Back to normal? Not so fast: Employee burnout, grief, trauma is real

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While headlines are discussing going back to work, the reality is we’re not ever going back to “normal.” Humans tend to compartmentalize grief and trauma, which often leads to employee burnout. The stressors of the work environment amid COVID-19 (often more hours, all online, job losses, deaths, etc.) can make it so that we don’t address those things in order to remain in survival mode.

When we re-enter work, that mode might flip, and release the things we couldn’t bring ourselves to think about. So, how can you help deal with employee burnout, grief, and trauma?

Let’s explore solutions, examples, and employee counseling.

Do you want the good news or the bad news first?

(Hint: nothing in life is that binary).

Okay, we have to start somewhere, so let’s start with the “bad news.”

We’re not going back to “normal” in (or outside) of the workplace. Ever. Why?

Because over the past 15 months of living and working through a global pandemic, we’ve all experienced a tremendous amount of loss. We’re grieving, everyone around us is grieving, and grief fundamentally changes us in every way. Permanently. Our communities, organizations, and institutions have faced loss, and they too will never be the same.

Take a moment to absorb that . . . but don’t get stuck there.

Now, this may be an unpopular opinion, but I think that’s the good news. What? Yes – I said it – I think that it’s good that we’re not going back to a “normal workplace.”

Why? Well, in a nutshell, it’s because many lack empathy, compassion, and emotional intelligence – the qualities we need (individually and collectively) most to heal and to thrive.

Rewriting normal after the manuscript of our lives was torn to shreds

Loss happens to us, against our will, and our immediate reaction is instinctual and involuntary, too. Yet as the initial shock wears off, the work of grief requires us to rewrite our story. This is true both at the individual and organizational levels.

“Our lives are built by the stories we tell of our experiences. A death, a devastating loss (of relationship, ability, homeland, or even dream), or a traumatic event (like a global pandemic) is akin to the manuscript of our lives being torn to shreds and handed back to us with no instructions on how to rewrite or live our lives. Grief is the journey we’re on as we rewrite and live into the story of our lives.”
-Lisa Keefauver, MSW

So many plot twists

Perhaps before COVID-19, you might have been able to (though inaccurately) list the employees who were grieving. Now, it’s just your entire employee roster, your customer base, and YOU.

Some people are grieving one or two losses (e.g., loss of routine and loss of sense of safety). For other employees, that’s just their base. Some employees are grieving multiple, compounding, and catastrophic stressors and losses (death loss, financial devastation, caregiver fatigue).

Some people have strong support systems, and some don’t. There are even those people who may not identify as having faced loss at all, describing this year as a great excuse to spend more quality time with their kids. The only universal truth is that everyone’s experience is unique, as is their response, and there is no one right way.

Complex characters

For most employees, the losses they experienced were felt on multiple levels including emotional, psychological, physical, cognitive, financial, and spiritual/existential. Moreover, the pandemic brought disproportionate losses in Black and Latinx communities.

“This year’s grief, though widespread, has accumulated unevenly. COVID-19 has taken the biggest toll on Black, Latinx, and Indigenous people, who have disproportionately died in the pandemic.”
MARIA ASPAN in Fortune

 So, everyone is grieving and grieving is different for everyone. Wondering how we even begin to respond? Great question, the answer is…

Ready, set, check: 5 policy points to help relieve employee burnout + grief

The truth is, even long before the pandemic, our workplaces weren’t set up to support grievers of any kind, and that came at a price. Beyond the emotional toll on employees, it was costing companies financially – to the tune of $75 billion annually.

This catastrophic shift we’ve experienced; this shredded manuscript is creating an opportunity to reassess and make improvements for the benefit of everyone.

Given that we’re facing unprecedented loss and a still unknown future, there’s a lot to consider as we create the new normal workplace.

Asking yourself these 5 questions around employee burnout and grief is a good place to start:

  1. How do our bereavement policies align (or not) with our company’s core values?
  2. What does it cover? (e.g., How many days? Consecutive/Non-consecutive? Paid or unpaid? Can people donate their time to others?)
  3. Who does it cover? (e.g., Full-time employees only? Loss of extended family? Neighbors? Pets? Miscarriage? Divorce?)
  4. What is our flexible work schedule policy? (e.g., work-share program? Temp-service availability?)
  5. What other support systems do we have? (e.g., ability to suspend performance targets, mental health days, no meeting days, grief/MH counseling, support groups, mentoring, etc.)

“Even the most well-intentioned + efficient business couldn’t begin to dream of the scenario we’re facing.
The best companies know that the heart of their organization is the people –
what do you do when that collective heart is breaking over, and over, and over again?”
-Jenn VandeZande, SAP

Not so fast, there’s more to check: Questions leaders must ask of themselves when it comes to employee engagement + trust

We all know policies can conflict with other policies. So, check on that.

Less visible – but more problematic – is when policies don’t align with practice. A policy to stave off employee burnout is useless if the culture doesn’t match, and can result in employees not feeling prepared, supported, and distrustful of your company.

So, as you reassess the policies of your organization, you may also want to consider:

  1. What systems contradict with our bereavement policy (e.g., rigid performance targets, use of Slack 24/7)?
  2. Have we engaged employee input and empowered leaders to uphold policies?
  3. Do we know who the main point of contact is for each returning grieving employee?
  4. Are they prepared to create an individualized plan with the employee?
  5. Are they building in the expectation that it may need to change based on employee needs changing?

Did you check the nervous system, too? Best practices to help with burnout, grief, and trauma in the workplace

When we confront the unexpected, our nervous system does its job by kicking into fight, flight or freeze mode without our permission or knowledge. That’s great when we are about to step out into traffic or touch a hot stove. Our modern lives, and especially this past year, have been a relentless string of stressors, which means many of us are walking around with an activated nervous system.

