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How Leaders Can Deal With Grief at Work

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Learn what you can do to best help your team deal with grief at work, including how to navigate these tough conversations as a leader and the best and worst things to say.

image of a team at work, with one person on the team comforting another person, beside an image of David Kessler, DDI's guest on this episode the the Leadership 480 podcast, to show this episode is about how to handle grief at work

A 480 PODCAST

How Leaders Can Deal With Grief at Work

32 minutes | December 7, 2021

00:00:00 00:00

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In this episode of the Leadership 480 podcast, David Kessler, grief expert, author, and founder of Grief.com shares how you can handle grief at work, including how to talk to your team about the loss of an employee and have other emotional conversations.

Beth Almes:                        

Hi, leaders, and welcome back to the Leadership 480 podcast. I'm your host, Beth Almes, and today we're talking about a tough but really necessary topic, which is grief in the workplace. We're dedicating this episode to a team member of ours that we lost recently and unexpectedly, Brad Pedersen, who worked alongside us on this podcast and brought so much kindness and humor to our team. 

While we hope not to have to endure these tough moments at work, the reality is that most of us are touched by it at some point. And we know for you leaders out there there's not a lot of guidance or advanced preparation on how to handle these difficult situations. So today we have a special guest with us, David Kessler, who is a grief expert and author and the founder of Grief.com, to talk with us about grief in the workplace. David, welcome to the show.

David Kessler:                    

So glad to be here with you.

Beth Almes:                        

So let's start with one of the really tough questions I'll throw at you. As a manager how do you start to talk to your own team and those outside of your team about the loss of an employee?

David Kessler:                   

Well, I think we have to remember we're setting the example. And so it's important, first and foremost, that the loss is acknowledged and that it's acknowledged as a big event in this person's life. I have a saying that no matter where you go in the work world, your parents are always there. 

Our leaders in work are our authority figures and we want them to see when something huge happens in our life that what matters to us matters to them. So just acknowledging that this is a huge event in someone's life is so important.

Beth Almes:                        

So David, tell me how you start to navigate some of these emotional conversations at work. A lot of us often try to have that professional attitude at work that might be different than how we're feeling at home. We're keeping some emotions outside of the workplace, which isn't realistic in these conversations, but it can be uncomfortable. So how do you start to navigate those conversations as a leader?

David Kessler:                    

Well, if it's all right, before we get to the how I'd love to talk about the why. And because there's a part of us that just feels like it's so uncomfortable. "Maybe if we just avoid this, this would be better." And that's the worst thing to do. So the how is that we do so much in the workplace to help with employee engagement and loyalty. And often we don't understand, when these moments come that someone has died in one of our team members' lives, it is one of the biggest moments of engagement for them and for other people to see how we handle this. This is really one of the signs that your leadership cares.

So I always like to start with that, that know the importance of you addressing this. So when we get to the, "How do you do this?" I remind people, "This isn't a moment you want to be smooth." So many people... Even, for instance, I teach physicians. And physicians will say, "Help us be smooth in giving bad news." And I'll say to them, "You don't want to be smooth. You want to be clumsy. You want to have trouble. You want to look like this is hard for you. It's okay to look like this is uncomfortable." So to leaders, I would say, "It's okay. This is a moment to really look human."

Beth Almes:                        

Yeah. I think that's such an important point that you're making, David, that this is the moment for authenticity, not your polished, professional point of view coming across. This is your moment. It's okay to show some emotions. 

So do you have any tips or "rules of grief" about how you start handling some of those conversations, as they are highly emotional for people?

David Kessler:                    

Yeah. Let me give you some basics so that people can hack these concepts if you would. So one of the first things is to know we're all fixers. Oh my gosh, I'm a fixer. If you give me a problem, I would love to give you three alternatives. "Here's three solutions for you to choose from." I love that.

When it comes to death, it is unfixable. There is no way to make it better. And what people need is to be seen. I often say grief must be witnessed. They want to be seen and heard and listened to, but not given the silver lining or point out how things could have been worse. They just want to be seen. So the first thing we have to do is to listen.

