The sheer number of global COVID deaths—more than 5.7 million at last count—can be hard to comprehend. But each of those deaths has affected a community. A recent study estimates that every death from the coronavirus leaves behind nine grieving family members. Of course, it’s not only family members who grieve. Those who pass are mourned by friends, neighbors, and coworkers, as well.
The nature of COVID-19 deaths, including the accompanying restrictions in hospital visits and funerals due to social distancing, makes these losses even more difficult to comprehend and process. The pandemic is not the only source of grief right now, though. We also face mental health strains in response to ongoing racial violence, economic uncertainty, and political upheaval.
In difficult times, we look to our institutions—including our governments, schools, and employers—for support and protection. When an organization fails to support us or takes actions that hurt us (or those we care about), that can lead to a second injury, called institutional betrayal. That betrayal or breach of trust can affect the person’s relationship to the institution, including their engagement, absenteeism, productivity, and communication (and may lead to moral injury). Therefore, the way that we lead our organizations in this time can have a long-lasting effect on the organization’s success, as well as on the healing of the humans within it.
Those who lead organizations in this era must develop a skill they may not previously have had to cultivate: grief leadership. This skill is something I’ve taught for decades. I’ve worked with crime victims for more than 25 years, and have written a book on how to support coworkers and clients through hard times.
The concept of grief leadership was first discussed in a report by the U.S. military following a horrific accident. The report noted how crucial strong and compassionate leadership was in ameliorating the stress of devastating circumstances. In this era, when so many are facing unprecedented loss, leaders must see their teams through grief and uncertainty in ways that encourage unity and healing.
Here are some ways to do that.
1. Share information
In my work with crime victims for the U.S. Department of Justice, one of the things I quickly learned was that everyone going through a traumatic experience craves information. When the worst happens, we feel disoriented and out of control. Receiving information enhances our sense of autonomy, clarity, and calm. As President John F. Kennedy said, “In a time of turbulence and change, it is more true than ever that knowledge is power.”
Therefore, leaders should communicate clearly and often in times of strife. Explain in plain language the facts as you know them. Describe what decisions were made, and why, and how. Talk about your organization’s values, and your own values. Discuss what you expect to happen next, without overpromising. Explain what you don’t know yet, but hope to learn. Finally, repeat yourself. It is difficult to process information when we are grieving, and so we often miss what is said. Leaders must state information in clear terms, over and over again. For instance, you could provide information in a town hall meeting, then follow up with an email, and then a few weeks later, mention the issue again in a newsletter.
2. Model healthy grieving
The head of a large federal agency happened to be holding a town hall meeting for her entire staff the day after the January 6 Capitol Riots. A former congressional staffer, she was profoundly affected by images of the mob desecrating the U.S. Capitol Building and attacking Capitol police. She had a full agenda to cover in the meeting and could simply have swallowed her grief or dealt with it privately. Instead, she was open about it.
She discussed how hard it was to see the nation torn apart and the government itself under siege. She thanked her staff for their commitment to public service and the ways they had continued to serve despite many challenges. She teared up. It was not comfortable for her, but it was authentic. The response was swift and grateful. She received countless emails and messages of thanks and support. The moment when her employees were most vulnerable and frightened became one of unity and strength.
One of the most important things a leader can do in hard times is acknowledge the loss. Name it, and show sincere emotion in response to it. Discuss how difficult it is to shoulder this grief and admit that it may be difficult for a long time. Your goal here is not to ask others to comfort you, but rather to free them to acknowledge their own feelings and to stand with them as they do.
3. Provide necessary resources
In the spring of 2021, a company’s CEO saw that many in his community could not get the healthcare they needed due to the coronavirus. He contracted for a healthcare liaison to identify and disseminate information about where to get vital care. His swift and thoughtful action meant that his employees were able to get the help they needed when it mattered most. Consider, for a moment, the loyalty this garnered. When employees had nowhere else to turn and feared for their health or the health of a family member, the company provided them with the support they needed.
There are often tangible forms of support that people need in times of grief and distress. Anticipate and gather those, like mental health supports, referrals to medical information, and assistance with funerals and other expenses. Such support can make an incredible difference in a person’s healing, and demonstrates that the organization is there for its employees when they need it. It’s also worthwhile to compile and distribute information about community resources that might be needed, such as the suicide lifeline, the domestic violence hotline, and support for those suffering from addiction. Distribute this information widely, as you may not know who needs it.
In the midst of hardship, it is important to project optimism and a belief in the team. Commend them for their efforts and accomplishments. Celebrate when there is cause to do so. Acknowledge the challenge of the moment, but also help others to envision a different future.
It can also be worthwhile to provide an opportunity for people to take part in something bigger than themselves. For instance, some organizations provide support groups where those who have lost someone are able to help (and lean on) one another. A fundraiser or volunteer activity where the group is able to give back to the community can also be a unifying and inspiring activity. Artwork can be an inspiring and unifying symbol of what was lost. You may also consider creating opportunities for ritual, which are missing and often sorely needed right now. A ceremony acknowledging a loss can provide a needed opportunity for introspection and connection.
5. Take care of yourself
As noted in the military report on grief leadership, “The loneliness at the top is never more evident than among senior commanders in times of organizational tragedy. . . . With respect to their organizations, they are simultaneously the principal mourners, orchestrators of solemn ceremony, and symbols that life must go on.”
It is not possible to bear the weight of supporting those on your team when you are not supporting yourself. A daily commitment to self-care in the form of exercise, art, mindfulness, and/or prayer can help keep you healthy and mentally fit. Make an effort to talk about the things that are weighing on you with those who are not themselves struggling. Engage outside help when needed. Recognize when you are beginning to suffer burnout (apathy or a short temper are often warning signs), and recommit to healthy habits.
Katharine Manning provides training and consultation on empathy at work when it matters most, and is the author of The Empathetic Workplace: Five Steps to a Compassionate, Calm, and Confident Response to Trauma on the Job. She has worked on issues of trauma and victimization for more than 25 years.