3 Ways Leaders Can Respond to Collective Grief During the Age of COVID-19.

Photo by Karim MANJRA on Unsplash

The COV-risis of 2020

It’s been 3 weeks since the University where I teach announced that we would finish out the semester online. Like many of you, I was suddenly thrust into crisis mode as I found myself transitioning my team of 20 Teaching Assistants and 900+ students to an online format. At the time, there was such a whirlwind of planning and executing, I didn't have the physical or emotional capacity to think about anything else. But now as the dust has begun to settle and I've moved into a “new normal,” I've had more time to consider and process my feelings about the entire situation - feelings of panic, fear, anxiety and grief.

And I've realized I'm not alone.

Collective Grief

In the midst of this global pandemic, we're all experiencing a collective sense of loss.

Loss of normalcy and routines.

Loss of connections with colleagues, friends, and loved ones.

Loss of plans and traditions.

Loss of jobs and financial security.

Devastating loss of life on a personal and community level.

All of that loss, from the important right down to the trivial, is triggering our grief response.

We are a nation and a world in mourning.

David Kessler, a foremost expert on grief and founder of www.grief.com states: “We are grieving on a micro and macro level.” In addition to the overwhelming sense of loss, Kessler points out that we're feeling another type of grief, anticipatory grief, as well:

" Anticipatory grief is that feeling we get about what the future holds when we’re uncertain. With a virus, this kind of grief is so confusing for people. Our primitive mind knows something bad is happening, but you can’t see it.”

With so much grief surrounding us, it's not surprising that those feelings can interfere with our work. Lack of concentration and de-motivation are not uncommon struggles as we try our best to do our jobs in the midst of this crisis.

Collective grief also presents a unique challenge for leaders. How can you continue to coach your team towards some semblance of productivity, while also acknowledging and helping them through their grief? Read on for 3 practical ways you can help your team members process their emotions in the coming weeks and months.

3 Ways You Can Lead Well During Times of Collective Grief and Loss

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1. Acknowledge Your Collective Grief

If you haven't done so already, take some time with your team to talk about your feelings. Some of your team members may feel isolated and alone in their sadness and may not realize others feel the same way. Other team members may be aware that they're uncomfortable or sad, but they may not have realized that what they are experiencing is grief. Even the act of naming those feelings of grief can empower your team members. Not only will it provide them with a term to use to communicate those feelings to others, it can also help them move through their grief. Kessler goes on to say:

“When you name it, you feel it and it moves through you. Emotions need motion. It’s important we acknowledge what we go through”.

Photo by Karim MANJRA on Unsplash

2. Demonstrate Compassion

We know from research conducted after 9/11 that compassion is important for leaders to display during times of collective grief.

As stated in a Harvard Business Review article back in 2002, “There is, however, something leaders can do in times of collective pain and confusion. By the very nature of your position, you can help individuals and companies begin to heal by taking actions that demonstrate your own compassion, thereby unleashing a compassionate response throughout the whole organization.” According to research at the University of Michigan and the University of British Columbia’s CompassionLab, organizations can either suppress compassion or create an environment where compassion is encouraged. Even more remarkable, if organizations are willing to communicate about compassion, it will typically spread throughout the organization.

Here are a few questions you can ask yourself as you think this through:

  • In what ways can I demonstrate and communicate compassion with my team during this unprecedented time?

  • How can I better involve my team in these efforts?

  • How can I create an environment where compassion is recognized and nurtured?

Beginning to answer these questions can help move the focus of your team to a positive alternative as they work through their grief.

3. Be on Guard for Signs of Depression

One danger of collective grief is that it can easily mask signs of serious depression. As a leader it's crucial that you stay vigilant and in regular contact with your team members as they transition to, and continue to, work from home.

How do you know if what you or your teammates are experiencing is grief or depression?

Licensed Professional Counselor, Brenda Coomer Black says that “grieving comes and goes, there will be waves, but if there’s a persistent sadness, a persistent feeling of loss or even [lack of] desire to do normal things, that’s when you need to seek some professional help.”

Photo by Ian Espinosa on Unsplash

Other signs of depression can include:

  • Trouble concentrating, remembering details, and making decisions

  • Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, and helplessness

  • Pessimism and hopelessness

  • Insomnia, early-morning wakefulness, or sleeping too much

  • Irritability

  • Digestive problems that don't get better, even with treatment

  • Persistent sad, anxious, or "empty" feelings

  • Suicidal thoughts or attempts

[For a complete list of symptoms and more information about depression, visit WebMD or reach out to a licensed counselor in your area.]

As a leader, it can be important for you to know the differences between grief and depression and to be able to communicate them clearly with your team. It's also important to familiarize yourself with the resources your company provides for mental health issues and share information regarding those resources with your team members often as this crisis continues to unfold.

We're All In This Together

The truth is that this is our generation's first global pandemic and there isn't a guide book on what exactly we should do in this situation. We can only do our best, try to be as wise and kind in our dealings with each other as we can, and remember that we are not alone. By naming and talking about collective grief with your team, demonstrating compassion, and watching out for team members that may need some additional help, you can help forge the way to a better tomorrow.

Because at the end of the day, we may not know exactly everything to do, but one thing we do know is:

We're all in this together.

How do you effectively lead teams while they're working from home?

Download our free guide by clicking here, and you'll be equipped to:

1. understand current research on remote work and the preferences of remote workers.

2. implement best practices for leading remote employees.

3. grow in confidence about your ability to create a highly engaged remote team.

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