This article is an appendix to my article on how to lead your people through a crisis. Sadly, a crisis like this pandemic increases the likelihood that at least one of your team will experience loss. I hope that this does not occur but it is a leaders responsibility to know what to do to support your grieving team member if it does. The purpose of this article is to help you to establish a plan to support your team member in their darkest hour. You can read the other articles in this series including, Tips on Crisis Leadership from Some of the World’s Greatest Leaders, framing the crisis well, the importance of leading with optimism, the need for speed in decision making and execution, and, leading your people well. The final article in the series, which is coming soon, will look at how you can lead the hardest person you will have to lead during this crisis – yourself.
Loss and grief
When I was 17, my father was taken to hospital with a severe headache. He was diagnosed with cancer and died two weeks later. A few weeks after this my Grandad had a heart attack and died that night. In the blink of an eye my world was changed forever and I was catapulted into grief for the first time.
The first 12 months were the hardest. I experienced denial, intense sadness, hopelessness, anger, depression, more sadness, joy, bargaining and various other things (sometimes on the same day!). My performance levels at work and in my studies generally dipped. Some days I would work as hard as I could, not stopping until I fell asleep, and other days I was completely disinterested. I gave myself a hard time, felt disconnected and oftentimes lonely, all whilst trying to help my family through the existential crisis we were all experiencing. Grief is not linear; it is often messy and quite often the feelings don’t make sense.
[Redacted!] years later, I can tell you that I am a stronger, more resilient, and emotionally intelligent individual. Much like the collarbone I snapped in two playing football, the healing process helped me to grow back bigger and stronger. This is why I have been fascinated with leading people and organisations through a crisis. Done well, you can not only survive the crisis but use it to bring about the changes needed to thrive. As a leader, you can help your grieving team member do the same.
Leaders – your team member needs you
With most of our waking hours spent at work, a leader (or manager) has an important role in supporting grieving team members. The unfortunate fact is that most leaders know how to celebrate births and birthdays and can handle our employees’ minor personal issues, but we do not know how to handle their losses and grief. This is understandable. Our national culture is not particularly good at talking about death and dying. As a leader you must move past this discomfort for the sake of your grieving team member. If you don’t, the consequence for your team member is a more intense and longer lasting mourning, eroding performance in the short-term and diminishing commitment and loyalty to the organisation thereafter.
Here are some key principles to help you lead your employee through their darkest hour:
Do not grant compassionate leave to your employee and then go silent on the matter. Have the courage to pick up the phone and check in on them. Do not try to fix the issue, you can’t. Your objective here is to let your grieving team member know you care and you recognise the difficulty of their loss. No more, no less. If welcomed, and allowed, make a personal visit. Follow up with a call or visit a week after the funeral when a person most needs some support and clarity.
Most leaders worry that they don’t have the words to say. Don’t. I remember visiting a friend whose brother had recently died. I had spent ages preparing an ‘epic’ speech in the (naïve!) hope that I could ease his pain. A bag of nerves, I knocked on his door. His parents, both visibly upset, opened it and I could see and feel some of the overwhelming grief they were experiencing. Do you want to know what I did in response? I opened my mouth ready to offer words of comfort and instead burst into tears! Instead of comforting them, they had to comfort me! A few days later, I called my friend to apologise. Instead, he said thank you: “The fact that you came over and wept made us all feel like we were not alone in this. This really comforted us.” You don’t need to prepare an epic speech. Your grieving employee just wants to know you care about them.
Be flexible with compassionate leave
In your first call or visit with your team member, tell them what the policy is for compassionate leave and reassure them that it is flexible. It may seem awkward to you, but your bereaved colleague needs clarity about your expectations.
The average UK policy for paid compassionate leave is five days. With respect, this is not enough time for most people. It allows them to deal with the practical issues around death but it doesn’t give them time to process the loss. Consider whether you can give them more time off.
The flipside is also true. Well meaning bosses tell grieving employees to, “take as much time off as they need”. This is a lovely sentiment but this unstructured approach can lead to an uncomfortable void. As the grieving person does not know how much time they can take off and may push themselves back to work too soon.
Here is the happy medium: “Mike, ultimately the thing that matters most here is you and your family in this difficult time. Your job is safe and we cannot wait to welcome you back. Our policy here is to offer you two weeks paid leave. Before the end of that two weeks we will give you a call to check in and if you need a further week we will accommodate that. If you want to come back before the two weeks are up, you will be most welcome but you will not be pressured to do so.”
If your resources are tight, consider offering leave-sharing schemes that allow employees to donate annual leave for those in need. This is a wonderful offer that allows colleagues to help and the grieved worker to feel like they are supported by their teammates.
Just one further note in this section. Do not, under any circumstances, ask for proof of death. You will be surprised at how many organisations include this in their policy. It is beyond ridiculous and causes unnecessary distress for the individual.
Be considerate when managing your employees return to work
Before your employees first day back, speak to them about their wishes. What do they want you to tell their colleagues? How do they want their colleagues to respond? Do they want to pop in for an hour or two to see everyone so that their return to work is not too overwhelming? Would it be helpful to work part-time for a few weeks? Give your employee the choice – they will welcome the control.
