Archive for grief

Good Grief in Organisations


It is being called the turnover tsunami: the evidence that faced with returning to work people are looking for new roles in unprecedented numbers,. This is more than the annual reflection that often takes place when people go on holiday. It is an indication that the demands that the past 18 months have impacted on how people see their work and the organisations they work for. Something has been lost and they hope it will be restored by moving on. The word grief has been used to describe the sense that COVID has changed not just many personal lives, but also work lifes.

Death has been brought to the front of our minds because a global experience  has impacted on every community. Loss has become more than a personal experience it is a community experience. The word grief describes not just the individual pain of losing a person we love, of time with loved ones, of what we once accepted as normality, and now the word is being used to describe what people may feel in returning to the workplace. That grief may be for the ending of the life that has been created during lockdowns. It may also be for the recognition that the workplace is changed.

Personal Grief

When we grieve we are acknowledging the loss of what we valued.  When we grieve for an individual we are recognising what about them was important to us.  To get through that process and be able to create a different life requires that we adjust and move forward accepting that change. Both of those truths are difficult and our instinct is to resist: to yearn for what has gone, to be angry at the unfairness of what has happened, or to numb ourselves so that we feel nothing as a form of self protection. We may even as Joan Didion wrote in ‘The Year of Magical Thinking’ imagine that nothing has changed, that the person is still there just waiting to reappear, and that the death has not really happened.

All of those personal reactions to the loss of someone we care for can be played out again in how we see the organisation that is emerging as we move through COVID.

  • A sadness and yearning for how things were before we knew the word COVID.
  • An anger at the organisation for what it has done in response to COVID which changes what we do, where and with whom.
  • A numbness towards work that leads to disengagement.
  • A denial that anything has changed in the hope things will return to how they were

In any major change in our lives there is loss, so looking to what we know about the grieving process can be helpful in the context of work as well as in our personal lives.

What does grieving mean in a work context

It would be easy to look towards the Elizabeth Kubler Ross model of the stages of grief, because it has been used so many times as a change model, but the model has limitations.


  1. It was never intended to be seen as stages that people have to go through sequentially, but it often is interpreted that way.
  2. It was based on research on those who were dying, not the responses of those who lived after them. Neither was it designed for change in an organisational setting.
  3. Many people don’t recognise themselves in the stages and sometimes feel angry at the sense that they are only doing grief properly if they follow stages.


More helpful to looking at grief in an organisational context is the dual-process model.

This model captures the process that we live on a daily basis. Humans oscillate. We oscillate between breathing in and out, between rest and wakefulness, between the desire for stability and the desire for adventure.  Looking at grief as a necessary process of oscillation means:

  1. Allowing for sadness
  2. Ensuring that there is also a focus on restoration and of creating something new.

What does this mean in a work setting?

  1. Acknowledging the changes that people are finding difficult. Grief is an internal process of sadness that leads to self reflection and over time a resetting. It is also externalised in being able to talk about what has been lost.  Going back into the workplace, it is going to be important to allow for talking about what people are experiencing as loss, as an important part of being able to adjust to what now is.
  2. Grieving also encompasses mourning: the visible rituals that allow us to mark loss. What is it important to visibly acknowledge in returning to work? What rituals are needed?
  3. Restoration means encouraging people to do new things. Just as repeating the living patterns that once marked a person’s life with their loved one can reinforce a sense of loss, encouraging people to do different and new things can help recovery. Focus on helping people to see value in doing things differently. It is in doing something different that people create the flexibility that is the marker of resilience. Working life will be different, but within that there will be things that were not possible under the old ‘norms’. Helping people to experiment with the new is an important part of moving forward.

 What will help recovery?

Richard Bonnano, Professor of Clinical Psychology at Columbia University has spent his career studying bereavement and his concludes from many studies that the marker of grief is that most of us are resilient. Most people work through what is a difficult process and do live satisfying lives. What helps that process is:

  1. Behavioural flexibility ie being able to adjust the changed reality.
  2. An optimistic outlook that things will work out OK
  3. Confidence in being able to control outcomes
  4. More behaviours in our repertoire e.g. can express sadness but can also recognise when  it is best not to express that sadness.
  5. Being able to identify benefits g. I have discovered I am strong, I never thought I could do . . . without . . . and I have learnt that I can.

