When I was a year out of college, my apartment burned down. I was sound asleep and I awoke to three very large men (they probably seemed larger than they were because it was both the middle of the night and they were wearing all their gear) were in my bedroom, yelling at me to get up.
Imagine how startling that is—the smoke detectors hadn’t yet gone off because the fire started on the third-floor balcony and I was on the first floor. I literally woke up to firemen dragging me out of bed while others were fighting the fire, in an attempt to save the apartments below it.
They didn’t. I lost everything, except the PJs I was wearing. Thankfully, I was only a year out of college because I didn’t really have anything to lose except some clothes and shoes, some makeup, some linens, a bit of furniture, and a few dishes and pots and pans.
The Red Cross was there—and they were great. And the landlord got to work so they could move me to a new apartment. In the big scheme of things, it wasn’t terrible.
But there was one thing that was a huge deal—the way my employer reacted and what they made me do while I traversed the world of insurance companies, the Red Cross, my landlord, and getting new stuff.
It created a moral injury, which is something many people are experiencing at this point in the pandemic.
Employers Can Create Moral Injury
The morning after I was dragged out of bed by the firefighters, I called my boss to say I wouldn’t be at work. He was, of course, understanding and asked me to keep him updated. After realizing everything that would need to be handled, I called my boss again (remember, I only had the PJs I had been wearing that night) and said I was going to need a week.
He told me to do what I needed to do and not to worry about work, which is exactly what I did. When I finally had some clothes and was presentable enough (and no longer smelled like smoke) to go to work, I met with my boss to give him an update. He told me how sorry he was and how grateful he was that I was alive, but that he had bad news—the powers that be required me to take my vacation time for the time I was out.
I remember being absolutely devastated. Not only had I literally lost everything, I’d also lost all of my vacation time for the year. Disgusting.
I remember feeling the same level of disgust at the leadership team when I worked for an agency that clocked us in every morning but didn’t pay attention to how late you worked. If you weren’t there by 8:30 every morning, by golly! You’d better have an explanation. But no one was around to see us working until 9, 10, sometimes 11:00 or later every night.
When I started my own business, these are the things I kept in mind as I designed benefits, unlimited time off (you know, so if something devastating happens to you personally, you don’t have to worry about taking the only paid time off you have available), and other perks.
I’ve recently been reminded of these things because there is a conversation happening among my peers right now about grief leadership.
And Institutional Betrayal
In difficult times, we look to our institutions—including our employers—for support and protection. When an organization fails to support us or takes actions that hurt us (or those we care about), that can lead to a second injury, called institutional betrayal. This is how I felt when I was told I had to take my coveted vacation time to deal with losing everything I owned in a fire.
That betrayal or breach of trust can affect the person’s relationship to the employer, including their engagement, absenteeism, productivity, and communication (and may lead to moral injury).
The past two years haven’t been helpful in any of this, either. Many of us have lost loved ones and friends to Covid. Some of us have lost jobs. Others have decided to make life changes. It’s impossible to have routine and, just when you think we’re coming out of the fog, another variant throws a wrench in things.
That’s why, the way organizations are led will have a long-lasting effect on everyone’s success, as well as the healing of the humans within it. Anyone who has direct reports, whether or not they are leaders of an organization, must develop a new skill: grief leadership.
So…What Is Grief Leadership?
So…grief leadership? What is it? Katharine Manning, an attorney and author of The Empathetic Workforce suggests it is strong and compassionate leadership that helps to alleviate stress during devastating circumstances. She says, “In this era, when so many are facing unprecedented loss, leaders must see their teams through grief and uncertainty in ways that encourage unity and healing.”
Something the powers that be who made me take vacation time after my apartment burned down could learn.
There are five things a leader should do in moments of grief:
- Share information;
- Model healthy grieving;
- Provide necessary resources;
- Inspire; and
- Take care of yourself.
Let’s talk through each of those.
During the Great Recession, there was a period of about five weeks where we lost nearly every client and I had to make some very hard decisions. But, rather than share information and work with the team to figure out the best approach (even if it had ended the same way), I worked silently and diligently to try to save everyone’s jobs.
I was not successful in doing that and I ended up having to lay nearly everyone off. It was devastating for them (and for me, but I still had a job). After the dust settled, I had more than one person (and one person’s mom) tell me that, had I shared what was going on, they would have been more than happy to help me find solutions—even if it meant people worked part-time, instead of losing their jobs entirely.
That still makes me sick to my stomach. It was a really hard lesson to learn.
Share as much information as you can. If the crisis is at work and can’t be avoided, share as much information as you can upfront—and keep sharing as you learn more or as things evolve.
If the crisis is happening to a colleague, share information about how the organization will support them. It may be through paid time off or extended leave or even taking disability. Gather all of the information you can and share it with them.
Model Healthy Grieving
I have a friend who has had an incredibly challenging 2022. Her teenage niece died unexpectedly and she rushed to her sister’s side, putting work aside, during that horrible time. Then her cat died and her dog had to have major surgery. It’s been rough.
She kept trying to throw herself into work without allowing any grief through and, when we talked a couple of weeks ago, I gently recommended that she not only grieve but model that behavior for her team.
Every one of us will go through more than one devastating crisis throughout our careers and it’s important to model what grieving looks like for those around us.
Manning says about this, “One of the most important things a leader can do in hard times is acknowledge the loss. Name it, and show sincere emotion in response to it. Discuss how difficult it is to shoulder this grief and admit that it may be difficult for a long time. Your goal here is not to ask others to comfort you, but rather to free them to acknowledge their own feelings and to stand with them as they do.”
Provide Necessary Resources
There are often tangible forms of support that people need in times of grief and distress. When my apartment burned down, it would have been nice to know how or if the company would have supported me and if there were any resources available to me. I worked for a huge, global firm. There were things they could do to support me. Instead, they shut me down and docked my vacation time.
If you can anticipate and gather tangible forms of support—mental health, medical information, appropriate referrals, assistance with unexpected expenses—this will go a long way in a person’s healing.
In the midst of hardship, it is important to project optimism. Not overly sunny and rainbows and unicorns, but half glass full kind of stuff. Acknowledge the challenge while also helping to envision the future.
As leaders of people, we can commend our team for their efforts and accomplishments—and celebrate when there is cause to do so.
Take Care of Yourself
And last, but most certainly not least, take care of yourself. If you’re the one experiencing grief, you need to take care of yourself. If you’re leading someone through grief, give them the space to take care of themselves.
I used to work with a woman who could tell when I was at my breaking point and she’d suggest we go for a walk. No matter the weather or time of year, she would trudge out there with me. Just being outside for a few minutes, away from the issue, was extraordinary.
If it’s a mental health day, some grace for them to work out during the day, or a walk around the block, help them take care of themselves.
It takes a great deal of emotional intelligence and empathy to employ grief leadership, but if you see your team through grief and uncertainty, you’ll encourage unity and healing.
Build Your Own Grief Leadership
There are so many things we have to think about as leaders—unlearning our behaviors, living the Golden Rule, building your team and yourself for multiple hot streaks, adjusting our biases…and now grief leadership.