By the time the pandemic fully swept over New York City this spring, Electric’s employees were already in mourning.
On March 18, days after the tech startup closed its downtown Manhattan offices and asked its 145 workers to start doing their jobs from home, one of their number died suddenly and tragically—not from the coronavirus that was swiftly becoming real to New Yorkers, but from an unexpected heart problem. James Stepney, a 32-year-old senior customer-support technician from the Bronx, with a kind smile and an easygoing warmth around the office, had wanted to get in one last workout before New York’s gyms closed. He collapsed at the gym and was rushed to the ICU, where he died a little over a day later.
“He was an incredible person. It was a huge hit,” Jamie Coakley, Electric’s vice president of people, says months after his death. Then her voice catches: “I’m going to get emotional here.”
For Stepney’s colleagues and work friends, the news of his death was an unexpected gut-punch—all the more devastating for coming as their city, their routines, and the rest of their lives were upended. Nor was it the last of the spring’s tragedies for Electric, where another employee soon lost her brother to COVID-19. Meanwhile, the death of George Floyd set off protests through New York streets and national waves of pain over police brutality and systemic racism, especially for the company’s Black employees.
“How do you wake up in the morning and pretend you can come to work after experiencing something like that?” says Coakley. “You can’t.”
And yet more than 147 million U.S. employees are doing so, coming to work under a crushing burden of grief this year. We’re mourning the 200,000 people who have now died in the United States from COVID-19, and the deathbeds and funerals we’ve missed during quarantine. We’re mourning Floyd and Breonna Taylor and all those hurt by systemic racism, in a grief that has been long carried by Black Americans. We’re mourning tens of millions of lost jobs and the financial stresses that the pandemic has created—along with the unthinkable choices for many “essential workers” about whether keeping their livelihood is worth risking their lives or the lives of their loved ones. We’re mourning the deaths of beloved public heroes, including Ruth Bader Ginsburg and John Lewis and Black Panther star Chadwick Boseman. We’re mourning less fatal but still meaningful losses, too—all the postponed weddings and canceled vacations and upended childcare plans and chaotic school schedules that have made the future nearly impossible to plan. As author and workplace consultant Jennifer Moss puts it, we’re mourning “the death of our previous lives.”
And we are doing all of this mourning at the office—whether in the Zoom calls and Slack chats conducted from the kitchen tables and bedroom desks of those who can work from home, or in the grocery stores and hospitals and schools where essential workers are expected to be physically present every day. Yet most employers aren’t prepared to manage any of this grief, many experts warn—or the corresponding stress, anxiety, burnout, and widespread lack of productivity that is already sweeping across corporate America, and that will overshadow the workforce for years to come.
“Grief is not anything we’ve ever tackled well in the workplace. Businesses don’t usually recognize it, but it actually has a huge financial impact,” says David Kessler of Grief.com, who coauthored two books with Elisabeth Kübler-Ross and wrote Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief. “Employee productivity is so impacted by loss, and loss is everywhere right now.”
Long before the pandemic, grief was estimated to cost employers up to $75 billion every year in lost productivity, while employee burnout caused up to $190 billion in health care costs every year. Those expenses are certain to skyrocket after this year, in which at least 1.8 million Americans are estimated to have already lost a relative to COVID-19. More than half of adults in the United States have seen their mental health worsen due to worry and stress during the pandemic, and 75% of employees are reporting burnout at work, with 40% reporting burnout specifically during the pandemic.
Now grief experts, mental-health professionals, physicians, and human resources executives are trying to get corporate America better prepared to handle the biggest risk in business right now—one that, unlike COVID-19, can’t eventually be contained by a vaccine. The effects of this year’s grief and mourning will linger far into the future, they warn—and for employers who are relying on a nationally traumatized workforce, this fallout needs to be addressed as directly as any other business risk.
“Trauma and grief and loss really impact productivity, and people’s ability to concentrate and to be resilient,” says DeLisa Alexander, an executive vice president and chief people officer for IBM’s Red Hat. “This is not life as usual—this is life in a crisis.”
“Grief upon grief upon grief”
This year’s grief, though widespread, has accumulated unevenly. COVID-19 has taken the biggest toll on Black, Latinx, and Indigenous people, who have disproportionately died in the pandemic. These communities also make up many of the “essential” and often low-wage workers who have faced hazardous conditions on the job during the pandemic. By late June, one in three Black Americans knew someone who had died from COVID-19, compared to less than one in 10 white Americans, according to a Washington Post–Ipsos poll.
At the same time, across all types of jobs and levels of socioeconomic status, workers of color and especially Black employees have been affected by the ongoing symptoms of systemic racism—and the mental anguish of watching other Black people hurt and killed by it.
“It’s really complex, compound grief. It’s COVID, where you might be losing coworkers, and then racism as a public health crisis, where collectively your Black employees are losing people on almost a daily basis,” says Angela Neal-Barnett, a professor of psychology at Kent State University and the director of its Program for Research on Anxiety Disorders among African-Americans. “We know that grief upon grief upon grief, in this time of isolation, brings about trauma and very, very high anxiety. And from a Black and brown perspective, the question that everyone is asking is, ‘What next?’”
For Jessica Isom, MD, a psychiatrist who focuses on the impact of racial bias in mental health and who works with a mostly Black patient population at Codman Square Health Center in Dorchester, Mass., “Grief as a conversation is more common than I think it should be among my patients.
