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Grief, loss, burnout: Navigating a new emotional landscape at work

A discussion to help leaders address complex and uncomfortable topics in the midst of returning to offices.
Bryan Hancock

Supports private, public, and social sector clients through expertise in talent management, organizational design, and workforce development

Bill Schaninger

Designs and manages large-scale organizational transformations, strengthening business performance through enhanced culture, values, leadership, and talent systems

People have had to navigate an all-new emotional landscape amid the COVID-19 crisis. As we look with hope to the post-pandemic recovery, leaders must continue to address complex and uncomfortable topics such as grief, loss, and burnout that many employees will still experience for a long time to come. In extracts from a McKinsey Talks Talent podcast episode—“Grief, loss, burnout: Talking about complex feelings at work”—Bryan Hancock and Bill Schaninger discuss what they are hearing from leaders around the world and how they can improve their approach to organizational health.

Question: Let’s set the stage for this complex topic. What does the data say about the emotional landscape in the workplace?

Bryan: I recently saw an interesting study where more than 40 percent of folks surveyed described a decline in mental health during the COVID-19 crisis. Even more shocking, nearly 40 percent of respondents said no one had called to ask, “How are you doing?” No supervisor. No one. And the folks who hadn’t been checked on had a 38 percent higher likelihood of reporting that they weren’t doing well. Checking in on people is so important. It’s amazing, the extent to which it makes a difference—and also the extent to which it’s not being done.

Q: We don’t normally talk about topics like grief in the workplace. Why do leaders find it hard to open up about issues like grief, anxiety, and depression?

Bill: If you think of the past 25 years, there’s been a shift toward interactions becoming more antiseptic, more sanitized. “How are you doing?” isn’t asking for an honest response. It’s a genericized greeting. Now, we actually want to know how you’re doing. But for many leaders, that starting point is missing. They weren’t talking about it beforehand, which can make it harder now.

Bryan: We worked with a client who tackled organizational health during the pandemic. When we got back the scores and were discussing improvements, the leader decided to tell a very personal change story. She talked openly to the entire staff about what really mattered to her. Afterward, employees gathered in virtual breakout rooms and the quality of the conversation was great. My favorite comment was when one employee said to another, “What you said was amazing. But I didn’t hear the personal part of it, and we all need to hear that. I’m going to wait until you make it personal.”

Q: We understand the immensity of the pain of losing a friend or a loved one, but there are subtler kinds of grieving as well. What do we mean when we talk about grief and loss in the context of the workforce?

Bill: “Loss” is the right word. And yes, obvious and transparent loss involves the death of a loved one. But this crisis has been such a major disruption to our sources of identity and, in many cases, our interactions. For people who spend a lot of time at work, there’s a big gaping hole: What will they do outside it?

And for many, loneliness is real, full stop. Previous behaviors—for instance, going to the gym, going to a bar, or going to hang out at a friend’s house—are often no longer possible. That means the loss of previous sorts of connections, and loss of agency, our own sense of “This is what I do.” Lots of people long for how their lives were and aren’t sure what to do with their lives now. Just even opening with the willingness to have that conversation is a good start.

Q: Let’s talk about returning to the office, for those still working remotely. Some colleagues may be raring to get back; others, no way. How can leaders manage that transition in a way that protects psychological safety?

Bill: Leaders can’t be self-indulgent in calling for people to return. I know a leader who forced the issue of returning to the office, and employees who had reservations didn’t feel heard. That burns down the goodwill credit. This is the moment to anchor on what we stand for, how we know we’re going to have impact in how we run the place, and lean into that by acknowledging what people feel safe doing. We’re talking about lives and livelihoods, not just livelihoods.

Q: What happens once we’ve finally moved beyond this pandemic? Do you expect a more secular change in the way leaders interact with employees?

Bryan: I hope so. One of my favorite people leaders had a saying, “People have a lot of life going on.” That was true before the pandemic, it’s true now, and it’ll be true after. What the pandemic has done is amplified the amount of life going on and given us all a front row seat to it. I’m hoping we now have learned how to have the right conversations and we continue having them.

To hear more from Bryan and Bill on this and other talent-related topics, tune in to the McKinsey Talks Talent Podcast.

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