When Leadership and Grief Intersect - guidelines for supporting a grieving employee

“Heidi,” my friend asked, “I don’t know how to help her. What do I do?” Over the years, I’ve become the go-to person for colleagues and fellow leaders when one of their team loses a spouse. I approach these conversations from two perspectives, one - as a woman who was widowed unexpectedly at the age of 30, and the other - as a leader with a few employees who’ve lost their significant other. Loss happens more frequently than we care to imagine, and we as leaders are often unprepared and untrained for how step into this cloudy conundrum of grief, support, productivity, metrics, and emotional awareness.

For all the dynamic and introspective leadership development courses we take in our lives, none prepare us to lead an employee experiencing trauma and grief. Which seems strange, since every leader is bound to have at least one grieving and traumatized employee - if not more. In the years since my husband died, my professional circle has been impacted by traumatic loss multiple times. Life is life. It is neither fair nor easy, and leaders are often unprepared for how to navigate the physical and emotional implications on our teams while simultaneously meeting our company's expectations and deadlines. 

And yet, our actions impact those employees deeply, either exasperating or alleviating the triggers of trauma. It’s not an easy space to navigate and especially difficult for a leader who has never experienced trauma herself. On top of this, other teammates and peers are closely watching and wondering how you’ll show up as a leader, primarily because they have no idea what they’d do in your shoes. 

So when a fellow executive calls and asks, “Heidi, what do I do?” This is how I lay it out:

This is a Defining Leadership Moment
This is not easy. You have an employee who will experience deep and debilitating mood shifts, who will suffer from lapses of concentration and memory, who will have some extremely unproductive periods, and who may burst into tears for no apparent reason and/or hide their grief and pretend all is well. So why bother? That’s easy: 

  • You’re a solid human being and a strong, dynamic leader who can step into this new challenge
  • Your grieving employee needs you and the structure this job provides
  • You’re creating a mindful, healthy working environment - and each of your employees and fellow leaders will take note
  • You’re driving a level of loyalty and dedication among your team, who will follow you everywhere you go

Understand The Physiology: This is Our Brain, On Grief
Grief and trauma drive some intense changes, physiologically speaking. 

  • The limbic system - the emotion-related / fight-flight-or-freeze part of our brains - is in charge of personal recall, emotion and memory integration, attention, and our ability to take interest in those around us. During grief, your amygdala ‘hijacks’ the oxygen from the other parts of your brain and shuts down rational thinking and problem solving. Translation: the grieving are often irrational, emotional, and angry. And we will cry uncontrollably at unexpected moments. And the hijack of oxygen from the rest of our brain makes it very difficult to concentrate, focus, and to remember small things.
  • The central nervous system is impacted by increased anxiety and a higher CRH, which means disturbed sleep, weight loss, respiratory changes, hair loss, and increased blood pressure. Translation: physical exhaustion, low energy, and low capacity for concentration and memory retention.
  • The neuroendocrine system issues a stress response and releases high cortisol, which often weakens the immune system. Sometimes for up to six months. Translation: the grieving tend to get sick more often.
  • Most people who’ve experienced loss are in some state of physical shock for up to four months, and after the shock wears off, the painful reality sets in. 

Over time, grief doesn’t go away. We just learn to live with it differently.

Adjusting Expectations
Often, your employee doesn’t realize that he or she will be in shock for months. But - as of this sentence - you DO know. Plan accordingly for the loss of productivity and engagement. When one of my Bank of America employees lost her husband to cancer, I called my executive and said, “She’s going to be least productive person on the planet for most of the next year. And we’re going to continue to pay her and support her, because that’s the kind of company we are. So either I need an extra headcount, or we need to readjust the expectations for my team.” 

You should shift workload, reassign tasks, and give other employees the opportunity to step into new responsibilities. For the employee in question, assign projects that are flexible in timing and unimportant to the bottom line. What’s a project/task that didn’t make the cut for this year’s priorities? That’s the ideal assignment for this person in the short term. Consider giving another employee the chance to step into a leadership position as a kind-hearted and gentle guide for this project. Be upfront with your grieving employee that this is what you’re doing for him. He needs to know that you’re creating space with lower expectations, and that you’re waiting for him to tell you when he's ready to take on more. That moment will come. 

Be Aware of Good Day and Bad Days
A griever’s life becomes defined by Good Days and Bad Days. The Bad Days are rough, and often involve sneaking into the bathroom or an isolated stairway for a hard cry. For me, the handicapped stall on the often vacant executive floor was my favorite. No one was ever in there, and I could cry all I needed to. 

The Good Days have a slight brightening and a bit more sleep, and those are worth celebrating. As a leader, be aware of where your employee falls on this spectrum - as it impacts her daily mood, productivity, concentration levels, and engagement. The simple questions of “How is today?” and/or “What’s top of mind for you today?” quickly opens the door to that insight. Use the Good Days to both your advantage; we all want to be valuable at our jobs, and she will get confidence in strength in valued contributions - both big and small.

Be Mindful of Words 
Make the question “How are you today?” your go-to question. It’s succinct, easily answerable, and emotionally aware. Especially when compared to the generic “How are you?” which makes grievers want to scream in their heads, “How the #(*#(@*$# do you think I am?!” Your awareness of social niceties is greatly appreciated by your employee and sometimes might reveal the celebratory answer “Actually, today I’m pretty good. I haven’t cried a single time today.” To which you can join in the celebration, “That sounds like a Good Day.” Other phrases to alter:

“Have a great day” ==> “I hope today is a good one”  
“Enjoy the weekend” ==> “I hope this is a gentle weekend” 
“Happy <insert holiday here>” ==> “Wishing you warm memories this <holiday>.” and/or “I hope you do something special that makes you smile this <holiday>."

Put the Dates On Your Calendar
Finally, be aware of important dates. Put the ones you know into your calendar: The 3/6/12-month anniversaries of date of death and employee's birthday. He or she will likely tell you when there’s another notable date coming up, which could be a wedding anniversary, the deceased’s birthday, the date they got engaged, or one of the kids’ birthdays. On these dates, just make a note in your calendar to acknowledge with a simple wish: “I know this is a big day. I’m glad you’re here, and I’m glad you’re on my team.”

You’re helping craft someone’s life by creating this space of awareness and support. It’s not easy or efficient, but your efforts will make his/her life better, and you’ll further evolve as emotionally intelligent, understanding, and successful leader.