Grief and the workplace: why leaders need to care

Leila Billing
10 min readJan 7, 2022


A drop of water causes a ripple effect in a pool of water
Alt text: a drop of water causes a ripple effect in a pool of water

All names have been changed to protect the identities of those interviewed.

I am part of an activist collective. We meet online every two-three months and have done so for a couple of years. Before the start of the pandemic, our meetings were full of planning, organising and strategising. As the months rolled by, the group energy had shifted. Group members had started to articulate their pain. They’d share their growing sense of isolation from their colleagues in their day jobs, most of whom — unlike members of the activist collective — had not been impacted by the types of racial inequalities the pandemic had laid bare. Many of the activists had family members living in low-income countries where vaccine access was difficult to come by. Several carried a sense of guilt about their ability to rapidly get vaccinated in the UK while their kin were unable to. And, boy, was there anger. Sometimes our meetings felt like a crucible of rage — at the injustice, the incompetence, the callousness and inhumanity of the systems, structures and leaders who surround us. I’d often leave our meetings with a sense of heaviness.

I kept coming back to these lines from Warsan Shire’s poem:

“i held an atlas in my lap/
ran my fingers across the whole world/
and whispered/
where does it hurt?

it answered

Grief has been a pervasive feature of our lives for the past two years. No matter our efforts to tune it out, to alleviate it by limiting our media consumption, to self-care our way through it, a sense of loss has been a constant white noise that has amplified and quietened as the different waves of the pandemic ebbed and flowed. And what we have been experiencing is a very particular form of grief.

Disenfranchised grief

One member of our collective is Amir. He attended his uncle’s burial, but because of regulations relating to funerals at the time, most of his extended family were unable to join him. He says: ‘I couldn’t hug those members of family who lived outside of my household at the funeral. It felt like a brutal punishment that intensified my grief.’ Aanya is also part of the group. Her mother died during the pandemic — but she was unable to travel to her home country to visit her before her death due to Covid restrictions. Aanya and Amir and millions like them are experiencing a form of disenfranchised grief — a concept developed by Kenneth Doka in 1989, in which he described a situation where our losses may not be openly acknowledged, socially validated or publicly mourned. Disenfranchised grief may mean that we don’t have access to all the usual networks or rituals through which grief can be expressed and processed and where support can be provided. And for those with family members overseas, the ability to cope with grief has been all the more difficult. No wonder people were claiming our little activist collective as a space where they could surface their losses.

I have been thinking about what the enduring prevalence of grief means for the ways in which we are being asked to work — and I have concluded that too many non-profits are colluding in the denial of their employees’ grief. Even fewer NGOs have considered how their staff in low-income countries are contending with the compounded impacts of grief. Over the past two years, as part of different projects I’ve been participated in, I have spoken to/surveyed/consulted hundreds of people working for international non-profits. Here’s what we know: Our in-trays are as full as ever. We are finding it harder than ever to set boundaries around our work and home lives. Unpaid care work continues to fall disproportionately on the shoulders of women. Many employers have acknowledged the difficulty of the situation we are all in. Small concessions have been given — an extra day off here, perhaps an acknowledgement of concern at the beginning of a meeting there. But in many instances, these well-meaning moves by employers have been inadequate. Here’s why.

Institutional denials of grief

Some of the people I spoke to told me that the successful vaccine roll-outs in rich countries meant that their employers had started to default to normal. Here’s Molly, who works for an international development organisation in the UK: ‘Once everyone on my team had been jabbed, I noticed a shift — it was business as usual. The pressure increased, our old ways of working crept back in. All the emotional labour that my job demands still has to be done — but whether I’m jabbed or not, I’m utterly tapped out. I have no emotional reserves for this. But I’m supposed to be positive and grateful that I’ve been jabbed. What can I possibly have to complain about, which is what my manager implied the other day.’ Leaders can learn many lessons on the lingering effects of grief and loss from communities who have experienced collective trauma — the after-effects of this pandemic will persist for a long time, even after case levels fall.

Jasmine also works for an international NGO: ‘We don’t speak about loss in our organisation. Our leaders tell us “change is the new normal” and they rush to problem solve or remind us of all the things we’ve done well in the year and the successes we’ve had. But sometimes I just need to offload about the fact that I’m not going to travel for work in the way I used to; that it’s harder to build relationships with colleagues now that we’re all remote; that it’s so painful to work with colleagues abroad whose families are nowhere near receiving a vaccine while those of us in the London office are mostly safe.’ Jasmine is offering us some gems of wisdom here: leaders would do well to broaden their understandings of grief beyond Western conceptions of loss — which often frame grief as something that we experience individually. In reality, much of the grief we are seeing in our workplaces is collective. Like Jasmine, who suffers emotionally because of the injustice of vaccine apartheid, we can hurt because those around us are in pain. Grief experienced by one individual can send ripples of suffering to those around them. And in situations like this, toxic positivity from our leaders — urging us all to maintain a positive mindset at all times, no matter how bad things are — can feel incredibly invalidating.

