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August 26, 2022

Coping with Grief When You’re a Leader (and Have to Keep Leading)

7 minute read

Workplace Wellbeing

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Melissa Carter avatar

Melissa Carter

Grief is a normal, natural, and important response to loss. Grieving isn’t limited to the death of a loved one or a pet—it can also be experienced over the loss of a job, a home, or a relationship. 

And while it’s normal to associate grief with the emotion of sadness, grief can also make us feel angry, frustrated, anxious, numb, fearless, and even relieved. It can also cause physical symptoms, like fatigue, headaches, digestive problems, sore muscles, and even chest pain. 

Why grief makes it difficult to return to work

The effects of grief on our mental and physical health is one of the reasons it can be so difficult to go back to work after a loss. 

Returning to work can be even more challenging for leaders, who must navigate the many stages of grief while also handling high levels of responsibility, directing strategy, and managing employees.

So what can you do when you’re in the midst of mourning and still need to lead your team? Here are four ways to cope with grief and keep on leading.

Understand the changing nature of grief

Grief can feel like being on a rollercoaster of emotion. That’s because while there are seven recognized stages of grief, they don’t always happen in order. And contrary to common myths about grief, they don’t all happen all the time. 

People who have experienced loss note that grief comes and goes in waves–out of sequence, unexpectedly, and repeatedly. 

While you’re at work, you may feel a range of conflicting emotions. You can feel devastated on some days and completely calm or even happy on others. Your emotions can change from hour to hour as well. Something as benign as a casual comment on Slack or in a meeting, or even the changing weather, may remind you of your loss and set off a new cascade of feelings. 

When this happens, it can be helpful to remember that emotions are temporary states of being. Try repeating the mantra “this too shall pass” when you’re feeling overwhelmed with grief at work.

It’s also important to honor what you’re feeling and take the time you need to process those feelings, on every level. That can mean excusing yourself periodically during the day for 5-10 minutes to go outside, to your car, or to the restroom for some time alone. 

You can also practice a calming breathing technique, like box breathing (used by Navy Seals to relieve stress) or 4-7-8 breathing (to help calm your fight-or-flight response).

Practice small acts of self-care during the day

When we’re grieving, it’s hard to take care of ourselves. We may not feel like eating and we also may not be getting good quality sleep. Which makes practicing self-care during this time even more crucial. 

Experiencing loss takes a toll on your mental and physical state, and you need good food and good rest to stay healthy and sharp. This is especially true when you’re in a leadership role at work. 

Eating high-quality food

As a leader, you’re responsible for making multiple important decisions during the day, so your brain needs a constant supply of quality food. If you don’t have much of an appetite for regular meals (grief can both increase and decrease your appetite), snack during the day on high-protein foods like almonds, string cheese, hard-boiled eggs, trail mix, or apples and peanut butter. 

It’s critical to balance your blood sugar, as low blood sugar can intensify existing emotions and make you feel more anxious, irritable, or sad.

The benefits of movement

Grief can make us feel like curling up under the covers and hiding away from the world. But research shows that movement can help you deal with and process loss by increasing endorphins. 

An activity as simple as walking, gentle yoga, or tai chi can be highly beneficial. Consider taking a walk during your break or lunch break–even 15 minutes just walking around the building can help you feel better.

Increase your sleep quality

It’s no surprise that grief can make it difficult to sleep. And this can make the next day at work extra challenging. 

Going to bed and waking up at the same time is important—and so is not stressing about not sleeping. If insomnia is ongoing, experts recommend working with a therapist to address both grief and sleep. 

Research shows that cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can be an effective treatment for insomnia. 

Managing “Grief Brain” at work

During a period of grief, you may not feel like you’re performing at your best. Tasks may take longer to complete, and deadlines can be hard to meet. Experts call this “Grief Brain,” and while it can feel scary or uncomfortable, it’s a normal part of grieving. 

How can you manage “Grief Brain” when you’re at work? 

First, it’s crucial to let go of the idea that you have to be perfect or stay on top of everything. Practice self-compassion, and remember that grief requires taking care of yourself and recognizing your limitations while you cope with loss. 

Second, it can be a good time to remember that, as a leader, part of your role is to delegate. Use this time to allow members of your team to step up, explore new responsibilities, and even cross-train in different roles. 

Part of building a healthy, supportive culture at work is helping each other during times of need. 

Finally, if you find yourself unable to manage certain components of your role, reach out to your manager sooner rather than later. Let them know what you’re experiencing and what you think you can—and can’t—handle right now. 

Consider solutions like a more flexible schedule, a longer lunch, or different working hours.

Seek outside support

Navigating grief requires patience, self compassion, and support. While the support of family and friends is vital, therapeutic support is, too. Therapists are trained to help you deal with and integrate your loss. 

A therapist can listen to how you’re feeling, help you explore complicated emotions, and give you techniques for coping with grief over time. 

If your organization offers Spring Health’s mental health benefit, you can get an initial appointment with a therapist in less than two days. Designed to provide the right care at the right time, our personalized approach leverages the power of data to help you feel better faster.  

You’ll start with a short, confidential online assessment, followed by an individual plan that includes access to services that address your unique needs. You can choose a provider with a similar background and life experience from our diverse network, and schedule a therapy appointment in just a few clicks.

You’ll also be paired with a Spring Health Care Navigator, a clinically licensed mental health professional who provides one-on-one emotional support, answers questions, and makes recommendations and referrals.

Navigating work while honoring your loss

Grieving after a loss can be an intense and difficult experience, especially when you have to continue leading at work. Goals, KPIs, and business planning may seem irrelevant in the face of the rollercoaster of emotions that accompany grief.

That’s why it’s so important to remember to be kind to yourself, take the time you need during the day to reset, practice self-care, and get extra support from a therapist. These strategies can help you navigate work while still honoring your grief and your loss. 

Summary of ways to cope with grief at work 

  1. Use box breathing or 4-7-8 breathing periodically during the day to help calm your nervous system. 
  2. Keep protein snacks at work to balance your blood sugar and provide fuel for your brain, even if you don’t have an appetite.
  3. Take walks during your breaks, during lunch, or after work. 
  4. Take time away when you need it to cry or just be alone. Go outside, sit in your car, or head to the restroom for 5-10 minutes. 
  5. Let things be “good enough.” Try to let go of perfectionism. 
  6. Delegate work and allow other people to help you. 
  7. Seek outside support, like therapy. You can schedule your first appointment through Spring Health in less than two days.

Read this blog next to learn how to normalize discussions of loss and grief in the workplace, and ultimately create a healthier company culture.

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About the Author

Melissa Carter avatar

Melissa Carter

Melissa lives in the Pacific Northwest and has been writing for over two decades. She has a degree in Art History and is working toward a Master's in Public Health. Melissa is intensely introverted and really likes starting books (but not always finishing them).