5 Steps Towards Healing the Pandemic of Grief in the Workplace

The Harvard Business Review published an article back in March that I find myself revisiting, time and time again. In this article, David Kessler, an acclaimed author, founder of www.grief.com, and “the world’s foremost expert on grief” asserts that we are all experiencing grief as a result of the current pandemic. My initial response was Grief? Really? Is that the right word? However, watching myself and those around me struggle in the last few months to find focus and flow in our work has eroded my disbelief. In fact, I have found Kessler’s insights increasingly relevant and poignant.

In these unprecedented times, as we all struggle to accept the new realities of the COVID-19 pandemic, grief is becoming ubiquitous. We are experiencing losses, small and great, personal and collective. For some, the pandemic has brought economic loss. The loss of certainty is most challenging for others. For many, the loss of social connection feels crippling. And then, there is what Kessler terms “anticipatory grief,” the anxiety we feel as we flounder against wave after wave of unpredictable change.

So how does this affect the workplace?

As a matter of fact, work is one of the domains of our lives where grief is most obviously manifesting right now. As described in a Forbes article on grief in the workplace from pre-pandemic times, the effects of grief can be quite extensive. Studies have demonstrated that grief causes real physical and psychological damage. The grief we are all experiencing right now, whether triggered by present experiences or anticipatory, can affect our memory, perception, and creativity, all of which are critical cognitive functions for work productivity.

So, what we can do? How can we adjust ourselves and our workplaces to address the pervasive grief we are living and working with? Here are five strategies to begin this work.

Educate yourself.

Many of us may be so lucky as to be encountering this kind of grief for the first time in our careers, and even if that’s not the case, we may not have ever taken the time to really learn about how grief affects us. So you’re reading this article, and that’s a great start. But there are also plenty of other resources available. As one mental health professional cited in this NPR article on coronavirus and grief points out, “We can’t heal what we don’t have an awareness of.”

Take some time to find informative mental health resources. This can include professional online resources, like the WE Well-Being digital toolkit for the workplace, or informal conversations with those we trust to be respectful, thoughtful, and supportive of our well-being. Whatever the means, find support in naming your experience so that you can start to deal with the ways that grief is affecting your workday.

Notice grief as it affects your workplace in the day-to-day.

This experience is not normal. As a result, our response to it is not normal. And what is normal is for our behaviors and patterns to be a little off from what our colleagues have come to expect. We or they, and more likely we and they, may need more flexibility than before. This is a time to increase sensitivity, hold space for one another, open dialogue around mental health in the workplace, and step up to the challenge of supporting one another.

Especially for those of us who work as managers, group leaders, and company officers, this is an opportunity to lead. Be mindful of ways you can increase flexibility around high-pressure roles and demanding deadlines so that employees feel supported in their work as best as possible. If tempers seem shorter, remind yourself that grief may be playing a role in that dynamic. As Kessler points out, it can be hard to show up as your best self consistently when you’re navigating grief. Our support for coworkers is needed.

Be intentionally compassionate with yourself throughout your workday.

Communicate your grief if and when you need to, whether by phone, or in person with household members, or even on social media, if that’s helpful. One social worker in my network has been sharing her experiences and reflections around work in pandemic times via LinkedIn posts like this one. Though I know these posts reflect her own process, it’s also proven useful for me and her other connections to read these posts, respond, and feel a little less alone.

And, of course, don’t hesitate to reach out for professional mental health services as you need them. As always, seek out the care you need. Counselors, psychologists, and other mental health care providers are working tirelessly to increase their availability remotely. There are to support us through this challenging time.

Practice mindfulness when you feel grief decreasing your productivity.

One of the main ways that Kessler recommends we navigate this grief-ridden pandemic landscape is by moving ourselves intentionally from anxiety around the future to mindfulness of the present. This may involve a practice as simple as focusing on your breath, or speaking out loud some basic, reassuring truths about the present, such as “My family and I are all home together right now. We have the food we need in the fridge today. I have this job at this time.”

If you’re looking for some outside scaffolding to your mindfulness, consider downloading a free meditation app like the ones on this list curated by Mindful.org. Ask friends and coworkers for recommendations, and find the app or recording that is most helpful to you. If you feel that anticipatory grief looming over your workspace, know that you can take a step back from the grief and turn to the present to recover your flow.

Engage gratitude to pull you through.

According to this Forbes article on gratitude, increasing gratitude-focused practices in the workplace boosts productivity and increases employee’s drive to perform better in their work. Of course, much of what this article references involves gratitude from one coworker to another, and that’s important, but it’s also not the only way to integrate gratitude into your workday.

Besides expressing our gratitude to one another, we can take time, even a few minutes a day, to focus on gratitude in general. Perhaps we are particularly appreciative today of being able to work from a home office, or we may feel especially grateful to have the flexibility in our new schedules to spend needed quality time with our families. Whatever the reason, gratitude is healthy and always available. If you’re looking for some extra inspiration, you can even check out a gratitude-focused podcast like “Gratitude In a Minute” by my friend and author Karen Treiger.

I know these five strategies are not enough for us right now but I also know they’re better than nothing. Try a few, and if you do, let me know how they change your day. Just don’t worry if I don’t reply right away. I might be working, or practicing gratitude, taking a minute for mindfulness or compassion, paying attention to those around me, or learning more about my own experience. Like you, I’ll be taking steps towards healing.