When a crisis, loss or change occurs at work, the significance of human connection looms large. It’s a time for leaders to lead by example and share their humanity. Because they care about their employees and know they are the most important business asset, successful leaders know how to connect with employees grieving.

As a behavioral health professional and critical incident responder my experiences are varied in both small and large organizations where all staff, leaders and employees are experiencing crisis, loss and/or change.

It can be surprising to experience an array of feelings from disbelief, shock, sadness, anger, regret, abandonment, betrayal, relief and guilt.

In these situations, conversations quickly become meaningful as the human experience of unexpected trauma, loss, or challenge to overcome is shared.

In this article…

I’ll describe 4 factors that help explain how grief responses can vary among employees.. With unexpected trauma, loss and rapid change,the challenges to overcome are unique to each person.

Information contained in the 4 factors is normalizing and for many,reassuring. Successful leaders help employees navigate through their grief byvaluing the impact of the following…

Factor 1—Circumstances surrounding the crisis/change.

Circumstances refer to the expected and unexpected aspect of loss and change.

Expected loss can include the news that a co-worker is retiring or succumbed to a terminal illness; or the day a department or entire business was scheduled to permanently close has finally arrived. The grief response is present, however, there has been some time to prepare emotionally.

The shock and disbelief can be immediately experienced when unexpected loss occurs. For example, a colleague seen the day before who dies in his sleep from a heart attack or tragically, an accident onsite which has seriously injured several workers and/or caused the death of one or more workers. The disbelief can normally last for weeks, months or longer.

The unexpected resignation of a co-worker, news that your boss is being replaced or the promise of a company reorganization is full of mixed feelings.

Violent causes of employee death including homicide as well as news that someone suicided can feel paralyzing for many.

The extent to which the loss is expected or unexpected impacts the individual’s response to grief.

Factor 2–Personal history.

We all bring our personal histories to work every day. For some of us, the specific circumstance brings up previous experiences of loss and the painful memories return.The surprise of this connection to the past can create alarm, yet it’s a normal occurrence. It may mean there is unfinished work with the previous loss…which, is normal as well.

For some, it’s a first time experience with death and the impact is new and unfamiliar. Others may be currently managing a personal change at home whether it be a separation from a partner, impending divorce, a family illness or another life challenge that increases the sense of personal vulnerability.

Another consideration is what an employee has  learned about grieving from parents/caretakers or cultural, religious influences. For some, keeping a stoic, unemotional response to loss or change is what they’ve been taught is appropriate.

Still others, have seen people express emotions openly and are easily tearful and talkative. There are some people who deal with the discomfort by making jokes, seeming to be insensitive to others.

It’s always important to remember that there isn’t any correct way of grieving. Someone who becomes quiet and prefers to process by themselves may be doing what they need to do. Of course, asking a co-worker or being asked by a co-worker if you are okay is always appropriate. Respecting the preference for quiet and alone time is okay too.

Factor 3—Relationship to the crisis/change.

The type of role (such as manager, team member, co-worker, HR representative), length of time of the relationship (1 day-30 years), and strength of attachment (trusted confidant, beloved mentor, love/hate kind of interaction) makes a difference.

It isn’t safe to assume that a brief length of time, like just being on the job for a month means that the impact is nil. Perhaps this was the person that was the most welcoming to the newly employed or had worked intensely for the past month together on a project.

Often feelings of regret and/or guilt surface around interactions that took place and things that were said or not said. The ways in which anger shows up vary.

Any one of these considerations or a combination is possible.

Factor 4–Current resources.

An employee’s support system, including friends, family and personal beliefs related to purpose in life and the meaning  given to the event is another important factor. Are you able to ask for help and get the needed help desired?

Ways an employee has successfully coped in the past and personality traits that contribute to a resilient mindset are useful. To the extent an employee has developed an internal locus of control, that is, the ability to view themselves as resourceful and capable of influencing the outcome of  life can engender positive processing of uncomfortable feelings.

The takeaway is…

The awareness of these 4 factors and the way they can combine offers some needed information for the staff, leaders and employees who are processing a work crisis, unexpected trauma, loss and change.

Leaders who plan a response which is mindful of these 4 factors that impact the grieving employee fosters goodwill and needed emotional support so employees are ready to return to work safely.

Ultimately the humanity of the work environment contributes to the bottom line of any organization.

I’m interested: What helps you cope with grief?

If you want to discuss your work related challenges, please contact me. I am offering a complimentary 45 minute telephone session to assist your efforts to overcome barriers and create more fulfillment at work.