Bereavement and its impact - a growing challenge for technology leaders

Mark Chillingworth Profile picture for user Mark Chillingworth May 12, 2022 Audio mode
Tech leaders need strong empathy and policy to help team members cope with loss

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(Image by StockSnap from Pixabay )

Bereavement has been right in front of all of us in the 2020s. The COVID-19 pandemic has led to over six million deaths worldwide. In the UK, over 150,000 have lost their lives to the virus, the highest mortality rate in Europe. Dealing with bereavement and its impact on team members and teams has therefore come into sharp focus for business technology leaders.

Most organizations have a bereavement policy document in place; although helpful as a reference, the scale of bereavement the world has faced in the 2020s has highlighted that business technology leaders need more than a document. When faced with bereavement, business technology leaders have to draw on new depths of leadership skills. What follows is uncomfortable reading at times but demonstrates how bereavement and the impact of loss is another new challenge for technology leaders.

Bereavement in IT

Leaders in publishing, transportation, professional services and technology have all recently had to deal with bereavement amongst their team members. Chris Howell, CIO with publishing firm Hachette, says:

Dealing with an unexpected death is quite different from an expected death.

The CIO had a team member lose their wife within four weeks of a diagnosis of cancer in 2021. Howell says:

It was one of the few times in my career where the absence of lived experience was so stark. 

Abby Ewen, Technology and Operations Director at Browne Jacobson LLP, went through a similar experience when a team member's adult daughter died from cancer. Like a number of technology leaders, Ewen is well aware of the strain on IT departments. She says: 

In the last two years, people have suffered, and people are still suffering.

Gabe Barrett, formerly CIO with rail operator Abellio and now a consultant helping organizations and leaders navigate the new ways of working, believes the pandemic has accelerated a change in leadership. Barrett says: 

The pandemic has been a real inflexion point. Organizations were doing things before, but it was transactional. The pandemic has had such a deep impact on people.

Barrett, like his peers, has had to deal with bereavement within an IT team:

A team member lost his 12-year-old son in an accident. Abellio has always done a good job of taking care of its people when the chips are down. When a child dies, it is unimaginably horrific. The hardest thing I have ever done was go to his son's funeral to witness the loss he was suffering.

That suffering is described as "drowning" by Suraj Kika, CEO and founder of the technology firm Jadu. Kika realized that as a business leader, his own organization didn't have the foundations in place to support team members during bereavement. Therefore, if an organization's most valuable asset is its people, then there is increased importance on supporting team members during their darkest moments. Support during bereavement takes two forms, time and assistance following the loss, and then a series of measures to help them return to work.

Space in the early stages of bereavement is vital. Ewan says:

I didn't want my people to say, what evidence do I have to provide? When you are in that scenario, you don't want to have to think about `do I have enough holiday'.

Barrett adds:

It is important that as an organization, we do everything we can to lighten the emotional and cognitive load off people. We are already asking for their creativity and effort.

Howell agrees, and like Jacobson LLP, Hachette is a business that has put in place the foundations to provide for team members, with all staff receiving 13 weeks of sick leave at full pay. When the time is right, team members want to return to work; many say normality helps with the grieving process. Again this presents a leadership challenge, as sometimes employees return to work too early; whatever their personal situation, leaders need to manage the process; Howell says:

You have to work out how and where you don't interfere. I created a return plan and spoke to our team member about it.

I also increased the amount of time we talked to each other, so I saw him twice a week; one was a work meeting, and one was about him, and that structure did help. With that dedicated time, there was a professional part of me and a personal part of me. That line is blurred as the duty of care is fuzzy, and you approach it with all the integrity that you can muster.

It takes courage from both parties, and they need to talk to you about stuff that is inherently personal, so they have to trust you.

Empathetic leadership

During the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns, the need for leaders to be more empathetic rose in importance. Faced with bereavement and a skills shortage, the end of lockdowns does not herald the demise of empathetic leadership. Barrett says this will be a challenge for some CIOs but adds everyone has and can master their empathy. Barrett adds:

For most of us in a CIO role, our job is not a matter of life and death. But the idea that you leave your personal baggage at the door is nonsense.

Every leader has to have a good grounding in empathy. Leaders that are empathetic get much higher performance from their employees. Regardless of the business case, who doesn't want to be a human at work?

