The Healthy Employee’s Guide to Grieving During Continuous Change

19 August 2020

While organisational management teams have become adept at tweaking growth strategies and capitalising on opportunities driven by the pandemic, let’s take a moment to consider employee wellness in the midst of a period of unprecedented change.

Research by AskAfrica indicates that South Africans are dealing with a burden of anxiety that stretches beyond only contracting COVID-19. The study considered the increased mental strain South Africans are reporting within the framework of the five stages of grief. The study resonated with millions when the Harvard Business Review published David Kessler’s article earlier in 2020 as a commentary on the work made famous by Elisabeth Kübler Ross and introduced a sixth stage. Large portions of populations worldwide are facing a variety of emotions while navigating loss and continuous change. At this stage of the pandemic, it is a good time to be self-aware of where you and others around are in the grief process and to consider how to best manage employee wellness in the long run.  

With this knowledge, it is important for organisations to invest in practical tools and guidelines to manage grief. The impact of a changing environment directly affects the mental state, agility and productivity of employees. That being said, employees are also equally responsible for individually assuming ownership for their emotional well-being during this time.

Working while navigating the grief process

Let’s walk through the non-linear process of grieving. There is no way to simplify the grief process or break down employees’ emotions and package them into conveniently dissectible boxes. However, even though the process is complex and differs from person to person, it provides a framework that greatly assists teams and managers with making sense of what we might be feeling and taking the best course of action at the time to handle these emotions responsibly to ensure the best outcome for organisational growth.

1. Denial

When implementing and managing change in an organisation, any decision to move forward requires you to give something up – a habit, an old of way of working or a sense of familiarity. It is in giving up a known factor that we experience unconscious loss. During this time employees and team leaders may be tempted to deny that they are going through a process they need to manage and take ownership of. We often hear “it won’t affect me”. It’s a good idea to recognise this as the first stage of grief and that the employee has not bought into a new process just yet.

2. Anger

Developing one’s self-awareness as a manager, team leader or employee is key to navigating potential feelings of passive aggression, irritability or frustration associated with this stage. Knowing your own triggers associated with anger is important and how you may (unknowingly) project these emotions onto your team members. Equally important is being mindful that the anger of others projected at you may not be personal.

3. Bargaining

“If only I can make it through these next three weeks of lockdown” is often an individual’s temporary bargaining chip to deal with circumstances for a short while. But beware of getting stuck in this stage for too long. It might set individuals up for bigger disappointment and doesn’t allow for working through these real emotions in a sustainable way. Rather make time to focus on your own wellness and state of mind by creating opportunities for rest and reflection. Celebrate the small milestones to create incremental wellness moments.

4. Sadness

Sadness, although an entirely valid emotion, if left unchecked hinders one’s ability to function productively and optimally. It remains the responsibility of each team member, no matter their position in the organisation, to assume accountability for their own emotions. The best strategy is not to go through this stage alone. Seek help and rely on sustainable coping mechanisms such as the organisation’s HR specialists, qualified industrial psychologists or personal mentors during this stage – whatever format works for you. Believing that you can navigate this stage on your own is not a responsible decision to yourself or your team who may depend on your resilience.

5. Acceptance and integration

Because the stages of grief rarely progress in a linear fashion, you often move between stages and go on to experience some of the emotions more than once. With acceptance and integration comes the ability to recognise the stage you might be in and it allows you to become emotionally agile. It will require a determined and practiced effort to come to terms with the challenge that for the foreseeable future and according to all indications, that you will be navigating constant and continuous change.

6. Meaning

We are adding an extra stage here. In the Harvard Business Review piece, grief expert David Kessler talks about adding a sixth stage – finding meaning – which entails crafting real purpose out of what you’re experiencing now in a way that makes sense for you personally. A new normal is taking shape and with it comes the opportunity to create value and find meaning in how you see yourself and the role you’re playing in the organisation, and ultimately society. Finding meaning may not seem realistic or even achievable to many right now, but the intent of finding meaning at some point in future reframes our current ability to navigate grief.

What can organisations do?

As organisations are leading the changing environment, it is advisable to invest in building knowledge about grief and guidelines tailored to the needs of employees. These guidelines can be especially valuable in helping employees navigate their long-term wellness against the background of remote working setups.

The tools required to best assist their workforce will vary greatly based on the industry they function in – for some, a remote working guide is an appropriate tool while for others a more practical approach works better. Regardless of the approach taken, now is the time to garner the guidance of organisational psychologists, consultants and people development specialists who can strategically guide the organisation through developing material and resources that will cultivate emotionally resilient and agile employees.