Why does that matter at work?

Well for starters (and middle and end), our cognitive functioning, memory, problem-solving, and interpersonal skills are significantly impaired as our brain goes “offline” to respond to perceived danger. You don’t need me to point out why this isn’t just bad for the employee well-being, it’s bad for business too.

The good news is there’s a scientifically proven, affordable, and accessible solution to help discharge stress: Mindfulness practices.

Inviting you to consider:

  1. Offering on-site/Zoom guided mindfulness meditations
  2. Delivering mindfulness and well-being workshops
  3. Incorporating mindfulness practices into your meetings – this is an easy first place to start

Don’t forget, it’s not just your employees facing a “new normal”, it’s your customers/clients too. (How) are you prepared to support them?

What to say – and what not to say – to coworkers and friends who are grieving or suffering (Let’s end toxic positivity, folks)

Start with honesty, vulnerability, and compassion

After assessing, you may realize you’re woefully underprepared for the new normal. You’re not alone. But don’t let wanting to get it perfect get in the way of starting. Remember, wherever your starting point is, arrive there with honesty, vulnerability, compassion (and a commitment to keep doing better).

You don’t (have to) have all the answers, so ditch the fix

Ooooh this is a hard one. Not just for leaders, who are trained to see and fix problems, but for all of us. We struggle to hold space for someone in pain, but out of concern (and sometimes our own ego), we feel compelled to rush into an attempted fix.

Think about a time when you felt really supported. Now ask yourself – was it something specific they said or did, or was it more about their energy, attitude, and compassion? My guess is the latter (though I don’t discount the value of practical help). So, remember, it’s less about what you say and more about showing up. 

Words Matter

If you’re thinking, “what do I SAY,” I’ve got you covered.

DON’T SAY:

  1. Start any sentence with “At least.” NEVER. NOPE. NEVER.
  2. “This is what worked for my ____, and s/he/they was fine.”
  3. “You’ll be fine, back to your old self in no time.”
  4. “You’re so strong, I don’t know how you do it.”
  5. “Everything happens for a reason.”
  6. “You’re so resilient.”

DO SAY:

  • “I hate that this happened to you.”
  • “I know nothing I can say will fix your pain/make it better, but I want you to know that I see you.”
  • “I don’t have an answer but I’m here to listen.”
  • “I imagine what you need will change over time, so I’ll keep checking in with you.”
  • “Remember, it’s okay to feel…however you’re feeling!”
  • If they’re grieving a death loss, ask if they’d like to share a favorite memory or quality about their person.

Sympathy, empathy, and compassion defined: Nope, they’re not the same

Sympathy, empathy, and compassion seem to get used interchangeably. Lately empathy has been rising to the top. Yes, empathy is key, but compassion is the gold-standard you’re reaching for.

Sympathy is better than silence, but not by much. Remember, although everyone is experiencing different stressors and grief, it’s a universal truth that no one wants to be pitied. It feels distant and further isolates the person who’s already suffering.

Empathy gets you one-step closer. Empathy helps build connection, allowing people to feel seen and held in their pain. But compassion is key because it translates that empathy into action. 

“Sympathy: I’m sorry you are in pain. (Distant).

Empathy: I can’t imagine what this pain feels like. (Shared)

Compassion: You’re suffering, and I’ll do what I can to help. (Connected and action-oriented)”
-Susan David, PhD

Setting the tone: Employee burnout, trauma, and grief require serious solutions that begin with acknowledging pain

One of the ways we can make a better workplace culture is to ditch the fake smile. Though you might be tempted to bring your “just be happy,” half-glass-full,” cheerleader self to work, that kind of toxic positivity is harmful and a deterrent for people seeking support and care. Cutting down on toxic positivity is a great place to start.

Normalize that it’s okay to not be okay.

While it falls on leadership to approve policies, the work isn’t done there. Leaders can be instrumental in reducing the stigma of seeking help by publicly using the policies and services offered by the company. That honesty and vulnerability will do more than any memo or staff meeting speech.

On the other hand, if a leader is back to work two days after a loss, carries a forced-smile through every meeting, or responds to emails or Slack messages during leave, they’ve undone all the hard work that went into building compassion-based policies.

“When norms and ideals clash, people gravitate towards what others do, not what they’re told to do.”
Jamil Zaki in Harvard Business Review

HR is not alone

While it’s absolutely HR’s job to make sure that the policies are clearly outlined, accessible, and available, they’re not alone.

It’s everyone’s responsibility to know how to interact with stressed or grieving employees. It’s everyone’s job not just to uphold the policies, but to know how to show up in a way that helps not harm fellow employees (and customers, too). That isn’t something we’re typically trained (inside or outside of the workplace), so it’s HR’s job to bring in training to help everyone develop the compassionate skills needed.

We’re all a work in progress

As we build a more compassionate workplace, let’s not forget what we’ve learned – what we consider “normal” or “standard” will change, whether we like it or not.

Don’t forget – much innovation and adaptation have also happened over the last year. Let those be qualities you carry forward while co-creating a more compassionate workplace. But instead of thinking of it as a destination at which you arrive, consider it a journey instead.

As you make plans to address employee burnout, grief, and trauma, you’ll need to:

  1. Assess policies and practices
  2. Make changes that align with your company values
  3. Ensure they are understandable, equitable, accessible, and supported
  4. Build in expectations and plans to reassess at regular intervals

Well, I hope (or imagine) you were already a believer in the need for more compassionate workplaces; the good news is that now you have some practical tips to help you get started.

HR, better.
Employees, happier.
Businesses, healthier.
Learn more about modernizing the employee experience HERE.

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Lisa Keefauver

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