Leading while Grieving
Updated: Feb 17
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, everyday.
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.
Afterall, 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 everyday. 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?
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 journey’s (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.
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.
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 is 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 everyday 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.