Photo: Joe Houghton via Flickr
Until recently, my life has moved along at a steady pace, with periods of hard work interspersed with concerted efforts to slow down and relax. Like most people, I put in long hours, try to improve myself, and worry too much about unimportant everyday things.This has been the norm for most of my adult life. Apart from an illness in my thirties, I have never experienced any serious interruptions to my work and have always looked ahead positively. Until two months ago, when everything changed during an ordinary midweek evening when I was idly checking my emails. I received a call to say that a close and dear relative had passed away very unexpectedly. I lost my bearings and for several weeks I was unable to think or speak about work. Life stopped, and I didn’t want it to start again.
I realise now that my life had left me completely unprepared for such loss. Shock hit me, like a hard physical blow to my core. Grief followed, dissolving all my certainties about myself and life. Apart from a vague awareness of the work of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, I had no coping strategy: all I could do was to sit still and wait for the pain to pass.
Thankfully, it did begin to subside and I am now reconnecting with life and work. But I see things very differently: I have developed a greater awareness of just how many people are dealing with similar personal shocks. I have been humbled to realise that this is happening all around me, all the time.
In the few weeks since my return to work, I have come across several people who have shared — unprompted — stories of grief and pain. I hadn’t fully appreciated such stories before. One young banker told me he how had just left a rehabilitation centre where he had been admitted for emotional stress following the sudden death of his 27-year-old sister. Another 42-year-old leader of a retail company told me he was fighting his workaholic impulses as his father, brother, and uncle had all died before the age of 50. And a woman partner in a professional services firm confessed she was exhausted and emotionally drained because her six-year-old child was terminally ill.
I now realise I have been working with my eyes closed. I appreciate even more a professor with whom I work occasionally: he always makes the point that leaders, managers — everyone in fact — should never underestimate the importance of kindness at work. Bereavement, the diagnosis of an illness or a personal tragedy can strike anyone at any time. It is the mark of a good leader, he says, to notice the signs and be sensitive in handling such matters.
I recall very well a manager who did just the opposite, when he made a point of asking in an open office why a colleague had been for neurological tests and what could possibly be wrong with him. That memory lasted a long time and certainly won the manager no support in the office.
Fortunately, I have not had to deal with such crass behaviour. My colleagues and bosses have been unfailingly supportive. They have given me space and time to grieve and recover myself sufficiently to return to work. They have respected my wishes to be alone and have encouraged me to take small steps back to normal. Their kindness has made a real difference. Another source of unexpected support came from the U.S. colleagues and friends of my relation, whose warm tributes and shared memories replenished our strength and resolve.
Although I always knew that support is important for those affected by loss, illness, or tragedy, I hadn’t fully understood until now how critical it is in helping people get back on their feet. Of course, business has its own imperative and some people would argue that there is no justification for extended kindness at work. I would remind them that tragedy can strike anyone — including them — at any moment, and none of us can ever prepare for it.
Had I been pressed back to work, forced to meet deadlines, take responsibility, and deliver efficiently when everything around me had changed so profoundly, I would have failed miserably. Instead, I was able to step back, take some time to reflect and reconfigure, and, I hope, get back to normal. Managers and leaders should seek some guidelines for how to support their people.
As ever, I am interested in your thoughts on dealing with personal shocks at work. What have been your experiences — as a colleague or manager? How do you support a colleague or report through such moments?
Your comments and thoughts open up and extend the discussion immensely — and are very much appreciated.
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