The second thing you want to be aware of is when someone shares their loss, it is that moment to see them and hear them, not to give our loss history. And so many times we feel like, when there's a death that's occurred, we want to say to them, "Oh my gosh, my mother died last year too. Let me tell you what happened." And I remember someone saying after their mother died once that there's too many mothers going around. 

So in that moment, when your loved one dies, if your spouse, your child, your parent, your sibling... That's the only person you want to hear about. So it's completely okay to say, "Oh my gosh, Frank, I've dealt with loss myself and I really want to be here for you," and put the attention right back on them. So that's important.

There's what we call bright siding and toxic positivity these days. There's no, "Oh my goodness, I'm so glad they died quickly." We don't want to say any of that. And in fact I'll talk in a little bit about some of the best and worst things to say, but I think it's just important we just allow them to talk and to listen.

Beth Almes:                        

So let's explore that a little bit, David, of some of the best and worst things to say, especially on those sides of we all have some things we're inclined to say or it's instinct to say in the moment. 

But especially as a leader, your team might remember those words if you make a mistake there. So what are some of the things not to say?

David Kessler:                    

Well, some of the things to not say are, "Oh my goodness, at least she had a long life. Many people die young." Well, if it's your mother who died at 90, you're still grieving her even though people are dying young. 

Unless you are truly in a religious organization you want to stay away from things like, "They're in a better place." Number one, that might not be everyone's belief system. And sometimes you feel like the better place was here with me. 

You want to be careful with things like death by suicide, addiction, even things like smoking to not say, "Well, she brought this on herself." 

You don't want to say platitudes like, "There's a reason for everything." I'm always like, "Yeah. What do you got? What do you got? I could use a good reason." We also don't want to say, "My goodness. It's been this amount of time. Aren't you over them now?"

The other thing is people aren't replaceable. We don't want to say, "You can get married again. You can still have another child." You don't want to say, "I know how you feel," because you actually don't. 

And we don't want to say things like, "Well, they did what they came here to do. It was their time to go," or things like, "We need you to be strong." So those are some of the worst. I'll give you some of the best.

Beth Almes:                        

The better side of it.

David Kessler:                    

The better side. "I'm so sorry for your loss." Another one is, "I wish I had the right words. Just know I care." Third one might be, "I don't know how you feel, but I'm here to help any way I can." Four, "You and your loved one will be in my thoughts and prayers." 

Five, "My favorite memory of your loved one is," and maybe they don't know them, but then you go, "Oh my gosh, Frank, I remember the time you came in and told us about your mother and father's anniversary." Or six, "I'm always just a phone call away. My office is open to you." 

Seven, give a hug if that's appropriate. Eight, "We all need help at times like this. I'm here for you. EAP's here for you," or something like, "I come in early or I stay late. Feel free to talk to me." 

And also sometimes just say nothing. Just be with the person. It's okay to say, "My gosh, this is so big. This is such a huge thing you're dealing with. And I just want you to know I'm here."

Beth Almes:                        

Those are really helpful. And I think too... So one question I have is around when it is a shared loss in the workplace... It's a coworker, it's somebody you all knew, something like that. What kinds of conversations do you start to have at that point too, when some folks are going to be closer to the person? They were more than coworkers, they were good friends. 

Other people, it's a coworker to them and maybe not a friend, but it is somebody that they saw every single day... Maybe more. You see your coworkers more than often your own family and friends sometimes. Are there some things to say that are particularly helpful in those situations?

David Kessler:                    

Sometimes you might say, "Let's all have a little get together or a chat or coffee or something in their honor," or dinner or lunch, whatever it may be. Or, "I want to give people a chance to talk about this openly." And it's so important to, just like you said, to say, "I realize we all had different levels of closeness, so we're not expecting everyone to have the same relationship," because there might be someone who's like, "I didn't know them. I'm so behind in my work. Why do I have to go to this?"

And it's okay if they don't go to this. But I also say sometimes the people who are in the most distress are the ones who will say, "Oh, I don't want to go to the get-together," but you want to encourage them. And I'll say also to that person who goes, "I didn't know them. Why should I come to the get-together or to the meeting?" Or whatever it may be. Well, this might be your time to give support because unfortunately someday you might be the person needing the support.