And there is one additional factor that emerged from the work of Elizabeth Kubler Ross’s collaborator David Kessler: the importance of creating personal meaning from the loss of that person, so that the person stays with you, even though they are no longer physically present.

Apply that to organisations and it means:

  • The organisation being able to adjust to the changed reality of how work can now be done.
  • Signalling an optimism that difficulties can be worked through.
  • Showing confidence in the future as within the organisation’s control.
  • Responsiveness to the differences in people’s attitudes as they return to the workplace – rather than rigid policies.
  • Highlighting the benefits that have emerged from being forced to think differently about business is done.
  • Building into discussions with individuals the purpose and meaning of what they now want from their work.


Talking about grief in organisations, may feel like a diminution of the enormity of what  envelops us when someone we care for dies, but  there is much that organisations can learn from grief work to help the transition back into a workplace that has been forever changed by COVID.



George Bonnano, The Other Side of Sadness: what the new science of bereavement tells us about life after loss, 2009, Bantam.

Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking, 2006, Harper Perennial.

David Kessler, Finding Meaning: the sixth stage of grief, 2019, Rider.

Elizabeth Kubler Ross and David Kessler, On Grief and Grieving, 2014, Simon and Schuster.

Stroebe, M.S and Schut, H.A.W., The dual process model of coping with bereavement: Overview and update, 2001, Death studies, 23, 197-224.

Grief: The Elephant in the Workplace


Sheryl Sandbergs new book ‘Option B’ has received wide attention because of her profile as COO of Facebook, but its’ real importance is that she has brought into the open a universal experience that receives little attention, that of grief at work. In a society that looks to massage grief into invisibility after the immediate aftermath of a death, she shares how the loss of her husband impacted on every part of her life: from suddenly  becoming a single parent, to  dealing with the demands of her role when her brain was overwhelmed with the weight of loss.  She shatters the myth that we pick up where we left off once the funeral is over, and speaks openly of her lack of focus, her frequent tears, and her memory lapses.  Her colleagues were generous in their support, often the bereaved perceive their colleagues as less than supportive.


They are silent for fear of saying the wrong thing.   They are embarrassed as to how they will deal with the emotions of a colleague so avoid the topic, or offer a mundane expression of empathy ‘I’m sorry for your loss”,  before moving onto business. They ask ‘how are you?’, as though there can be an authentic answer to describe the reality of what the person is experiencing.  As the saying goes, “Other than that, how was the play Mrs Lincoln?” The offer is made,”is there anything I can do?” putting the onus on the person  to define an appropriate  action, knowing the one action they want, the return of their loved one cannot be delivered.


This book will be read because of Sandberg’s career success, but her experience is no different from any other employee, so what can we all take from it to normalise both loss and responses to loss at work.

  • There is no way of knowing if you are saying the right thing, but it  is worth taking the risk of asking the person how they are today. It acknowledges that reactions change day to day, while the bland, ‘how are you?’, invites the platitude  ‘Fine’, that both parties know is a lie.
  • Not naming the elephant in the room of the death of a partner, parent, child or even pet, does not make it easier for the bereaved. It simply makes them feel there is something shameful in the death of someone they love.
  • Don’t ask if there is something you can do – offer to do something.
  • There is a fine balance between offering to take on work for a grieving colleague and their feeling diminished by the off.  Check  in if it would be welcome if you took on a meeting, delivered a presentation, took on an assignment to reduce their workload – or will simply compound their sense that their brain has deserted them.
  • Don’t offer reassurance ‘time is a great healer’, two years on you’ll have moved on or once you’ve worked through the  Kubler Ross grief cycle you’ll be fine.  Grief is not a  programme to be completed, it is a set of states  that the individual will revisit for as long as it takes.
  • Don’t assume your responses to loss will be theirs. Better to be interested in their response to their loss than to see yours as of interest to them (at least in the early stages it won’t be).
  • Give affirmation of what they are doing well at work, as they will be focussed on what feels strange or meaningless, what they have forgotten and when they could not focus.

Most centrally, treat them as the person you have always known. They do not  have a disease, but grief is a large hole in a person.  That hole will never disappear,  but  over time they will start wrapping layers of life around it.  Those layers are paper thin at the beginning, bu with  time they will become thick enough to protect them and to enable them to create a different life.

Sheryl Sandberg’s Option B: Facing Advertity, Building Resilience and Finding Joy  is published by  Penguin Random House