Covid 19: Bereavement and Leadership impact: Questions and Answers
Generally in the 21st Century, many people are uneasy with the end of life. It is no longer an accepted part of the human span in the way it was for our ancestors. Modern man fights against death and losing that fight while still of working age is seen as a shock and a tragedy, with ripples going well beyond the immediate family into the workplace too.
The death may be just a part of the loss an organisation suffers. Perhaps others have to be made redundant and those left behind must deal with the uncertainty of new ways of working and the loss of the old normal. The sense of dislocation and loss of direction may be palpable and damaging.
Of course redundancy and death cannot be directly compared but a good manager will recognise that there are similarities in their impact on the lost employee’s colleagues through someone they liked and/or respected and/or relied upon being taken from them before they were ready.
1. What should managers be aware of, in terms of changed behaviours of their employees in relation to grief?
When someone dies of Covid 19, colleagues may initially be fearful of having contracted the virus themselves. Covid 19 as an existential threat may trigger a fight, flight or freeze reaction. Please also be aware that anniversaries of bereavements can be stressful times for people and you may notice that behaviours change at these times too. Uncharacteristic snappiness, absence and loss of focus, for example.
2. How can business leaders keep up morale during the pandemic, as employees’ concerns potentially escalate from losing their jobs, to getting sick, to their lives being at risk?
Business leaders must listen deeply to colleagues. They must be aware of their own emotions, showing their own vulnerability and sorrow as human beings in a professional context. Leaders whose presence is centred and grounded give heart to others. “Being there for them” is a cliché but it is also essential. After all, the manager will have little control over any of those concerns, so cannot provide any concrete reassurance or protection against them. All he/she can do is make it obvious that if the worst does happen, in any of those respects, the employer will treat the situation with thought and consideration as a human issue and not as a business problem.
If more than one person dies, create space and time for you and your colleagues to offload emotions, memories, regrets. A visible recognition and send-off will show that their lost colleague was important to the employer, as he was to them.
3. What do you advise business leaders to do to ground themselves when dealing with the death of employee(s)?
Use your breath to centre yourself. Becoming aware of your breathing and taking 3 deeper breaths in and out, before a meeting, can bring you back to yourself.
Maybe find a coach you trust to share your feelings and your fears and reflect upon how to be at your best as well as what to do. This work on understanding where the personal resonances are for you will change your embodied presence and allow others to be at their best too.
Questions you might explore with your coach:
- Ask yourself what showing compassion means?
- What is triggered in you?
- What do you already know that will resource you in this situation?
- What else do you need?
- What do the employee’s former colleagues need from you? But remember that you don’t have to be “brave” or above showing your own distress if that is the case. Trying to hide your feelings will make it look as though you don’t have any, the worst message you can give just at that moment.
4. What are the most appropriate ways to honour the memory of employees?
In the time of Covid 19, many people are not able to go to funerals. In other times, funerals offer a ritual for people to share memories, reflect together on someone’s life and say farewell. Creating some form of ritual at work is important. What kind of acknowledgement would be culturally appropriate in your organisation? Listen to colleagues’ views on this. What is helpful for them in honouring the person who has died?
Consider a kind of “shrine” that all the other employees can contribute to. Do what is meaningful for them. For example, put a photograph of the person at the centre and invite people, who wish to do so, to write their words about her/him around the image.
Create a memory book – asking the wider network of relevant clients, shareholders, partners to send a few words to remember the person. This can be given as a gift to the deceased person’s family. Or maybe, depending on the working environment, it is little more than buying drinks for his/her team, saying a few words and raising a glass. The gesture and the visible thought behind it are what matter to the deceased’s colleagues, not the finer points of the occasion.
When the person who has died is replaced, you must do it with great respect. Leaders should talk to whoever will replace the deceased about how they show their respect, perhaps by asking what each person valued about them. However, that done, the replacement cannot be expected to live in the shadow of their predecessor forever. They must soon be allowed to be their own person with their own style, and the manger should only intervene when they trample too soon or too overtly on the legacy of what went before.
5. How do leaders help people to face bereavement, move on and get back to some semblance of normality?
People deal with bereavement in different ways and there are many different kinds of bereavement – depending upon the relationship of the person who has died and the circumstances of their death. You may wish to offer coaching or counselling support to the person. Please also remember that bereavement can be a roller coaster and that ‘normality’ can take a while for those most immediately affected. For others, it will be important that the death is marked but that life is then seen to carry on, with management’s attention back on them as current continuing employees and not spending too long on someone who is no longer there. Unless the employee who passed away was a much-loved founder or someone else of greater than usual significance to the business, your “shrine” or memory book should probably not be maintained for more than a few days. Otherwise the dead will impinge too much of the living and the employment relations benefits will be lost.
6. How can leaders be with people when they have lost a colleague or client – rather than a family member?
When you ask people ‘How are you?’, make sure that you really want to hear their reply and make sure that you listen deeply to what they say. They will feel supported if you do this from a place of genuine interest and compassion.
Keep the same pattern of meetings, 1:1s etc. and allow the space for emotions as part of them.
Returning to work after a bereavement can be an important step back to normality or an even keel and so the more that the manager can create the environment of “business as usual” the faster that equilibrium may return. But that does not mean ignoring the issue or pretending it did not happen, just allowing the employee to choose their own pace of recovery and moving on and becoming involved. However only if and when it becomes clear that he/she is really not coping and needs additional support from the business, specific actions should be taken.
7. How can I learn how people feel when bereaved so I can support them better?
Read about Elizabeth Kubler Ross’s Grief Curve to understand that people experience a range of different feelings. Understand that everyone grieves differently and for different lengths of time. The key is to let them know that you’re there to listen. You don’t have to say anything particularly powerful or insightful. There are no “magic words” to learn which will work every time. You may make inadvertent missteps because everyone’s triggers and memories are different but, that will not matter if your sincerity and empathy are obvious. As a busy manager your time is precious and so giving it to the partner or colleagues of a deceased employee is a powerful gesture just by itself.
8. How can leaders return to work after experiencing many of the impacts of Covid 19, including losing a colleague of many years through Covid 19 and having had Covid themselves and recovered? It’s hard to reconcile ‘normal’ and tragic situations.
Find a space to explore these immense emotions and give yourself time to grieve. Find support to make sure you look after yourself for as long as you need.