In my last blog, I wrote about cognitive dissonance and intended to follow up on this topic in my next blog. However, today, I want to talk to you about something else.
On March 24th, my father passed away. I received the phone call at work. After the call, I sat at my desk in a state of shock and was slowly getting my things together to leave when I realized that I needed to let my co-workers know what happened, that I would be leaving, and that I would be out for a while to travel to Mississippi for the funeral. I went in to see Judy, our Finance Manager, to let her know. When I opened my mouth to speak, I felt an odd paralysis come over me and I couldn’t get the words out—I just broke down. If you haven’t been in this situation before it is difficult to explain the level of raw emotion that overtakes you and to have to experience it (the brunt of it, when the knowledge is just hitting you) in front of co-workers was, for me, overwhelming.
Judy, who some of us refer to as Mom because she really has been our “Office Mom,” responded in a way that I will never forget. She immediately got up, came up to me, and held me. She even did that rocking thing that all great moms do while she held me. It was exactly what I needed in that moment…when language failed me, and when no one could have said anything to soften the blow.
This simple act of kindness was just the first in a series of kind acts by my co-workers and supervisors in the days that followed. They have shown such understanding and compassion during this time. While I was with my family grieving, planning a funeral, going through the stuff my dad left behind (which was considerable—he was a hoarder), trying to offer support to my siblings, my work family was there for me. My co-workers Heather and Melissa, in particular, reached out to me daily to see how I was doing, if I needed anything, and to offer comforting words.
I’m very focused on my work and I’m lucky that I can do work away from the office when I need to. It was important for me to maintain a shred of normalcy during this time by doing work when I could but in all my communications with my boss, I was told “Don’t worry about work. Tell us what YOU NEED.” I don’t know how many managers say this to grieving employees but I’m so glad that I have a manager who said it; these are the best words you can hear from an employer when you are grieving. Sometimes it is hard for me to turn my work-brain off, and I haven’t totally in the last couple of weeks, but just knowing that I could and that I had this extended family at my job supporting me took away that extra stress that I know a lot of people feel in this situation, when they know they’ve only got a few days to grieve before they have to return to work and try to be normal again.
The problem many employees face when they experience loss is that they are often not given the time to adjust to the new normal that we all have to adjust to after a loss. Nancy Sherman, LICSW, director of bereavement for Hospice of the North Shore, has said “Grief is not something that people can turn off and on. When they are feeling it, they feel it. And with working adults spending more than half their waking hours at work, it’s not surprising that when grief affects them, it affects their work as well.” It is so important for managers to be aware of and sensitive to this because it’s a quality of life issue for a bereaved employee and it can affect productivity.
It is a difficult situation to find yourself in as a manager. There are projects and daily tasks that still have to be done, deadlines that have to be met, but what you have to realize is that an employee’s work life and personal life are interdependent. If they’ve experienced a deep hurt in their personal life, it can have a significant impact on their work life. And the grieving process is a weird, wild ride that doesn’t end when they return to work.
What can you do as a leader to help your employees when they experience a loss and how can you help them cope with their grief once they return to work? Ask them what THEY NEED. Maybe they need more leave time. Or counseling. Do what you can for them. Be flexible. Offer encouragement. Be understanding. A great leader is an empathetic leader and the act of empathizing is an exercise in trust-building and will strengthen your team. To quote Neil Gaiman, “Empathy is a tool for building people into groups, for allowing us to function as more than self-obsessed individuals.”