Take the time to brief your team on how they can best help this person in their return to work. Some general principles include:
- Don’t ask: Well-meaning colleagues may ask your grieving team member questions like, ‘How are you doing?’, or ‘How can I help?’. This is kind but it puts pressure on their colleague to decide what and how much to share. If everyone asks them this question it will wear them out. Give them a short sentence or two instead, for example, ‘I am thinking about you’ or ‘I want you to know you to know you can call on me at anytime. If you need a meal dropped around, I am there’. This lets them know they are supported and they can share their grief but they don’t have to.
- Don’t force it: You don’t have to blurt out your condolences the very first moment you see them (especially if there is a large crowd). Make eye contact, acknowledge them and then email or speak to them later to let them know you are happy to see them back and that you are thinking about them.
- Don’t compare: No grief experience is the same. A sudden, unexpected loss is different to an expected one. The loss of one relative will feel different to another. They are all painful but resist the urge to compare your loss to theirs. Let them know that you have lost someone before and say something like, “I cannot imagine what this is like for you”. If they want to know how you coped, wait for them to ask you. Don’t volunteer this yourself.
- Don’t ignore them: Do not hide and hope this will go away. It won’t. Move past your discomfort and support them. Ultimately, your support and intentions will come through. Simply focus on your colleague and take your cue from them.
Grief is a complex process that can lead to inconsistency in performance levels. On Monday they may be energised and ready to move on but then on Tuesday they may be overcome with sadness and hopelessness. Another day they may deliver amazing results for you and then the day after make a careless spelling mistake in an email. This is normal. Be patient with them.
At all times, your employee will be self-critical, and confused about why they are so inconsistent. That is where you come in. Let them know that you hold them in high regard, that their job is safe and that you expect inconsistencies in this season of grief. That will be a huge relief to them. I also recommend scripting small victories in times where their confidence is low. Give them tasks that they are gifted at, give them a win, and thank them for their help.
Let your employee take the lead in terms of how much work they take on immediately after they return. Some people will throw themselves into projects and new initiatives. Other people may need a slower pace for a short time.
Be open to changes
At some point during the grief process, your team member will adapt to their loss and develop a newfound appreciation of life and a more resilient hope for the future. This is the beginning of post-traumatic growth, which psychologists define as, ‘the positive psychological change that is experienced as a result of the struggle with highly challenging life circumstances’ (1).
During this phase, your team member will still feel the devastating impact of their loss, but they will begin to start dreaming about their future once more. This is a positive step in their healing process as they learn to live fully with their loss.
There is no timeline for the emergence of this new hope and resolve, it could take months or it could take years. When this new hope and resolve does appear, your objective as a leader is simple: to nurture your team members new hope by providing affirmation and a gentle interest in their new world view and ideas. Don’t take over and force this new hope into existence, just listen, affirm their ideas and support them as they begin to reimagine their future. Be particularly aware of the guilt they will be feeling early on as they try to reconcile the fact that their life of their loved one has ended with the prospect of living a new, full life themselves.
Dealing with the loss of a colleague
The death of a colleague can be a particularly challenging time for a leader. There is often an overwhelming and collective loss that effects large numbers of people in the organisation at once, not least the leader themselves. The sense of shock and the palpable sorrow leads to major disruption to the daily output of the organisation and, managed poorly can lead to long term consequences for individuals and the organisation.
The first thing the leader must do is to acknowledge and respond to the grief. Start by communicating internally that you have collectively lost a colleague and friend and as a result, you are in mourning as a team. This promotes solidarity, facilitates a shared grief and allows colleagues to comfort one another. It may also be appropriate to announce this to the outside world.
Second, I recommend that you encourage your team members that their grief can be expressed in the workplace. This is preferential to them having to grieve alone at home or in the privacy of their car on the way home. Make it clear that it is ok for people to get together in a group setting to talk through their grief, send emails to colleagues and that you have an open door if anyone needs to talk. If appropriate, sign post them to external counselling (or arrange for one to come in).
Third, create opportunities for team members to celebrate their departed colleague. This may be via the creation of an online platform that allows staff, clients and other external people to provide tributes and photos (a beneficial option when colleagues are having to work from home). This option should be kept open indefinitely. You may decide to do a formal ritual where colleagues can come together or a more informal option. It doesn’t matter what the platform is as long as you create a space (or spaces) for colleagues to come together and share their gratitude for the time they had with their cherished co-worker.
Finally, remember you are grieving too. Show yourself the same compassion as you do your colleagues.
A final note
Loss effects all of us at some point. Never is the saying, ‘people won’t remember what you said, but they will remember how you made them feel’, more true than after a loss of someone they love. I experienced the support of my manager after my losses when I was 17 and I still regard him highly. In contrast, later on in life, another manager made me plead with HR for a day off to attend my Grandfather’s funeral and demanded that I return to the office the next day at 9am and perform well to meet the company objectives. This approach had adverse consequences for my wellbeing and I am remember the whole experience negatively. Be a leader that truly cares for their people by standing with them in their darkest hour.
Remember, if you need any help during this or any future crisis, you can call on Cranfield Trust for free help.
(1) Tedeshi, R.G., & Calhoun, L.G. (2004). Posttraumatic Growth: Conceptual Foundation and Empirical Evidence. Philadelphia, PA: Lawrence Erlbaum As