August 27, 2021

Where’s the systemic support for grief in the workplace?

Worldwide, over 4.23 million people have died due to COVID-19 since March 2020. In 2021, and surely into 2022, society will experience the collective grief of losing so many people to this virus. 

Organizations have largely focused on how we could make the circumstances of the lockdown work, reacting to the huge obstacles that the world threw our way without pause for 18 months. But amid so much death (over 600,000 deaths in the US alone), there’s bound to be a wave of collective grief as we enter our next normal.

Nearly everyone in the world has been affected by the pandemic in some way, whether by losing a loved one, having to make a fundamental life change, or struggling with mental health.

For years we’ve seen a shift toward encouraging employees to bring their whole, authentic selves to the workplace. Grief is part of the authentic human experience, but rarely enters the “whole self” conversation. It’s time to make space for grief in the workplace with policies and support systems. 

We need community now more than ever. 

Hakemia Jackson, Bravely Pro and CEO of Divinely Powered, shared her experience of being supported by her colleagues in a time of extreme distress. She views the experience as a model of appropriate support in highly emotional circumstances.

She describes how her colleagues showed up for her, held up a mirror for her, authentically checked in, and then allowed her to do what was best for her.

Watch: “The Big Shuffle” panel, featuring Hakemia

In February 2021, Hakemia and her family evacuated their Houston home to escape the life-threatening combination of freezing temperatures and power outages. On the same day she and her young children arrived at a hotel in Atlanta, she was scheduled to moderate a panel webinar. When she logged in for a preparatory session before the panel, the panelists and her colleagues could tell something was wrong. Hakemia says, “They sat with me in the midst of my experience and didn’t deny what I tried to deny just to get the work done. To check the box, to be complete. They allowed me space to pause and to acknowledge it myself and hold the mirror up to say: ‘… I need you to look at yourself and how you’re responding in this moment and identify what you truly need.'”

Our colleagues are a segment of our community at large. Our colleagues can witness our highs and our lows and hold space for the human spectrum of experiences. We spend much of our time at work. Over this last year and a half, their faces on our screens were often the only ones we saw every day. Understandably, we crave validation and shared processing with them. 

“Grief is a sign that we need to recalibrate — something is off. Something is missing. I’m disconnected for a reason, because I’m missing something. It’s because of a loss…often a loss of identity.

Hakemia Jackson

The first step to creating space for grief in the workplace is to “welcome grief in, and acknowledge that grief is real.”

Hakemia’s private coaching practice is rooted in a holistic approach, empowering leaders to embrace their spiritual, emotional, and intellectual intelligence. She says: “Train yourself to not see grief as a sign of weakness, but as an opportunity to fill it with something that edifies the person, feeds them in a positive direction. So they can live out their more spiritual self in the natural world.” 

The variety of spiritual meanings grief can hold may seem like an obstacle to giving it a voice in a company setting. This challenge reinforces the importance of meeting employees where they are.

HR leaders, here’s what you can do: 

  • Know the differing needs of marginalized groups. Grief policies are not one size fits all. 
  • Seek to create more connection among your people, not just during hard times, but always, including in preparation for possible hard times to come.
  • Refresh your company’s approach to employee well-being. You should know how your organization defines well-being, how it views its responsibility to employee well-being, and the “why” behind the programs and resources you have in place.
  • Commit to co-elevationor movement toward elevating the group as a whole. Encourage an understanding of each other’s gifts, goals, and talents and how we all add value to the organization. 
  • Empower and embolden your people to not sit stagnant in their grief but instead to actively create the reality they want. You can start by offering resources to help employees move through grief when they are ready to. 

Don’t stay silent. 

Hakemia: “My colleagues gave me space to [identify] my experience and they accepted the response.They didn’t try to create a narrative they wanted to be true, they wanted the truth. When you create space, you allow that person to share their own experience and not what you perceive it to be.”

Whatever you do, don’t be silent. If you have a hunch that someone in your organization is experiencing a hardship, explore whether that’s true. Silence can be deafening and hurtful. Use your intuition. Seek clarity and create the space for dialogue. By doing so, you’re building trust and psychological safety in the workplace. By implementing a grief policy with many different options, you’re valuing the well-being of your employees.

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