So it's important to give time. I always say grief needs dedicated time, but it doesn't need a lot. And sometimes it's good to do this at the end of the day so you're not saying to someone right after maybe people got emotional, "Okay, let's get back to work now." It's nice to do it at the end.

The other thing that I think's really important that we unknowingly do to people... When someone does come back after they've had a huge loss in their life we'll say things like, "It's okay. We were fine without you. We didn't need you. It's okay." And we forget people actually want to feel needed and missed. So to say things like, "We're so glad you're back. We're here for you and we certainly missed you. No one can do your job like you."

Beth Almes:                        

Yes. Yes. So there's no saying at this point, "It doesn't matter if you come into work or not, don't even worry about it." It's, "Take the time that you need, but we sure do miss you."

David Kessler:                    

Right. "And we're happy to cover for you. And we want to make sure you have some time and we miss you." Because so many times we're like, "Yeah, yeah, yeah, no, no, we're fine without you." And people feel like, "Oh my gosh. I'm in grief and I'm not even needed."

Here's another basic thing to remember. It's the simplest thing. We often say to people in grief, "How are you?" And even we feel a little ridiculous saying to someone after their child or their spouse died the next day or a week later, "How are you?" 

Of course they're not good. So we find adding a time element... "How are you doing today? How are you doing this afternoon? How are you doing right now?" Implies, "We know you're not in a good space, but we're checking in."

Beth Almes:                        

I love that. You often don't know what to say so you do ask, "How are you?" And that time bound of, "How are you doing right now at this moment?" Is really a powerful tool for people to use. And you brought up earlier the idea of not telling people, "How are you not over this yet?" Or putting your time limit or end date on their grief. 

So when you're dealing with this on your team and at work I know a lot of leaders out there are probably struggling with the balance of, "I don't want to bring something up that people are uncomfortable with, but at the same time I want to check-in." How often and maybe how long do you check-in on your team and others and maybe mention the loss?

David Kessler:                    

Well, I think to consider most people mistakenly believe, "Oh, I'm going to check-in for the first three days and then we're going to pretend like nothing happened." I often will check-in with people for the first month at different times. 

I also put a note on my calendar when you're going to hit the first anniversary because that's often a challenging time. And I will say to people, "Hey Margaret, I'm just checking in with you. I know in a couple of days it's the day that your husband passed last year and I just want to remind you that we're here for you."                             

And I think another thing that we are talking about that it's helpful to know is that you also want to understand about the timing of these questions. As a meeting's about to start you don't want to say, "Margaret, oh my gosh, I heard your husband died. How are you? All right, everyone, we're beginning!" You opened Margaret and her emotions up or Frank's emotions up and then the meeting's beginning and it's awkward.                       

You want to make sure when you ask those how are you today questions, how are you doing, you're doing it when the meeting is over. You're doing it when people can talk. Or you might say something like, "Frank. Wow. I heard the brutal news of your child dying. And we're all here for you and take the time you need. We'll miss you, but we're here for you." 

And then when that person comes back, to say to them, "I know this is really hard and I'm here and available. Just know I'm going to be pretty much in my office this afternoon if you'd like to drop by. And it's fine if you don't, I just want you to know I'm available to you." And just leave it in their hands of whether they want to talk or not.

Beth Almes:                        

And you've brought up a little bit, David, some of the moments where it seems tough because we're combining emotions and personal conversations with work. And as leaders there's a responsibility to still drive productivity because our business needs don't change even though circumstances are really challenging for people on the team, and especially when it's a shared loss by the entire team. 

So it's not just one person you can cover for, but folks are working through this together. So how do you start to handle the balance? Or what can you say to your team knowing that you've all got work to do, and yet you're still definitely struggling at the same time?

David Kessler:                    

Well, a few things. One of the things I want to caution people not to is... I'm such a big, big advocate for meaning. And my last book was called Finding Meaning. Finding meaning is so important, but what you don't want to do is, "Okay. Our coworker's dead. We've got so much to do. Let's all divvy their work up and do it in their honor." It just feels like we're trying to get productivity out of you through death.

