supporting your team through grief and trauma

How to support your team through grief and trauma

Grief is often associated with bereavement; the loss of a loved one. Trauma, on the other hand, is often connected to a specific incident that causes harm; physically, psychologically, or emotionally.

Outside of these significant incidences, grief and trauma is not something we necessarily associate with or prepare to address in our modern workplaces.

And while it may seem like a foreign topic, being able to support your team through grief and trauma is a skill that is incredibly valuable for any leader, particularly at the time of writing this article, where we’re facing a global pandemic.

When faced with seismic changes and pivots necessitated by business loss or industry shake-ups, grief is a very real experience for both employees and leaders in the workplace.

To support your team through grief, you must first understand what they’re going through.

So often grief is associated with something final – the end of a job, company-wide restructures, travel that can’t happen – although it may surprise you to know that the grief experience starts in the anticipation of loss. We don’t have to wait until the loss occurs for grief to be a very real part of our world.

Individuals and teams are currently experiencing collective grief and trauma, both real and anticipated, due to the losses and impacts workplaces are experiencing due to coronavirus.

Every single workplace has been impacted by COVID-19; whether it’s the loss of revenue and work, loss of connection with the team, loss of the plans and goals that were mapped out for 2020, even the loss of certainty of what the future will look like.


What does grief look like in a workplace context?

Grief isn’t as simple as the emotion of sadness. In the words of Elizabeth Gilbert, grief is a weather pattern; one that has a nuance that separates it from other emotions.

Grief can look like anger (Why did this happen?), Anxiety (What will happen?), a sense of lack of control that can turn into bargaining (If I do X then Y will happen!), and denial (It’ll be alright!). Each of these emotional responses can come in non-linear waves and will likely be expressed differently depending on the individual.


Why do changes in our workplace context often result in a grief response?

The grief and trauma connected to workplaces are slightly different because of the role that work plays in our lives.

For most people, work is a third of their life and is deeply connected to their sense of identity and self-worth. If something rocks that, shakes that, or ultimately removes that, we can be left feeling dazed and confused and asking the question of “What does that mean about me?”.

Managers and leaders need to recognize the important role that meaningful work has within individuals’ lives – it is crucial for us to feel a sense of contribution to society, and most often, we satisfy that need by pursuing meaningful work.

Leaders who focus on the reality of loss and provide permission to recognize grief during this time will support their teams to be able to work through these emotional responses smoothly. It is impossible to stop people from feeling grief through the loss that COVD-19 has thrown up, but it is through acknowledging the impact that freedom exists.


Steps to support your team through grief:


#1: Focus on empathy.

Focus on empathy and understanding; pausing to listen to what people share about what they’re experiencing on a personal and professional level.

Make time to check in on how each individual is traveling with impacts outside of work – for example, many people are unable to see or spend time with loved ones; they’ve had to cancel travel plans that have significant meaning and expectation, impacts of those planning weddings or gatherings to celebrate significant events, they’ve even potentially had to navigate supporting children at home, and family members who may be facing job loss or financial hardship.


#2: Provide a pathway to progress.

The role of leaders during this time is also to provide a pathway for progress and meaningful work. The motivation for work comes through seeing progress in the work you’re doing. Leaders who shorten the feedback loop on progress and celebrate the achievement of tasks that support an important goal are key to providing a sense of fulfilment and achievement for their teams.

During this time, it is key for managers and leaders to avoid talking about emotional responses, and avoid comparing the current circumstance to what others are going through in the hope to make people feel better. Grief is not a comparison tool; in fact according to David Kessler ‘The hardest grief is your own’.

Leaders need to avoid glossing over the real challenges of work from home / homeschooling / navigating family uncertainties.

In terms of providing a pathway at work, leaders should avoid painting the picture that everything will be okay if that is not in fact the case. Individuals appreciate understanding the reality of a situation. Clarity is the leader’s greatest tool during times of uncertainty. Be clear on current direction, be open to questions, be okay to share when you don’t know, and provide assurance on the path in front of you today.


#3: Take practical (regular) action.

In terms of the practical things managers and leaders can do to support their teams through grief, here are a few ideas to get you started:

For your teams:

– provide daily and weekly rhythms
– start meetings with a ‘one-word’ check-in on how people are feeling
– celebrate wins regularly

For you, yep you, the leader:

– simplify as much as possible (if that means having the same dinner for a week, that’s okay)
– prioritise sleep
– focus on energy management
– invest in your own network


I hope you’ve found these suggestions and explanations useful. If you need anything at all, even just a listening ear or a place to share what you’re going through, our inbox is always open.