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Dealing with grief and loss at work during COVID-19

Grayscale Photography of Woman Touching Her Eyes
Source: Juan Pablo Serrano Arenas
  • August 24, 2020
  • Tags COVID-19, social impact, grief, leadership

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By Prof Arnold Smit

Associate Professor of Business in Society at USB

In dealing with grief and loss in times like these, three themes have come to stand out:

  1. The variety of losses that we are faced with.
  2. Grief and our experience of it.
  3. Leadership during this time.

When looking at the South African economy, some industries, such as hospitality, wine and liquor, and travel and construction, have felt the pressure more noticeably than others. According to Adzuna, an online job listing site, there has also been a significant decline in vacancies relating to domestic and cleaning services, admin, property and hospitality and catering. It comes as no surprise that SMEs, women-led businesses, and informal traders that rely on active supply chains have also been badly affected by the lockdown conditions.

While the above-mentioned losses are more tangible – i.e. the loss of jobs, income, and security – we need to consider the existential losses, such as the loss of community, personal freedom, normalcy and meaning as well.

Most people are familiar with grief in terms of bereavement and confrontation with death. Currently, however, we are surrounded by a different manifestation of grief and loss at a scale not previously experienced by our generation. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we are an entire society in mourning.

Although not everyone will lose a loved one due to COVID-19, it is important to acknowledge that the loss of predictability and stability is worth mourning. We are suddenly confronted with the impermanence of things, place, and routine. There is a disjointedness about almost everything that we took for granted prior to the pandemic.

Some frameworks help us to make sense of our experience, whether for those in real bereavement or those who grief about other kinds of losses. Elizabeth Kübler-Ross identifies the stages of grief as denial, anger, bargaining, depression and meaning.  John Bowlby chooses to view our experience as three phases – defiance and anger, pain and despair, and slow reorganisation of, and reinvestment in, life. These phases, or stages, are not, however, considered to follow a predictable linear path.

This moment in time requires empathetic engagement from leaders through self-awareness, being mindful of others and performing certain critical tasks. In terms of being self-aware, leaders should be self-aware, acknowledge their own experience by embracing it and taking responsibility for their own well-being. They should be mindful of the context in which their team members/employees find themselves, their experiences of loss and grief and pay close attention to possible symptoms of grief. Leaders are further tasked with providing stability and predictability in the workplace where possible, ensuring connectivity between employees, engendering dialogue surrounding loss and grief in order to empower those they lead, providing compassionate support where needed and stepping up to the plate when there is bad news that has to be shared or handled.

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