You rather say, "Oh my gosh. Frank's work... This project meant so much. How can we all work together? What's a plan we can come together? We don't want what Frank has done all these years to get thrown away. So how can we all make this work as a team? How can we make sure when this new person comes in we don't tell they've got to live up to Frank, because they're not going to?" 

And all those things, that so many times there's a new person who's replacing the other person that we really want to make it easier for them and let the team know, "No one's ever going to be able to do it the way Frank did it." And that's okay.

Beth Almes:                       

I really like that focus on the impact, focusing on, "We know how much meaning they had and what they were doing was so important." I think that probably goes a long way towards making other people feel good too, about knowing that their coworkers are thinking about what they do and appreciating them as well if they were in these situations.

David Kessler:                    

And one last thing I want to say about that is don't be afraid to be honest. We don't want to say, "Oh my gosh, Frank is the most amazing, kind person we've ever had here," if Frank was a jerk to people. We want to say things like, "No matter who you are you mean something to us." And the term I always like to use is, "We loved Frank and we know Frank was a complicated person." If you have to say complicated person, do that. 

Or even if they had a relationship with the company, the workplace, we say, "And I know Frank had a complicated relationship with the company and he still showed up every day," or whatever it may... To be honest about it, not to pretend like Frank was amazing and the most wonderful... It's okay to say, "Things were complicated and we were trying to work through them."

Beth Almes:                        

Oh, what an important point. I'm glad you added that on. And I don't think any of us are saints at work or any of our work lives are conflict-free or anything like that. That's not the nature of it, nor is it about your coworker or the person that you lost being a perfect person, but the specific things that they did to contribute and the value and meaning they brought... What a great point to make sure you're highlighting that with the team so that it feels authentic and not something unrealistic.

So, David, we talked about a couple of different kinds of grief, of whether it's a coworker and then some situations too where it may be someone who lost a family member outside of the workplace. But I wanted to ask a little bit too about another kind of grief, which might be a little bit more broad right now and a lot of people are feeling this generally. 

And I'm talking about grief around changes at work, like big changes. Right now we're seeing so much with people mourning workplaces that no longer exist or that have changed dramatically. They miss seeing their coworkers and they might not recognize that some of the feelings that they're having are actually forms of grief. So have you seen that coming out a bit and how do people deal with that kind of grief, especially as leaders?

David Kessler:                    

Yeah. It's interesting. Grief is a big word for a lot of different losses. And I think of them as big and little losses. I mean, obviously, the death of someone you love is one of the huge losses, but we have micro losses. 

One of the things I miss in my workday is I miss transitions. In the workplace, you and I would be walking to the meeting together. We'd chat on the way. We'd get to the meeting earlier. We'd then leave the meeting. We'd chat about the meeting. We'd chat about, "How's things going, Beth? I heard you had a loss," or I'd share about my loss and then we'd both go take a bathroom break and get coffee. I can't tell you. Sometimes I have days where it's one Zoom to the next and I'm trying to figure out when to go to the bathroom. We miss these transitions.

And the other problem with this world is it is hard for you and I to have those chats we might have had before and after the meeting. So now we do have to say, "Oh, Beth I do want to connect with you on something..." Maybe I know you've had a loss or I've had a loss. To go, "Beth, I wonder if we could hop on a call right after this meeting," because we're not going to be able to have that. 

So there is so much. My goodness, I talk about how our work has come to our home life and it's just invaded it in so many ways for good and bad. So in some ways we've lost the boundary between work and home. Those are losses we've had besides the connection with people.

And I think also we're going to see, as more and more people get added to those of us who maybe once worked in person together, it is harder for them to form relationships. You and I can remember the days we were in the office, but if someone's brand new, we only know them in this 20-minute Zoom meeting. There is no getting to know you besides the minute we gave you to introduce yourself. So there are all those little losses that I don't think we take into consideration.

