880-6758

By Dan Schaefer

Visit www.DanSchaeferPHD.com