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Redefining Loss Aversion… How to Do a Better Job Managing Grief and Loss in the Workplace

We’ve all experienced loss.

It’s hard to escape.

The question is, if and how we handle it.

And usually, despite best efforts, it impacts all areas of our lives, including work.

This coming weekend would’ve been my mother’s birthday and also happens to be the anniversary of my father’s passing (strange, but true).

It’s been more than 10 years since my mother passed away far too early from mesothelioma.

And over a dozen since her cancer diagnosis.

Yet, I vividly remember the call telling me.

It changed everything for me and after months of transcontinental flying, I knew I needed to be home.

We all want to be good employees, to keep it together and not let it affect our work, but it’s hard.

COVID showed us all just how difficult it can be.

Managers were/are unprepared

There is no course at Wharton in grief and compassion, though it would be helpful.

Loss and grief span contexts

Sometimes it’s clear.

Like the loss of my parents, various body parts (yikes!), and numerous other things.

And sometimes it’s more opaque.

Whether it’s the ending of a relationship, a job, or the dissolution of a dream and promise of something greater.

It can be painful …and very distracting.

But we get little or no training in how to deal with it, let alone help others going through it.

So, we avoid it.

Particularly at work.

Feelings are messy and so better to just leave them at home (insert wink here).

Not surprisingly, we can’t.

It’s physically impossible.

We instinctively want to resist loss.

In the MIT Sloan article in the recommended reads below, the author discusses how when we sense a perceived threat, our innate response system activates — fight, flight, or freeze.

We attempt to manage these high levels of stress to get back to safety and often do it in less-than-great ways that impact us, our work, and those around us

Grief and loss can feel and be isolating.

We usually return to “normal”, but not always.

I’ve had friends who’ve grieved losses for years.

In a work environment, it can appear as shutting down, lack of motivation, and disengagement.

In her epic work on emotions, Barbara Fredrickson demonstrated that when we experience positive emotions we develop a broaden-and-build mindset, increasing our joy and widening our range of thinking, innovation, and ability to address problems.

Conversely, when we experience negative emotions, like loss and grief, our mindsets narrow.

We ruminate over the negative.

We can’t think.

Solutions to problems escape us.

You get the picture.

There’s No Going Back

Loss changes us.

How we and the companies we work for manage it, whether its impact is negative or creates post-traumatic growth is a decision that workplaces can help determine.

As that MIT article mentions (and I can personally attest to) “it does no one any good to have unidentified grievers trying to white-knuckle their way through the workday.”

As we continue to rethink and redefine the post-COVID world of work, how we address grief must be included in the discussion.

Creating Grief-Informed Culture

  • Foster a culture of compassion and empathy.

  • Promote open communication and provide a safe space for individuals to express their emotions.

  • Train managers to recognize and respond to signs of grief.

  • Have policies and practices in place that explicitly address grief in the workplace.

  • Offer bereavement leave and flexible work arrangements for individuals who are mourning.

  • Provide access to grief counseling or employee assistance programs.

  • Establish employee resource groups or support networks.

  • Encourage leaders and managers to openly acknowledge and express their grief.

  • Provide ongoing support through regular check-ins and employee wellness programs.

  • Facilitate communication and dialogue about emotions related to grief.

  • Consider implementing rituals or commemorative activities to honor the memory of a deceased colleague or loved one.

  • Seek feedback and engage in conversations to understand employee needs and make necessary adjustments.

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