It was a brutal day. I woke up to hear about my uncle passing away in the ambulance on the way to the hospital. Shortly after that we learned about my wife's classmate's passing away. Minutes later, my colleague, who was already lost her sister a week back, called up to tell me that her brother-in-law was no more. A classmate texted me to say that his wife too had passed away. He had lost his daughter just a day before.
In the first wave, others were dealing with death and devastation. In the second wave I was experiencing grief as it is usually understood. Grief is triggered by the loss of a loved one. It is a loss triggered by the loss of a human need.
Grief in the workplace remains invisible. Most of us are unaware of grief that our colleagues may be experiencing. Unresolved grief is dysfunctional.
Grief in the workplace
He was the MD of the company. It was one of the three largest employers in the town where I lived then. He used to travel by a private aircraft. His flamboyant lifestyle was the talk of the town. Then he retired.
I met him at the Flury's restaurant in Kolkata a year or so later. He looked like a pale version of himself. There were no fawning colleagues waiting to catch his attention. He was eating alone. Retirement seemed to have taken away his identity, connections, role, and even his place in the town where he had lived for three decades. He may not have had to worry about loss of income, but there were many other losses he was grieving.
Opportunities to notice a grieving colleague
Not going to office has taken away the social element of work. Work is not about productivity and efficiency.
Colleagues stand by the coffee machine and trade gossip. They complain about the boss and laugh about the ridiculous policies. Celebrating birthdays of colleagues and smearing their faces with cake is impossible over Zoom. The social chatter in the office is an opportunity to build trust with colleagues. We get to notice a colleague who is "looking sad" over something at work.
The pandemic has taken away that opportunity to notice our colleagues beyond the tasks.
Events that trigger grief in the workplaces
- Becoming a small fish in a big pond: When the small firm gets acquired by a bigger corp, the newly acquired employees get lost in the big firm. "I miss seeing our logo when I drive past the building." When the failed entrepreneur goes back to seek employment, no one expects them to grieve. They grieve alone.
- Organization structure changes: Departments constantly get merged reorganised. Departments are shunted off to different buildings as their projects cease to matter. Everyone puts on a brave face and says, "I am fine". Their grief at the loss of opportunity and territory and importance is never acknowledged.
- Projects and people who are ignored: Businesses can move fast and break things, but many of these abandoned projects shatter dreams and change career trajectories. When someone stops getting invited to a meeting, we often put on a brave face and say, "Thank God I have one less meeting to attend." The grief is often invisible until someone notices the tears of humiliation. The pain of being ignored and devalued is a part of every workplace, but the grief it generates is real.
- Victim of office politics: People are promised rewards if they achieve a goal. Office politics often deflects the reward to someone else. Loss of opportunities to be mentored and delayed career milestones cause grief. When CEO changes the existing power structure, there is grief. When every department is reviewed by the leadership team except yours, there is hurt and humiliation. We grieve alone because we fear being seen as petty if we say that it hurts.
Some forms of grief cannot even be openly acknowledged <here are 64 examples of such grief>
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 organisations is high. One study estimates it to be almost $75 billion for a year for US companies. The loss of leadership capability and potential that results from unresolved grief, as well as the human suffering and pain, can seem beyond measure. <Read this>
Noticing grief triggers
1. Look for feelings of loss to discover a grieving employee
The loss of anything which is a human need can trigger grief. Employees who joined Satyam after 2004, were shocked when the scandal erupted in 2009. They experienced grief and shock. When an organisation is in the middle of a controversy or even a false allegation, there is grief that needs to be addressed. Any loss of a human need can trigger grief. Look for it and talk to that colleague.
2. Adults too need help to handle grief
Employers see it as a personal matter and believe that the impacted employee will reach out for help if needed. "They will ask for help, " you may have heard. No one does. When the grief is triggered by the workplace itself, the employee will rarely reach out to the employer. yet, this is when they need help the most. If the grieving employee has trusted relationships at work, the healing can start. Being sensitive to that need can go a long way.
3. This is not a 'social media' moment
The HR manager of a small IT firm broke down while sharing this with me. She said, "Talking to the families of the impacted employees has taken a toll on my mental health. I have done it for the last 15 months and I have felt frequent bouts of depression. I have told the CEO that we need a trained psychologist or counsellor, but the CEO believes HR must hand over the final settlement cheque to the grieving family. I am expected to share the photo on social media as an exercise in building the employer brand."
When we experience a loss, we go through denial, anger, sadness and fear. It is only when we come to terms with the loss that we can move ahead. It means reframing the loss as an opportunity to rethink the future is a powerful shift individuals can make. This is where trained mental health professionals play a role.
Knowing that my grief is not invisible can be a trigger to accept the loss and move ahead.
Listen to George Kohlrieser describe how to turn loss into inspiration
Thank you to George Kohlrieser and Charles Dhanaraj for sharing all their wisdom and bringing this invisible emotion to light for me.
- Watch this <Click>
- Mental Health resources from WHO <Click>
- Being Mortal - Dr Atul Gawande
- Man's Search for Meaning - Viktor Frankl
- Grief: Ignored Emotion in Workplace <Click>
I will be discussing "Grief is an enemy we meet alone" on the Mentza Audio App on Tuesday 8 June 2021 at 7pm IST. This is a short 20 minute chat. Download the app on your phone (iOS and Android) and join in.
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