In 1969 a groundbreaking book was published by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. On Death and Dying laid out five stages of grief most likely to be experienced by someone with a terminal illness – denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. She later added two additional stages – shock and testing. These stages have been expanded to cover losses of all kinds – loss of a job, a home, a marriage, a loved one. Loss of hope.
Our society is facing losses of all kinds in this pandemic. As individuals and organizations grapple with the challenges of change and uncertainty as well as real, gut-wrenching loss, it may be helpful to reflect on these stages and how the people in our personal and professional lives may be faring. It gives us an opportunity to search for ways to lessen each other’s burden, and to find nuggets that we can use to build stronger, more well-prepared organizations.
Shock and denial
The current shutdown came swiftly and with little notice. Many organizations, particularly small businesses, were unprepared. After the initial paralysis, companies have had to innovate on the fly and search for new ways of doing business.
We are seeing in graphic detail why every company should have a disaster plan that accounts for a variety of scenarios and can be turned on with the flick of a switch. This may include work from home plans, IT adjustments, alternative product marketing and delivery, and financial resource management. Every plan should outline organizational communications with clients, suppliers, stockholders, partners, employees and other key stakeholders, and should be set up to launch on a dime and be easily modified as situations evolve. An information void will be filled quickly with speculation and rumor.
People are being stressed in new and extreme ways. As prospects for a quick fix diminish, anxiety grows. Now more than ever we should be looking for ways to support our colleagues and each other. By getting in front of anxiety and frustration we can dial down feelings that could escalate to lost productivity or dangerous mistakes. Constituents will place trust in leaders who model calm confidence.
As we cast about for solutions, it can be tempting to assign blame or engage in “what if” scenarios. While it is important to learn from the experience, it’s too late to negotiate our way out of it. As we struggle to find meaning, this is the time to reach out to others to develop short- and long-term strategies and solutions.
People who have lost their livelihood have good reason to be depressed, but even people who are still working may be struggling. Humans are social animals and being socially distant can lead to feelings of loneliness and depression. It can dull creativity and thwart motivation. We like to communicate face-to-face, and technology that enables us to hold virtual meetings isn’t quite the same. We miss the human touch of a hug or a handshake to show respect and appreciation.
People working from home may also be managing children’s social and educational needs as well as caring for elderly or sick family members. They may be burned out and exhausted.
This is a time for employers to be patient with employees as they adjust to new routines, schedules and technology. Don’t add unnecessary pressure and be mindful of work-from-home etiquette and boundaries. Focus more on productivity than hours worked. Be attentive, supportive and authentic without being condescending or patronizing. Ask for feedback. Offer honest reassurance and appreciation, especially if you have employees working on the front lines. Check in regularly and be nimble in making creative adjustments.
Testing and acceptance
These stages are not necessarily linear and testing of new approaches has been occurring from the start. As we become comfortable with new ways of working, we slowly accept the situation. Confidence is beginning to tentatively return as we look toward a time when we can get back to “business as usual.”
But we don’t yet know when that will be or what it will look like. We have learned a lot about our organizations, our leaders, our colleagues and ourselves through this experience. We have discovered pools of creativity previously untapped, and interests perhaps forgotten. We have lost some connections but strengthened others. And hopefully we have developed enduring respect for teachers, first responders like EMTs, police officers and firefighters, health care providers and support staff, postal workers, grocery store clerks and delivery and public transit drivers.
Maintaining connection when we cannot be together is a great test of humanity. Let’s use this experience to create even better work environments and stronger bonds with the people that matter to us.
Author: Erin Alderfer