Most of us spend more time at work than we do with our close friends or family. We get to know our colleagues in deeply personal ways and when tragedy strikes, it can be hard to know how to react.
Some people simply withdraw, some people try to get overly involved, but most of just don’t know what to do or how to respond. There is no policy or manual to help you handle grief or tragedy. There is no system or process that makes the situation better, or even understandable. When tragedy strikes at work it can be devastating if you don’t allow people to feel what they feel.
“Grief is unpredictable by nature and affects different people in different ways, making it extremely difficult to gauge, manage, or balance it with professional demand,” (Tigar, 2021). In her FastCOMPANY article earlier this year, Lindsay Tigar identifies some general guidelines to help you and your team cope.
- Be patient
- Be supportive
- Be empathetic
- Be authentic
- Be present
Empathy is critical as it puts you in ‘human mode’ vs. ‘work mode’. It allows you to connect with those directly effected by the situation and it also allows space for you to deal with your own feelings and emotions. Empathy naturally allows you to be more patient, supportive, and present.
“Grief calls us to be more authentic and present because grief in its rawest form is demanding.
Often what it demands of us is our honesty, our attention, and a re-evaluation of values, all of which distract from the professional goal”, (Tigar, 2021).
These skills don’t come easy to some and many leaders struggle with these interpersonal abilities. It is critical that as a leader you model the behaviors you want. Flexing your empathy muscles are a good way to demonstrate your strength during difficult times.
When tragedy happens, it is not time for ‘business as usual’ – no matter how much you crave for things to get back to normal. Your team will have to process the events and every individual will look to you to help them navigate the events.
Give your team space to grieve and process. Every employee will deal with a tragedy in their own time. Grieving is not “on the clock”. Let them ask questions, have discussions, and even take breaks to help them manage their own emotions. They will be distracted and often overcome with emotions that might make it hard for them to function effectively. So be aware and read the signals.
Set the right tone for your organization and focus on what the victim or victims need. Don’t focus on what you need to feel better. That starts with listening really listening and offering your team an outlet.
Keep in mind dealing with a tragedy is also not a one-time event. When people come back to the office after a bereavement period, it will open the flood gates again. You need to be patient and allow the team to coalesce and come together naturally. Don’t try to force closure, as it may never come.
Organizations often find their true nature exposed when bad news or tragedy strikes. Make sure that your culture and core values remain the guiding principals in good time and in bad.
Leaders might feel powerless and overwhelmed as well. They need to take time for self-care. It is often the case that one can’t be there for others if they don’t tend to their own needs first. Remember the Airlines safety protocols “Place the mask on yourself first, then assist others with theirs”.
To help mitigate the feelings of despair galvanize the team into action.
Be open to allowing employees to organize fundraisers, food drives or blood drives to let the funnel energy into positive outcomes. If employees can feel like they can make even a small difference it can help them deal with the guilt and sorrow they are feeling.
“Suppressed grief suffocates, it rages within the breast, and is forced to multiply its strength”. Ovid
Ultimately, deal with the situation as best you can. Don’t avoid the situation because you are uncomfortable. Get guidance and or professional assistance through your health care or HR provider if necessary.
Remember always, “Life happens when you least expect it”.
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