COVID-19 has caused drastic changes in our daily routines, from how we relate to one another, to how we work, to how we make sense of the little things in life. Change always entails some sort of loss, and losses have their shares of positives and negatives. The ideas of the growth mindset or “post-traumatic growth” are buzz-phrases about how to bounce back from a loss or from a negative set of circumstances. I love the ideas, but I worry that buzz-trends can limit focus typically, and in these cases specifically, to future aspects of growth without looking at the foundation for that growth - the loss itself. So this article will focus on coping with loss of the workplace through the lens of grief. This is not to be negative, but to leave no stone unturned as we move forward.
Grief is known as the response to the loss of something to which a bond or affection was formed. Grief can be unexpected. There can be secondary losses, like financial losses after someone passes, a loss of freedom through increased responsibilities like care-giving or decreased resources to maintain a lifestyle someone is accustomed to.
A popular model for understanding grief is the Kubler-Ross model, which depicts grief as a series of common stages or response phases to the loss e.g . denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. This model can be helpful, but it can be somewhat nebulous, as everyone experiences grief differently. As a clinician, when I work with folks with grief, I conceptualize the process through the “tasks of grief” model conceived by J. William Worden, that shifts the focus from passivity (stages happening to a person) towards an active “working-through” of grief in a healthy way.
Tasks of grief
- Acceptance of the loss: One of the most common responses to a loss is denial or avoidance. Part of this avoidance is not recognizing the finality of a loss, and avoidance can cause its own problems especially in the long-run. Acceptance allows things to happen as they are, not how we want them to be. It’s allowing what is happening to you to happen. This is where mindfulness helps- don’t change the thought or feeling- accept what is happening because that’s what is present in front of you.
- To Work through the Pain of Grief : Feelings will be mixed after a loss, and this mixed-state can be very confusing. For instance, with the death of a loved one, someone may be sad that person has died but happy they are no longer suffering. They may laugh about memories but feel resentment about things left undone. Part of acceptance includes working through this mixed state of emotions, as well as working through the physical and other psychological changes after a loss.
- To Adjust to an Environment in Which the Deceased is Missing: This task recognizes the loss as the loss of future possibilities with what was lost. We may feel that we lose a part of ourselves that they brought out of us e.g., they brought out my funny side. We may lose possibilities in future milestones e.g., this person won’t be at my graduation. Again, this accepting future things as they happen.
- To Emotionally Relocate the Deceased and Move on with Life: This task involves transferring the relationship to one of presence to one of memory. This is not about replacing what was lost, but trying to ensure our own needs are met now and in the future. It’s not forgetting the loss, but adapting to it. It’s not changing what happened with the loss; rather, it's changing our relationship to the loss. The process of grief requires connecting, working-through, and moving forward.
The loss of the workplace
With COVID-19, people have lost their workplaces by working remotely, working reduced hours, or losing their jobs altogether. Moving away from the workplace can lead to loss of social connection, of routines like commutes (for good or for bad), of the incidental parts of our day, like the positive vibes of street performers on the way to the office building, or of the workplace “wife” or “husband.” My wife and I talk about how it’s crazy to think that we are married but spend 40 hours of our week with other people!
I think COVID-19 has left a lot of folks in shock and that shock is partly because of the loss of the workplace. There can be some gains for those working remotely- the “flexibility,” saving money on transportation costs, having more control over workflow pacing. There are some positive feelings of being home with family, and there are the pains of trying to figure out new care-giving setups or figuring out how to make ends meet. There are adjustments on so many levels as we try to plan to make our lives somewhat predictable. Then there is the constant rethinking of questions like “is this the new normal?” , “how do we adjust to the new normal?” , "what's my future look like at work?".
The eventual return to the workplace
Losses do have their positive and negative sides. What we have gained from working remotely could potentially be lost after the return to the workplace. We may lose the flexibility of remote work, we may lose the intimate social connections made locally or with family members, we may lose some sense of purpose through a change in values. People are going to reevaluate their own circumstances and may transition to different work avenues. Who knows, maybe the idea of the traditional workplace will have changed enough and companies will realign how they use office space. It may rethink our idea of work. But there are things to (re)gain if/when folks return to the “old” workplace. But in moving forward, in order to grow from this crisis, we need to acknowledge the reality of what has happened to us to work-through it.
I also do not want to neglect the grief that people may be experiencing related to the loss of a loved one due to COVID-19. There are self-help resources out there, but if you are experiencing experiencing deeper hardship, there are people who can help:
SAMHSA’s National Helpline 1-800-662-HELP (4357) is a confidential, free, 24-hour-a-day, 365-day-a-year, information service, in English and Spanish, for individuals and family members facing mental and/or substance use disorders.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-8255 provides crisis support.
Sean Snyder, MSW, LCSW is a licensed clinical worker practicing and teaching in Philadelphia. He enjoys Phillies baseball.
Credits: Worden, William, J. Grief Counseling and Grief Therapy: A Handbook for the Mental Health Practitioner. (New York, NY: Springer Publishing Company), 1991.