All change is a form of grief

This may come as a surprise, but what we are all feeling during this current pandemic is grief.

Put simply, all change is a form of loss, and our emotional and physical responses to what we have lost is a form of grief.

Over the years that I’ve been coaching grief and loss clients, I’ve seen the parallels that exist between all forms of loss and this pandemic is no different, whether you have lost a loved one, a job or even just a way of living.

The grief responses we typically associate with bereavement apply to all forms of loss and change.

What is grief?

By definition, we can probably reel off the apocryphal top three stressors in life – death, divorce and moving house. They sit alongside 40 others identified on the Holmes-Rahe Stress scale – life events that have been empirically linked to stress and poor mental health.

But every life event on the scale has one thing in common – change.

Change is about moving from something familiar, to something new and unfamiliar. When we move from old to new, we are experiencing the loss of the old - close connections with family and friends, grandparents unable to hug grandchildren, friends unable to meet in a pub for a drink, and the regular rhythm and routine of working life.

Some have lost loved ones, jobs, and financial security. We have all lost a sense of choice and control.

The pain or discomfort we are feeling comes from the fact we are being forced to confront a new reality either that we do not want, or that is so radically different from what we have been accustomed to it is very difficult to adapt to the change.

Why is this important?

Grief can cause a range of physical, behavioural and emotional responses, from loss of concentration and disrupted sleep patterns, through to more extreme responses such as misuse of alcohol and drugs, anxiety, and panic attacks.

When an individual is grieving (due to any loss) they are likely to be less productive. Unsupported grief can lead to more serious mental health conditions, which we know is linked to absence.

Early support and intervention are the right things to do, both morally and commercially.

What can we do about it?

At an individual level, each of us can take steps to assess our own responses to the change. By raising our own self-awareness, we will be better placed to support others - the ‘put your own mask on first, before helping others’ philosophy.

The way we manage our energy is a system and needs ongoing management and practice at your own pace.

  1. Are your responses helpful to you?
  2. What activities help you to feel calm, proud, reflective, and satisfied?
  3. How can you intentionally ensure that you spend time here to recharge?
  4. What behaviours have you noticed in yourself recently that are draining and negative?
  5. How can you reframe these more positively before they exhaust you?

Notice when you are pulled into more unhelpful negative emotions that make demands on your energy without benefit to you and learn how to reframe them and ensure you recharge regularly.

At an organisational level recognise that any team, department or organisation comprises unique individuals with unique responses.

  1. Don’t expect everyone to be in the same place at any given point in time. There is no neat change curve.
  2. Change involves unlearning an old behaviour or habit, and learning a new one. It’s that process of unlearning and learning that can be the source of discomfort. Some people love learning new things, and some don’t. Everyone will respond differently and will need different types of support.
  3. Change is exhausting. We can’t operate in high energy mode for 100% of the time. We will move between high energy and low energy, both individually and collectively.
  4. We don’t follow a smooth linear path - things might feel like they yo-yo back and forth. Organisationally I think it’s more helpful to treat change in a series of sprints and have ways to support people who are emotionally in different places even within those sprints. This requires communication, trust and management skills.
  5. Take a coaching approach to management, and treat every employee as a whole person – encourage conversations that embrace the wider picture, not just the KPIs to deliver. What else is going on for that person that might be influencing their ability to perform or emotional wellbeing?

Gemma Bullivant is an HR consultant and coach.

Further reading:

HR must help organisations navigate change

Change workplace practices to improve health and longevity

Calling on CSR to incite international change

Steps to address grief in the workplace after lockdown

CIPD calls for bereavement leave and pay for all employees experiencing close family loss