And there's things like, oh my gosh, weddings being postponed. Think about how that affects days off. You take the days off for the wedding. "Oh, no, it gets postponed. Oh, we got to do it again." You're saying, "Wait, didn't your niece get married already?" "Well, remember that it got postponed last year? We're doing it again. It's the third..." I mean, I know someone, they've tried three times to get married. So there's all those kinds of challenges these days.

Beth Almes:                        

Giving people a little more slack and empathy on that side and making some time for conversations and getting to catch up with people is important for our leaders I think to remember.

David Kessler:                    

And one of the questions people often ask me about grief is they want to know which grief is the worst. Is it a child dying? Is it a spouse dying? I always say the worst grief is your grief. So the truth is the person whose wedding has been canceled and they've been looking forward to that since they were five years old and planning it, that maybe is the worst grief they've had. And that's okay and we need to honor that.

Beth Almes:                        

That's such a great reminder in the workplaces, especially right now when so many people are dealing with different aspects of it, that what they're dealing with right now is the one that's on their mind and there's no, "Oh, well, this one is less important than the other," or, "This person's dealing with this and that's worse than the other." The comparison isn't important. What's important is giving everybody a little bit of space.

David Kessler:                   

And the other thing is, many of us now, we get glimpses into each other's home life more than we ever did. And we begin to see who's in the background sometimes. 

Oh, who's in the background? Our pets. So just know many times the death someone's going to be dealing with might be the loss of their pet who they've had day in and day out for 17 years. That might be their worst loss.

Beth Almes:                        

Those are tough ones. I'll tell you, my dog is in the background here as we speak. So I can't even go into that topic at all.                                   

So one of the things you were also mentioning, David, is these moments of how we react as leaders have such an impact on people, whether we handle things right or whether we handle things wrong and you don't have to answer this about grief... It can be. 

But one of the questions I ask all of our guests on this show is, can you share a moment of leadership that changed your life? Whether it was somebody who inspired you because of the way they handled something in a leadership situation or made you say, "Hey, that's something I will never do that way and I will change things when I'm in a leadership role?"

David Kessler:                    

Yeah. Gosh, I've had some great leaders. I would say the COO of a hospital system I worked at... If you had a loss, she was going to be inviting you in and closing the door. You knew that the door was going to get closed, that it was time dedicated to you, and that she knew that this was different from the other meetings with the open doors. 

And it's just little things like that. Can you talk to someone without your hand being on the door knob when it comes to a loss? So it's those little things like her closing the door when it was that kind of meeting is memorable.

Beth Almes:                        

And I love too when you say that that was a COO. Sometimes there's these perceptions of higher levels of leadership. They can't be bothered with these things or these side of things, but I'm sure that COO had a million things to do with her time. But the fact that she'd always make time for these important conversations with people speaks volumes about her leadership style.

David Kessler:                    

But I will tell you, because I work closely with that COO and the CEO of that hospital system... In the C-suite we were all together. It's so many employees in a hospital system... A three hospital system. You're making sure there's high employee engagement... You're at Thanksgiving you are dishing out the Turkey. You're making sure you're trying to remember people's names. 

And to get, when someone's had a loss... Oh my gosh. Such an important moment to share with them. That's what is memorable, that the COO came up to you and said, "Oh my goodness, I heard you had a loss. I've been thinking about you. I've been asking your manager how you're doing and you're important to us and I'm glad you're back. And if there's anything we can help do to make this a little easier in your work life, let us know." And it just sticks with people.

Beth Almes:                        

Yeah. So that leadership at the top really is... It trickles all the way down and resonates throughout the organization when they show that kind of compassion. So thank you, David, so much for being on the Leadership 480 podcast today. 

Your words are so insightful and I hope for any of our audience who is listening... While I wish you didn't need it, I hope it's helpful for you. So thank you for taking part of your 480 minutes to be with us today.

David Kessler:                    

Oh, I appreciate that. And anyone who needs more resources, we have free resources, additional resources. Your EAP is great. And we have many at Grief.com.

Beth Almes:                        

Thank you so much, David. And to our leaders, remember to make every moment of leadership count.