This is going to change the course of leadership, Barrett believes:

A lot of organizations have rewarded people by putting them into leadership positions, not for their human skills, but their performance.

But if organizations are to succeed at attraction and retention of talent, in particular technology talent, then leadership tenure needs to be rewarded and based upon the human skills of those in line for the role; Barrett says:

Empathy is not something you either have or don't have; empathy is something we can all show and grow.

The anticipation of discomfort from uncomfortable discussions stops people from being empathetic. As leaders, we have to get better at being uncomfortable. The role of a leader is to step into those moments of discomfort.

For many, a real place of discomfort is mental health. Again the pandemic has highlighted and exacerbated mental health issues in organizations. Technology teams are in particular struggling with mental burnout, having shouldered a considerable burden for organizations. Public Sector Strategic Solution Manager at Splunk Ty Sanderson says:

We will have a mental health pandemic, as we have a group of people that have left school with a reduced set of social skills, so we live in an age of anxiety.

Sanderson is instrumental in the Veterans Transition Programme at Splunk, having spent 18 years in the British Army. I met with Sanderson to discuss Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). In Kika's brave blog post about the loss of his wife, the Jadu CEO describes bereavement as:

The months dragged on, almost in slow motion; the PTSD from the speed and manner in which she was taken from us drew in like a dark cloud over me, constantly replaying those last days and hours in vivid detail. I would be (and still am) triggered by the slightest stress, spiralling me down into some desolate place. It's like having a brain injury.

Alan Hill, Public Sector Director of Strategic Solutions at Splunk and former CIO of the British Army, introduced Sanderson to me when I asked if there was anyone in the Army that could talk about PTSD and bereavement. In an age of anxiety, what do business technology leaders need to know about PTSD? Sanderson says:

Stand shoulder to shoulder, listen and don't advise because they (those grieving) know what to do.

Splunk has created a network and 'safe space' for its veterans to ensure the right culture exists to support its veteran workforce. Hill says this not only benefits the veterans but is permeating into the everyday culture of Splunk, adding that as a result, Splunk is challenging an oft held myth about veterans. Hill adds:

There is either a perception of being a mega-hero or broken, but the reality is in the vast middle. The spectrum of that is what you need to be comfortable with as a leader.

In a post-pandemic economy, CIOs will need to be as aware of the spectrum of bereavement but also the continuing mental health challenges team members face. Ahead of the pandemic, Hachette CIO Howell discussed with diginomica the importance of focusing on wellbeing, and the CIO says the topic has increased in importance and needs to be done in person. Howell says: 

Mental health is only going to grow. There are less dimensions online; as humans, we are equipped to leverage all of our senses.

It is policy

Kika at Jadu only realized that his own organization lacked a bereavement policy when disaster struck his young family. The CEO created and shared his policy when he discovered many organizations were in the same position as Jadu. He says:

Almost all organizations we talked to did not have a bereavement policy. Moreover, many organizations treated bereavement as if it were a passing illness. Many just allowed a few days off, and some even asked for a doctor's note – since their sickness policies were used for bereavement.

Although an essential document, bereavement is not an illness with a defined course and treatment. Barrett says of bereavement policies:

Every bereavement is different. A policy document is what the organization cares about, rather than a prescriptive set of steps.

At Jacobson LLP, the law firm revisited its policies and created Life Leave, which covers bereavement, but also end of life care through to relationship breakdown. CIO Ewan says this has helped with those uncomfortable conversations that Sanderson and Barrett mention. Ewan adds:

The policy is a framework that allows you to have conversations, to tell your people not to worry and to come back when it works for them. It creates an environment of good will.

Former University of Exeter and British Army CIO Hill adds:

It goes beyond HR; it is about sitting with that person and listening to understand. The military instinctively puts a wrapper around people, so if you are a commander, you are responsible for someone's training, help with finances and even their family, so you are completely accountable for them. So we can take the best of this and put it into a company, and when you do, we are seeing a tangible culture of 'I will stand with you'.

My take

Although we hope the worst of the pandemic is over, as our technology leaders reveal, the spectre of cancer looms large. The pandemic has demonstrated to all of us the value and fragility of life. Leaders and organizations that understand that bereavement is not an illness but a traumatic event will benefit their organizations, but more importantly, be true leaders, helping colleagues in their darkest moments. Empathy in the face of bereavement will protect team members and, ultimately, the organization.

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