How to help employees navigate through economic crisis

Rita Milios, LCSW

Because of the current economic crisis, many of your employees are suffering. They have experienced sudden, unexpected, unprecedented losses.
Many have lost their hopes for the future, their expectations of living “the good life” in their retirement years. Many have lost faith in their leaders along with the trust they once had in large institutions.
They are grieving.

Such grief affects productivity in the workplace, as employees have trouble focusing on their jobs, they experience mental confusion, and have problems with memory retention. Others may become short-tempered and irritable. A study by the Grief Recovery Institute (2003) estimated that grief symptoms affecting employee productivity cost employers billions of dollars annually.

While the death of a family member, friend or colleague naturally impacted productivity the most, grief symptoms related to financial losses experienced by employees cost employers $4.5 billion per year, and grief related to other major employee lifestyle alterations cost companies $2.4 billion per year.

Clearly, crisis-related grief is a factor in the workplace and must be dealt with. How can managers help their employees? How can they balance empathy and understanding with the need to get employees back on task?
Many people find “The Four Tasks of Mourning,” outlined by William Worden in his 2002 book, Grief Counseling and Grief Therapy, to be helpful. As managers, focusing on the tasks in Worden’s book and combining them with the following tips will help your employees navigate their grief.

Task 1:  Accept the Reality of Your Loss
Everyone resists facing reality when they fear it, and they fear that which they don’t want to happen. But the sooner the situation is accepted, the sooner it can be dealt with.
As a manager, you can help your employees move past blame, finger-pointing and denial and help them begin actively searching for a solution to their problems. Since many employees are in the same situation, it might be a good idea to call a meeting to discuss the “elephant in the room” issue that may be distracting them from their work. Not only will you demonstrate that you understand and empathize with their problems, you will show that you are willing to work with them to solve them, by suggesting ways to more consciously and effectively move through the grief related to their losses.

Task 2:  Experience the Pain of Grief
Grieving a loss – whether that loss is related to a co-worker, a promotion or a dream – is a tricky process. It is necessary to feel the loss and experience its pain in order to let it go. But at the same time, if your employees become too focused on sensing and feeling the intensity of feelings, they may forget to activate the other part of this process, which is to think through emotions, to analyze them and discover the deeper levels of meaning and opportunity within them.

It might be useful to start your meetings with a relaxation exercise.

Here is a simple exercise that is not only relaxing but helps to dissipate some of the intense anxiety associated with fear:

  1. Take a deep breath and allow yourself to fully experience your fear.

    Notice where these feelings are located within your body (often in your abdomen).  Focus on this location and breathe calmly. With each breath, say to yourself: “I can be afraid and still be OK.” At first, you may feel that you are adding to your anxiety, but within a few breaths, you will feel your fear begin to dissipate. With emotions, what you resist persists, what you notice evaporates.

  2. Now ask yourself the following questions:

  • What tangible losses are you experiencing at this moment?  (Are these losses concrete-for example, actual dollar losses out of pocket today, or are they perceived losses, as in the loss of “value” of a stock?)

  • What can you control at this moment? (Perhaps your emotions are the only thing you can control right now, so focus on taking charge of them.)

Task 3:  Adjust to the New Reality
This task has two parts. The first is to begin making new decisions based on the current economic reality, rather than on fear, anger or hurt. This requires a commitment to change and a decision to act rather than simply feel and experience. Second, it requires managers to help employees move forward into a new, unknown, uncharted reality, no matter how scary that may feel.
Then it’s time to formulate a plan.

  • Assess where you are.

  • Determine what changes need to be made (e.g., cut back on expenses, reduce waste, secure additional revenue sources).

  • With a clear head, begin to create strategies to achieve these goals.

Suggest to your employees that just as management occasionally has to develop a new strategic plan for the workplace when major surprises occur, they, too, may need to develop a new strategic plan for their personal lives. If your workplace offers Employee Assistance Program services, perhaps your EAP representative or human resources person can work with your employees to maximize the potential of their new plan.

Task 4: Reinvest Your Emotional Energy in the New Reality
When it is time to put the new plan into action, the intense emotional energy generated by crisis can actually help. The escalating tension and anxiety that accompanies fear is the result of the mind’s attempt to make sense of two conflicting realities-the one that we wished still existed, and the one that now is.

This mental tension, called thrustration, is a cross between frustration and thrust, the energy behind movement or activity. Crisis brings us to a point where we must do something different. Thrustration provides the momentum to propel our decisions into action. When we get thrustrated enough, we do something.

Encourage your employees to use the energy of thrustration; it is the “opportunity” side of crisis. After formulating a new plan, encourage them to:

  • Commit to an action.

  • Move forward accordingly.

Everyone grieves when they experience loss, and grief adversely affects the workplace. By helping your employees focus on the tasks at hand as well as the feelings they are experiencing, you can help them remain calm during a crisis and think their way toward a solution. And, this will likely have a positive effect on your bottom line, as well as their bottom line.

About the author:
Rita Milios, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, is known as The Bereavement Buddy for her innovative workshops conducted nationwide. A psychotherapist and author of numerous books and articles, Rita can be reached through her publisher, Quality of Life Publishing, at or 877-513-0099.

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