Change, grief, and HR: Recognizing how cycles of change affect your people

Person standing at lake - change, grief, facing the unknown concept

There’s no denying the inevitable conversation about all the changes in our work and personal lives due to COVID-19 hasn’t been one many people have wanted to have. But if you’re someone like me, you’re one of the few who has enjoyed it. The foundation of this conversation, enjoyable or not, needs to be grounded in vulnerability, reflection, and execution. Our society has been affected in so many ways, most of which we didn’t know would impact us so deeply. It’s almost like at this stage in the game we’re grieving the loss of what we used to think of as normal.

That thought about the relationship between change and grief led me to ask the question, “How do we keep improving through a continuous trying time of unknowns?” The answer I found, though it may come as a shock, was that the change management protocols and theories we think of as useful in more standard business scenarios can assist in almost any circumstance. We in HR just have to be aware of the cycles of change our people are going through, how change affects them at different stages, and how we tie back to human concepts we all understand, like grief, to move forward together.

Setting the stage: Connecting the changes to the impacts

To get started, let's reflect briefly on the changes that have happened in both work and life as we've navigated this pandemic. On the work side, when I think back, typical business strategy planning for the subsequent one to three years would happen well in advance of when those goals were supposed to be achieved. 2020 was no different, and many corporations in 2018 and 2019 were preparing for increased demand as the stock market continued to rise. In fact, it seemed a huge economic boom was on the horizon.

How changes at work impacted employees

Of course, this outlook quickly dissipated when COVID-19 struck. Almost immediately, companies reacted with furloughs, layoffs, and remote work for jobs that could transition to it, increasing anxiety and uncertainty among employees.

For those still working in person as essential employees, productivity suffered due to justifiable fear over safety concerns.  For those who envied the remote work life and suddenly found themselves in it, they quickly learned that working from home and collaborating wasn’t as easy as they thought it would be. Individuals who’d gone to the office their entire career struggled with working alongside their peers virtually. Across the board, stress increased.

How changes at home impacted employees

All the work impacts we just talked about aside, what about the added pressures of managing our personal lives? We’ve kept our children at home, many for the foreseeable future, and school is starting. Many parents will now be actively involved in managing their child’s E-learning. A recent study by the Workforce Institute stated that “nearly three-quarters (72%) of U.S. employees with children under 18 in the household are anxious about balancing the demands of their job with childcare – including school re-openings, virtual learning, and daycare capacity in the coming months.”

Anxiety over managing these childcare expectations is something I've also seen firsthand. I was on the phone with a customer the other day and she mentioned to her child, “I’m here to help you but I need one quiet hour to present to our board of directors.” As the customer laughed, she then added, “And guess what happened? I was interrupted because his computer crashed.” We laughed but our conversation then shifted into managing other changes like our mental health and well-being.

And childcare is just one example of personal stress. Think about all the other logistical, physical, and psychological concerns both HR teams and employees have had to negotiate at home. Even the general environment itself is a stressor – we've been mandated to stay at home with little personal interaction while facing external health threats. For those who thrive on human interaction especially, depression has increased in the face of these changes.

It’s a lot to take in. Keep in mind, all employees, including your leadership and managers, are trying to manage these things too. So how do we do it together? How do we take what we've learned so far and apply it to our organizational best practices?

Cycles of grief and change management: It makes more sense than you think

In the graphic below, you’ll notice a modified version of the various stages of grief according to Kübler-Ross.  Why grief, you ask? Well, the reality is that grief and change share a lot in common when it comes to our reactions to them. Both are a major shock to our brains that set off similar emotional journeys.

Business and HR leaders must recognize that each person, yourself included, has multiple reactions to the changes going on right now.  And each person may be in a different phase of dealing with the changes we’ve all faced:


Stages of change diagram adapted from Kubler-Ross

When change is constant, like now, we won't have the breathing room to manage or accept it if we don't first acknowledge what stage of change management we're in. If HR can go through this exercise both for ourselves and with our organization's people, we'll be able to quickly understand and provide the resources needed to help protect our employees through these trying times and in the future.

There are many ways we can mitigate the business impact of major changes like COVID-19 by simply communicating clearly and creating a sense of autonomy within our organizations. To do this, you need a few key ingredients:

Conclusion: Connecting with the personal to improve the professional

The past few months have taught me lessons I never thought I wanted to learn. I miss traveling and visiting my clients, colleagues, and customers face-to-face. However, in my virtual discussions with customers, I’ve taken heart from the fact that we are resilient.  I’ve witnessed organizations rise to the occasion. As we look forward, a continuation of promoting a healthy lifestyle and well-being for employees are a must. Now is a great time to measure flight risks, provide ample resources around mental health, take another look at benefits, and fine-tune return to work procedures.  

Keep conversations alive and make sure you are operating with a safety-first mentality.  When initiating a major change, don’t hesitate to review Lewin’s 3 Step Change Model or the ADKAR methodology, both of which are useful frameworks.  Also, don't forget about the impact HR technology has on change management, especially during tough times. I encourage you to read our playbook for HR technology in times of crisis, which lays out some strategies for taking what we've learned and making it repeatable.

Get your playbook