“It’s been such a year of powerlessness and misinformation, which is so destabilizing,” she adds. “There are some people who are used to those things and are still struggling—and then there are those for whom it’s very novel.”
Another group of workers that has been disproportionately affected by the pandemic’s mental-health burden are the physicians, nurses, paramedics, respiratory therapists, and other health care workers who have been on the front lines of caring for those infected from COVID-19—and who have seen their patients die in droves, while also worrying about their personal safety. For many health care workers on the West Coast, that stress is now compounded, again, by the wildfires that have become a recurring disaster in recent years.
“We need to be prepared for a wave of PTSD,” says Edward M. Ellison, MD, a physician and executive medical director of the Southern California Permanente Medical Group as well as co-CEO of the Permanente Federation. “This is not in the rearview mirror. We’re going to be dealing with this for time to come.”
A longtime advocate for better mental wellness resources for health care workers, Ellison and his team years ago implemented several such programs. In some hospitals, doctors struggling with any sort of stress or anxiety can seek support in person from staff who are specially trained in mental wellness, who wear purple or orange shirts to signal that they are available for counseling. In the wake of COVID, Kaiser Permanente hospitals increased the multidisciplinary psychological support teams available to employees—while also providing other benefits, like flexible hours and childcare credit to employees suddenly faced with remote learning responsibilities.
Today Ellison is immediately concerned about the more than 23,000 physicians he helps oversee nationally—and the 59% of U.S. health care workers who report a decline in mental health since the pandemic’s onset—but he cautions that no one will be recovering from 2020 quickly or easily. He hopes that the pandemic will persuade other employers to spend more time prioritizing their workers’ mental wellness.
“In this country in general, we need to reduce the stigma about seeking help or talking about your feelings,” he says.
Some large employers are taking steps to do just that—and to acknowledge that all of their workers may need more help processing some sort of loss, even those who have remained healthy and safe and employed throughout 2020.
“My son’s not going to high school for senior year. He’s not playing football, he’s not playing lacrosse, and it’s a very different experience of seeing my last kid out of the house,” says Red Hat’s Alexander. “It’s not the same level of trauma as someone else. But some days, it just makes me really sad that he can’t experience these things and that, as a family, we can’t experience these things.”
She’s bringing that perspective to her role overseeing HR for Red Hat’s 16,000 global employees—and helping them manage their grief at the office. This year, Alexander provided grief training resources for her human resources staff as well as discussion guides related to grief and loss for managers. She also brought in a trauma expert to speak to managers and workers, “to help people understand that it’s okay not to be okay.”
In the wake of George Floyd’s killing, Red Hat also held a series of internal conversations to listen to the feedback of its Black employees, then to communicate that feedback, and some of the concrete steps Red Hat is taking to address it, to all employees. The company is also instituting quarterly mental-health days—when all employees are off at the same time.
“When everyone else is not off, it just creates more stress in some cases, because you’re behind,” Alexander says. “We’re all taking a collective breath, and doing whatever it is we need to do to make ourselves more resilient.”
These steps make Red Hat relatively rare among big companies, where leaders have long struggled to respond well to employee bereavement.
“It’s really difficult for a large organization,” says Moss. “The ones that are doing really good work are overcommunicating, creating training for managers to have these conversations, providing peer support and grief support groups, and enlisting a lot of external agencies to help.”
She and other experts and executives also recommend suspending performance targets and expanding bereavement leave beyond the scant few days offered by most employers (and not guaranteed by law, outside of Oregon). They also cautioned that employers who want to improve their response to employee grief—and contain the costs of lost productivity—will have to commit to patient and long-term support.
“Grief is not a start-and-stop situation. It comes in waves,” says Jocelyn DeGroot, who studies grief as a professor of applied communication studies at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. “Death is forever, and your grief is forever.”
The new normal
As Electric mourned James Stepney and more of its employees lost loved ones this spring, its senior executives grieved both personally and widely. After announcing Stepney’s death in an all-hands virtual meeting and increasing the grief-counseling resources it offered employees, Electric committed to donating $10,000 annually to an IT training scholarship in his name. The company is also renaming its quarterly employee-recognition brunch in his honor and “building in those monuments that will allow us to create long-lasting space for James in the company, and preserve his memory,” Coakley says. “We need to really honor the fact that we lost a friend.”
Electric also instituted monthly all-company mental-health days for the rest of the year, expanded its bereavement leave from five to 20 days, and started allowing bereaved employees to have flexible work schedules after they return to the job. So far, other employees have been able to redistribute the work from those taking time off to grieve, but “if we didn’t have that coverage, we would have hired a temp,” says Coakley. “That would just be an investment that we would take on as a business.”
Many of these policies are expensive—but Electric seems to be thriving regardless. The startup, which provides remote IT support services to companies including Boxed and Resy, doesn’t disclose financial information. But while many companies have laid off or furloughed workers during the pandemic, Electric has actually hired more than 30 new U.S. employees since March. Coakley says that thanks to the booming digital economy under quarantine, the company has had “an excellent year,” financially.
Still, she and the rest of Electric’s executives realize that this year has fundamentally hurt its workers—and that they will need support to continue grieving for years to come.
“We have not been back to the office, and we haven’t had the chance to be together as a group since James died,” says Gabriel Sierra, a senior IT service desk manager at Electric and Stepney’s supervisor. “We’re in a weird situation, where you hope that things will go back to normal eventually.”
But as he knows, the pre-COVID normal no longer exists. “I’ve had dreams about being back in the office and seeing James,” he says. “It’s going to take some time for the team to have closure.”
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