DENVER, Colorado: The death, human suffering, and loss stemming from COVID-19 is unprecedented in living memory and may have caused unresolved grief.
For those who have lost loved ones, there may be no ceremonies to say final goodbyes and no grieving together.
When the scale of the devastation reaches heights that make mass burials a logistical necessity, like in India, the pain can be profound.
The pandemic is also fuelling personal losses of all kinds—postponed weddings, missed graduations, painful separations from family and friends, laid-off or furloughed colleagues, shuttered offices. In Singapore, the return to Phase 2 has been welcomed in tackling fears of another new wave, but the announcement has been accompanied by disquiet. Didn’t we conquer COVID-19 last year?
These developments can create a lingering sense of grief that seeps into the workplace. If unaddressed, it can harm a leader’s effectiveness and may become debilitating if unaddressed.
READ: Commentary: After the craziest year, teachers start first day of school with nervous apprehension
In our work over two decades with the International Institute for Management Development’s (IMD) High Performance Leadership programme, we have been 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 organisations are to handle it.
At work, a missed promotion, losing a key customer or client, the end of a project or the disbanding of a team, the retirement of a beloved colleague or boss can all spark feelings of grief that include shock, anger, sadness, and fear. Some of these trigger events have been exacerbated during the pandemic.
Our research shows that the pre-pandemic financial cost of grief to organisations appears high: US$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, is beyond measure.
(Are COVID-19 vaccines still effective against new variants? And could these increase the risk of reinfection? Experts explain why COVID-19 could become a “chronic problem" on CNA's Heart of the Matter podcast.)
THE COST OF GRIEF
In the case of Sam, a business-unit leader in a large global company, the guilt and pain associated with his mother’s death from COVID-19 and the fact that Sam missed his chance to say goodbye, as he lived in another country and could not get permission to travel in time, morphed into a dull, generalised anger that he directed against his company and its people.
He subconsciously blamed work for stopping his relationship with his mother in her final months. Sam had been a star, but after his mother’s death he failed to step up even when he was handpicked to lead an initiative by the company’s global leadership.
READ: Commentary: How COVID-19 has forced employers to be more human – and rewards them in the process
Sam’s own leadership suffered - he was less inspiring and more withdrawn, while under the surface, he burned with resentment.
Even more common during the pandemic have been “ceremonial losses” – the inability to attend landmark life events like births, graduations, weddings and funerals. It is not simply the loss of the events themselves, but the lost opportunities to create memories individuals and families would honour for life. These losses have compounded social isolation during this period.
Leaders often fail to recognise that they carry these burdens. Their organisations are ill-equipped to manage the challenge. It looks like we still expect people to leave their emotions at the door when they enter the workplace.
The focus of support for workplace grief has generally been helping colleagues after the death of an employee. Yet many sources of loss and grief are different.
A recent study of former Lehman Brothers bankers found that after the company collapsed in 2008, many employees went through all the feelings we associate with grief. As one employee described: “I felt I lost one of my beloved . . . even though it might sound [dramatic], still, when I think about those days, I feel I was in a sort of funeral.”
A CEO we know revealed the depth of his shock and feelings of loss just hours after the news that his beloved organisation had been acquired, when he asked plaintively, “What do I tell my family?” as he had lost his sense of attachment, territory, structure, and control—central aspects of his very identity.
Similarly, during COVID-19 there has been great disruption to industries, jobs and the way we work. How many organisations recognise the grief this may have caused their employees, including leaders, and are taking steps to resolve them?
BECOME AWARE AND ACCEPTING REALITY
Leaders who want to overcome grief must pass through a three-stage process: Becoming consciously aware of the problem, accepting the pain of the loss and, finally, taking actions that help them let go of the past and find new meaning from the experience.
READ: Commentary: 5 New Year resolutions every manager should have after a really tough year for workers
Awareness is the first step to resolving any problem, but our subconscious minds are great at keeping us safely unaware of things that might harm us emotionally.
We have found that executives with unresolved grief are seldom able to connect the dots between their past trauma and present behaviour.
In Sam’s case, the grief associated with his mother’s death was fresh and top of mind. It wrecked his emotional state. What Sam hadn’t seen was the toll on his behaviour and how much it was diminishing his ability—and indeed his willingness—to lead.
For Sam, as with many executives we’ve worked with, it was this combination of connecting the dots and counting the cost of his unresolved grief that proved a breakthrough.
Awareness reflects knowledge of reality, but acceptance requires an act of will.
We have been surprised to see how otherwise rational human beings persist in irrational denial. However, confronting such raw emotions can be especially challenging for senior executives.
Expressing emotion means making yourself vulnerable. Leaders often resist this as they worry it could undercut their status within their teams. In fact, the opposite is true: Leaders who demonstrate vulnerability perform better and have more loyal and engaged teams.
RECONSTRUCT YOUR MEMORY
Scientific research shows that acceptance alone doesn’t bring an end to grieving. To truly move on, an individual must find a way to create personal meaning from the loss.
Grief expert David Kessler’s work in repositioning grief describes this process.
It begins by raising the loss - and the narrative embedded in it - to one’s conscious emotional experience.
We then juxtapose that narrative with a new one that directly confronts the memory with a new possibility - the “mismatch,” in this case - and repeat this multiple times to help the brain reorganise the old memory and experience it in a new way.
Organisations can help turn grief around. Leadership teams can start by setting the right tone. Leaders who open themselves to those around them inspire openness and signal an availability and warmth that draws others out.
Senior executives should also prompt difficult conversations about grief at times when the source of grief is obvious - and even when it’s not so obvious, such as during a strategic restructuring or an abrupt leadership transition.
Organisational cultures should also have their own rituals, which can send powerful signals of recovery and transformation.
Japanese organisations are known for their rituals when there are senior-leadership transitions, and help staffers get over failed experiments by celebrating their boldness with food, drinks and reflections on what was learned.
Unresolved grief is a quietly destructive force that derails leaders and hurts organisations during the best of times. And these aren’t the best of times.
Charles Dhanaraj is the Piccinati Endowed Chair professor and chair of the Department of Management at the Daniels College of Business at University of Denver. George Kohlrieser is an organisational and clinical psychologist and Distinguished Professor of Leadership and Organizational Behaviour at the International Institute for Management Development (IMD), where he is the director of the High Performance Leadership program.