How to handle grief and sadness

by |

Almost everyone will experience family trauma or personal loss at some point in their life but many employers are still uncertain about how best to handle such situations in the workplace. Here, one leadership professor offers her advice on supporting staff through times of trouble.

“Be present,” urges Christine Pearson, professor of global leadership at the Thunderbird School of Global Management. “Sadness is often accompanied by feelings of isolation.”

Pearson has studied negative emotions and the role they have in the workplace for more than 20 years – she says executives who remain accessible during times of strife often impart strength as well as a sense of communal concern and connection.

However, while Pearson encourages execs to engage with sad employees, she says leaders should resist any temptation to push for higher spirits or offer advice on how to cope with their sadness.

“Specifically, do not tell sad employees that you know how they feel — you couldn’t,” she warns. “Do not compare their sad situations with your own: Your examples may seem insensitive and irrelevant.”

The Arizona-based academic says employees who have suffered a dramatic loss or personal ordeal often become more detached which can discourage managers from intervening but insists leaders should step up as they have the ability to lighten the burden.

“If employees have experienced a serious personal loss, help them temporarily make work a lower priority so that they can focus on dealing with their grief,” she suggests. “Allow employees to overcome their sadness at their own pace. Help them connect with their natural support systems.”

Some options to temporarily relieve the full burden of work include providing time off or a few days of shortened work hours, permitting affected employees to work remotely, identifying avenues for transferring some of their responsibilities to colleagues, and encouraging them to postpone or cancel work travel.

Pearson says it’s also important than managers are prepared for emotional displays such as crying, which they may inherently find awkward or uncomfortable.

“Many managers confess that they become befuddled when employees cry. Of course, this is not a helpful reaction,” she says.

“To improve, begin by accepting that crying is a legitimate way to display negative emotions – even if you prefer to express sadness or frustration in a different way. Allow employees some time to work through their initial reactions to an upsetting circumstance.”

If leaders can support and offer gentle encouragement to their employees in times of adversity, Pearson says they can expect to see a significant boost in loyalty, from both the affected worker and those who witness the behaviour.

Christine Pearson is a professor of global leadership at the Thunderbird School of Global Management – more information about the role of negative emotions in the workplace, as well as how leaders can address them, can be found online.


HRD Forum is the place for positive industry interaction and welcomes your professional and informed opinion.

Name (required)
Comment (required)
By submitting, I agree to the Terms & Conditions