candles indicating a memorial

Grief and trauma are byproducts of living, but we don’t all experience grief and trauma in the same way and at the same time. Employees with relatives in Ukraine, or those who lived through wars in other countries, might be triggered by the most recent news. Other employees may find that news about police shootings or Covid-19 rates stirs up their personal grief and trauma. Many employees may still be processing the grief and trauma of a lost loved one or a psychological or medical illness.

Organizational leaders can, and should, support their people as they process such trauma.

The state of grief in the US

In 2020, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS) created a bereavement multiplier to track the reach of COVID-19 kin loss. This tool estimates the average number of individuals who will experience the death of a close relative for each COVID-19 death. Analysis shows that for every COVID-19 death, approximately nine surviving Americans will lose a grandparent, parent, sibling, spouse, or child.

With more than 900,000 COVID-19 deaths in the United States as of February 2022, the extent and impact of loss from the pandemic are nearly unfathomable.

As millions of people work through the trauma associated with loss, we are experiencing a grief epidemic. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s landmark work in the late 1960s popularized five phases of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, sadness, and acceptance. And beyond grief, many people are processing other trauma wrought by the pandemic, such as loss of control, extreme and ongoing change, and job uncertainty or loss.

How organizations can address grief

Harvard Business Review defines three groups of the pandemic-grieving:

  • The worried well are grieving the loss of normalcy and feel anxious about what could happen.
  • The affected were sick and recovered or had loved ones who were ill and recovered.
  • The bereaved lost a loved one due to death and are experiencing one of the five stages of grief (most are far from acceptance).

After understanding the far-reaching effects of grief in the country today, you can assume all of your employees are working through trauma in one or more of the above forms right now. What can you do about it?

Acknowledge it.

The simplest yet most effective way to begin to manage grief is to acknowledge its existence. Many employees believe they need to hide their trauma while at work. They fear they will seem less competent on the job. Hopefully, we now understand that being more human—showing up at work authentically and empathetically—is the new standard for managers.

Leaders must normalize grief institutionally. For example, dedicate time during an all-staff meeting to acknowledge the grief and trauma that every individual in the workforce is experiencing. Managers should take time during team meetings to do the same. When employees feel seen, they will also feel safe.

Be supportive.

According to a September 2021 article in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, communication, accommodation, recognition of the loss, and emotional support (CARE) are the four key themes that characterize effective bereavement support in the workplace. Here are some practical ways employers can support employees through their grief.

  • Communicate available benefits. Employees should know how much bereavement leave, personal leave, and any other paid time off they receive for situations of grief. Encourage all individuals to use this time. Additionally, update employees on any federally or state-granted benefits such as the 2020 Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which required eligible employers to extend paid sick, family, and medical leave to employers through Dec. 31, 2020. Don’t leave your employees guessing about their bereavement benefits.
  • Provide counseling and support groups. Even when pandemic-related grief subsides, employees can always benefit from talking to others about their trauma. Some organizations subsidize counseling and support services. Others are creating peer support groups. Show employees you are committed to their mental health and well-being by giving them the accommodations they require.
  • Train managers to be grief competent. Train your people managers to understand grief and trauma and know how to respond to it. Employees will feel most supported when their immediate supervisor effectively cares for them. Finally, all leaders must walk the talk by investing in their own mental health and well-being.

Celebrate work.

When employees feel safe and supported at work, they’ll find comfort in the time they spend on the job. Work can provide an outlet for those processing grief and trauma. It’s important to cultivate a culture that celebrates quicks wins and focuses on community within the workplace. Your people will know deeper engagement in their work when you create a positive working environment.

How are you showing up for your people?

Competitive compensation and benefits packages don’t keep people at an organization. A supportive supervisor, thoughtful senior leaders, and camaraderie with peers does. At this time in your organization’s history, your people need to know you’re in their corner, giving them the space and tools that they need to process grief.

People development and workforce engagement are at the heart of Brighter Strategies’s consulting work. We know employees are your most valuable asset. When people work to their full potential, your entire organization wins. Learn how you can partner with Brighter Strategies to support your people better this year.