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On Leadership: Leading through loss in the workplace

In memoriam: Beth Eslinger, managing editor, BPC magazine division


Over the course of my career, I have experienced a great deal of traumatic loss in the workplace. Living through 9/11 when I worked in Manhattan’s Financial District was something that took me years to really talk about. I knew many people who perished in the Twin Towers. Colleagues and friends had loved ones who were killed in the collapse. My apartment was across from a fire station whose ranks had been decimated, and each day I walked past reminders of the devastating loss. It was a time of overwhelming grief, but I still had to run my division at work and provide support for my team. Looking back, it is hard to comprehend how I or anyone moved forward.

Even the intensity of that experience did not prepare me for the pandemic’s lasting effects on friends, colleagues and their families. It didn’t help me get used to the shock of colleagues passing or the deaths of their loved ones from accidents or illness. Each time loss happens, it is a blow to the heart and a punch to the gut. It is hard enough to wrap our minds around loss, but how do we actually lead through it when we may ourselves be grieving?

Grief is a natural part of life, and unfortunately, it is inevitable. When not addressed, grief can create lasting issues for employees, but also for companies. A McKinsey study, “The Hidden Perils of Unresolved Grief,” found that unresolved grief costs companies billions of dollars annually in lost productivity and performance. That report showed that at any given time, up to one-third of senior executives are dealing with unresolved grief.

When we speak of loss we are often referring to someone’s death, but it can be broader than the actual event occurring. Many events can trigger grief, including a breakup, separation or divorce; a family or financial crisis; the death of a friend, colleague, extended family member or pet; trauma in a child or family member’s life; a natural disaster; or a major lifestyle change. Having gone through every single one of those events at some point myself, I know that these losses and extreme changes can take their toll on even the most responsible and well-meaning employee — especially if the organizational culture does provide opportunities to share information or seek support.

Furthermore, one difficult or devastating event can trigger painful memories of similar experiences. This can bring on some of the same responses, such as anger, sadness, depression, confusion, guilt, anxiety, frustration or even fogginess. We cannot just compartmentalize emotions associated with loss, so they naturally spill out at work. When that happens, grief becomes a workplace issue, and therefore something leaders must take seriously.

An article in Entrepreneur magazine discusses how grief has historically not been addressed appropriately in the workplace. Like so many human-centered issues, we’ve historically been trained to have a stiff upper lip and to expect our workforces to “just deal with it.” Over the last few years, however, the workplace has changed. The Entrepreneur article says: “Employers need to embrace this change, recognize when someone is grieving and make them feel comfortable about being transparent and vulnerable. The workplace has a duty to be mindful of employee and worker wellness.”

What can you do to keep managing and working in a healthy manner when you and others are experiencing grief or loss? 

Start with compassion. Supporting your team can be hard when you are also experiencing a loss, so leaders must first give themselves permission to grieve. Your team is unlikely to feel comfortable revealing emotion if you are not also coming from a caring place. If you are not in grief but supporting a team member who is, allow yourself to ask what you would need if you were in their shoes. Grief-specific training for managers can be helpful, even if only to help provide language that assists in difficult conversations. 

Communicate openly and regularly. Being open in spoken conversations is important, both one-on-one and with larger teams. Written communication is also key. Just acknowledging the loss, providing updates and helping people understand what is happening or what they can do can provide some small amount of comfort. Avoiding talking about a loss can send an inadvertent message that you’ve moved on when team members are still grieving. Normalizing conversations around emotion, grief or loss also allows team members to express what they are going through or what they may need. 

Have a plan for continuing the work. It is important to gently address the fact that work must continue while acknowledging that it may be difficult; but it is crucial to offer a plan. This may include determining coverage due to a death or illness, or a plan to fill in while the team member manages care or grieves for a loved one. A plan could also encompass providing flexibility during the grieving process, which will give the team member the time and space they need to heal.  Allowing space for grief may require tradeoffs or compromises, and it is better if they are intentional and acknowledged. 

Review your policies. Providing employee assistance programs and reminding employees of how to use them on a regular basis is critical, but especially so when there is a loss or an event that triggers difficult emotion. Providing support systems, rethinking bereavement policies, or simply providing flexibility can help employees get through difficult emotions and fluctuating schedules.

The bottom line is that grief is a workplace issue, and leaders have choices in how to respond. We can continue the historical approach of putting our heads down and ignoring the emotion around us, or we can choose to acknowledge and support team members’ real pain. That requires us as leaders to deal with our own losses and use those experiences to create cultures that consider our teams’ needs.

Beth Eslinger
Photo by Joe Crimmings

In memoriam: Beth Eslinger, managing editor, BPC magazine division

Our Business Publications Corp. family sadly lost an important member on March 7. Beth Eslinger, managing editor in our magazine division, was part of the heart and soul of dsm and ia magazines and our custom team. Since Beth joined our company in 2020, she was a creative force with endless ideas, high standards and a positive attitude. Even through her cancer diagnosis, Beth embraced her work and left her legacy in stories of the community and through her vibrant personality and fearless character. She will leave a big gap in our company and will be sorely missed by her family, friends and co-workers.


Suzanna de Baca

Suzanna de Baca is President and CEO of Business Publications Corp.

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