The collective grief I have come across has also been about us failing to live up to the promise of what we thought we could become over the past two years. This is certainly true for many of those I spoke to who work for international NGOs in low-income countries. For these people, one of the big tragedies of the pandemic was that their employers did not grasp the opportunity to change for the better — and often it was employees based in the countries where development programmes are implemented who faced the sharp end of the pain. Here’s Frida, an African woman who works in an African country for a large UK NGO: ‘At the beginning of the pandemic, because it was difficult for as many foreign aid workers to work [in my country], many of us in the organisation hoped and believed we’d make progress to shift the power to those people in national offices who should have held it long ago. Finally, here was the chance for national staff to take a lead in ways they had long been denied. But I started to see this terrible dynamic — national staff, myself included, were given mountains of responsibility. We were blamed when things went wrong; but we were also denied the levels of autonomy and decision-making power we really needed to make a success of things. And yet the organisational leaders still speak about the progress they have been making on ‘localisation’ during the pandemic.’

Vani lives and works in a large Indian city for another UK NGO. In the first year of the pandemic, she remembers scrabbling around to find oxygen for her parents who had caught Covid at the time when there was a huge oxygen shortage in the country. She says: ‘My employer was at first very understanding. I took about two weeks off work — but when I came back, I realised nothing on my to-do list had been removed. My bosses felt they were being compassionate by giving me extensions on my deadlines — but the work kept coming in. I worked many evenings and weekends to catch up. I now feel that my London-based colleagues and I are living in very different realities and this is never acknowledged, nor are the expectations on me adjusted. My child hasn’t physically been to school in over two years — the schools in England have at least been open intermittently. I grieve for all those precious childhood experiences my daughter is being denied.’ Like many people working outside of rich countries, Vani’s grief has been driven and exacerbated by a variety of structural inequalities. Yes, we are all grieving, but our grief — and its root causes — are not the same.

Of course, NGO leaders are not counsellors or therapists. It is not their responsibility to ‘fix’ employees’ pain. They themselves may be suffering from their own forms of grief. But it is very important for leaders to be able to understand that, under the extraordinary circumstances under which their employees are living and working, our leadership behaviours have the potential to either exacerbate grief or at least support — albeit in small ways — its alleviation. Furthermore, people and the institutions they work for are interdependent — the experiences of employees shape the practices and culture of an organisation; employee wellbeing affects that of an institution. We don’t leave our grief at the door when we log into our emails and begin our day’s work. This is why grief cannot be dismissed as something that isn’t within an organisation’s ‘ purview.

A different approach

What might a different approach to handling grief look like in our workplaces? Here are some ideas:

· A good way to bring grief out of the shadows in our organisations is by avoiding toxic positivity — or at least building an awareness of when calls for employees to ‘stay positive’ make be making people feel silenced or invalidated. One interviewee told me: ‘A lot of the time we assumue that in order to work in change-making you need to be endlessly positive and hopeful… anything that risks depleting that is seen as negative.’ It may be difficult, but it is possible to balance avoidance of toxic positivity with the promotion of hope.

· Acknowledging that there is something political and structural about the grief employees have been feeling. For example, the loss experienced by members of the activist collective I am part of has been caused by poor political decisions, neoliberal forces and systemic oppression. This has created a specific form of exhaustion and anger among many of us — one that cannot and should not be individualised given its roots in systems of deep inequality. Employees need to be able to express and not be penalised for the full range of emotions this type of grief evokes — whether that is anger, a desire for more radical change or cynicism.

· Admitting that there is an untold story at play in international NGOs: namely that employees in and from low-income countries — like Vani, who shared her story above — are having to contend with many structural inequalities that others are not. This has compounded the grief that they may be experiencing. Our expectations from these employees must be adjusted accordingly.

· We cannot expect our employees to do the same levels of emotional labour we previously expected them to do without putting in place adequate additional support. Emotional labour means different things to different people, but when sociologist Arlie Hochschild first coined the term in 1983, she was specifically talking about the way in which we feel we need to suppress our emotions in order to make other people feel comfortable and to meet the societal expectations of our jobs. Leaders can consider: what are the ways we can reduce or collectively share the burden of emotional labour in our workplaces? Who are we expecting to do the heavy lifting of emotional labour and how does this intensify pre-existing inequalities in our organisations — including between staff based in low-income countries and those in high-income nations?

· Way too many of our workplaces seem to function from a place of tremendous urgency. This urgency does not help employees who may be grieving. Yes, our funders play a significant role in cultivating this sense of urgency and drive for productivity. However, having worked in global development for over16 years, for a wide variety of NGOs, I have concluded that this imperative to always be productive comes only partly from donors: organisational cultures and leadership behaviours also contribute to an endless drive for results.

· Understanding that quick check-ins with employees at the beginning of one-to-ones or group meetings might not be enough. An alternative approach could be to create circles of collective care in our organisations. These are spaces where employees feel safe and supported to speak about loss and collectively work together to make meaning of collective grief. Prompting questions could include: During this time of COVID-19, what do we feel we have lost professionally? How have our professional losses been impacted by our personal losses? How have the losses experienced by others affected us individually? How can we collectively respond to these feelings of loss? What can we do individually and collectively to support us to start to process these losses?

A great example of how this could work comes from the One Future Collective in India, who run open sharing circles in which issues relating to the impact of the pandemic can be discussed.

The writer Elizabeth Strout wrote of grief: ‘‘Grief is such a — oh, such a solitary thing; this is the terror of it, I think. It is like sliding down the outside of a really long glass building while nobody sees you.” By contrast, with care, acknowledgement and attention to how grief is experienced differently by different groups, the burdens of grief can be shared and responded to collectively. It’s a compassionate way to build the kind of workplace we all want to be part of.

Leila Billing is a gender and development consultant. Alongside Natalie Brook, she is the co-founder of We Are Feminist Leaders. Follow her on Twitter: @leilabilling @we_are_fl