We are all struggling with loss, and powering through it is not the solution

Originally published in the Globe & Mail February 9, 2022


January is now in our rear-view mirror, and yet it feels like we are still in 2021. I don’t know about you, but like many of my clients and friends, I have been struggling to gain momentum for 2022. January is always a hard month for many – the holidays are behind us and we are into the cold, dark days of winter. But this year feels different. More than a year and a half into a pandemic from which we thought we had some reprieve, along came Omicron, derailing holiday plans, extending kids’ time home from school and leaving many of us questioning if this is 2022, or 2020, too. Although it’s not 2020 again – we have vaccines, anti-viral drugs and more knowledge – the continued uncertainty and starts and stops are weighing heavily on all of us.

Glain Roberts-McCabe, founder of leadership consultancy The Roundtable Inc., recently posted on LinkedIn about the pandemic-induced feeling of grief, inspired by a recent episode of The Happiness Lab podcast entitled The Eight Pillars of Grieving. While many have experienced tragic and real human loss over the past two years, we have all experienced other types of loss: loss of freedom, milestones, togetherness, and more. In many cases, we have not taken the time to cope with these losses and work through the associated grief, thus leading to a drawn-out sense of languishing.

In the podcast hosted by Dr. Laurie Santos, guest Dr. Julia Samuel, a bestselling psychotherapist, and bereavement expert, suggests that when we experience a big loss, we need to pause and build “scaffolding” to protect our damaged foundation. Ironically, when we are grieving, we often deny our feelings and try to “power through,” which can make the pain worse in the long run. As Ms. Roberts-McCabe points out, the parallels between grieving human loss and the other types of loss we are experiencing can shed some light on what we can do to build scaffolding, or what Dr. Samuel calls “pillars of support,” that can help us get our mojo back and move forward. Here are a few of these pillars:

  1. Express emotions – we need to first name our emotions, so that we can tame them. In many organizations today, colleagues still don’t think they have “permission” to feel, which can, in this instance, prolong the feelings of grief and languishing. Without permission to feel, colleagues can’t appropriately identify and therefore regulate their emotions, which end up affecting them in other unproductive ways.
  2. Mind and Body – Exercise improves our decision-making capability, our emotional sense of balance and makes us feel safe – all things which enable us to better handle bouts of grief.
  3. Set limits – as we grieve, our energy and emotional and mental capacity change. After navigating the pandemic’s curveballs, we may need to set tighter limits at work. This may mean saying “no” more often and also, as leaders, helping our teams prioritize better.
  4. Structure – one of the losses we’ve experienced is in the structure and predictability of our days, which before the pandemic, were defined by our commute and office time. Setting new routines, and adjusting as hybrid working models evolve, provides structure that helps us mitigate procrastination and build good habits.
  5. Focus – mindfulness helps us concentrate on the present and keeps our mind from wandering. A walk in nature, being present with kids or pets, or simply putting away the phone can help recentre our mind so that we can better focus on our work and teams.

Recognizing that grief may very well be one of the emotions some of us are feeling right now, it is important to also prioritize self-compassion and relationships with others. Let’s not beat ourselves (or others) up – we’ve gone through a lot and have done a lot of “powering through.” Open communication is more critical than ever; let others know (and check in with others) about how you/they feel and what you respectively need, while acknowledging emotions and allowing them to exist and pass. Being honest about our emotions with our teams may feel awkward at first, but is a good habit to build. Try starting meetings by asking employees to offer a “check-in” word that describes their mood, or keeping time open for free-flowing conversation, which can help us move forward and increase team productivity and engagement in the long run.

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