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Disenfranchised Grief

The Benefits of Psychological First Aid When Colleagues Need Support

Around the time of last year’s World Mental Health Day, I was struggling to deal with disenfranchised grief related to the passing of my beloved dog, Autumn. While grief generally refers to the emotional response related to any type of loss, such as the loss of a friend or loved one, “disenfranchised grief” specifically refers to grief that is not usually openly acknowledged, socially accepted, or publicly mourned. Examples of disenfranchised grief can include — as in my case — the loss of a pet but also perinatal losses, abortions, bodily injuries, and the loss of more distant acquaintances.

Empowering Employees to Deal with Disenfranchised Grief

Disenfranchised grief is an issue for which organizations, including my own organization at the time, often struggle to adequately provide resources. Partly this is due to the grief being minimized, but it's also due to the fact that the people experiencing it understand that its supposedly “lower” level of importance marginalizes their struggle and forces them to shoulder their burdens in silence.

Recognizing that there was a need to bridge this gap, I recalled an idea developed by the Cleveland Clinic called “Code Lavender.” This was a crisis intervention tool used to support people in the hospital. Patients, family members, volunteers, and healthcare staff can call a Code Lavender when a stressful event or series of stressful events occurs in the hospital. After the code is called, someone on the Cleveland Clinic’s Code Lavender team responds within 30 minutes. 

These interventions are made by representatives of the hospital’s spiritual care and healing services departments and are used when challenging situations threaten unit stability, personal emotional equilibrium, or professional functioning. Code Lavender uses evidence-based relaxation and restoration interventions to help people meet their immediate responsibilities and make enough sense out of the situation to let more lasting solutions emerge. Research shows that Code Lavender doesn’t prevent burnout or stress. Instead, Code Lavender functions as a form of psychological first aid. According to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, psychological first aid is an evidence-based approach to help people of all ages and their families after traumatic events.

Colleague Support in Tough Times

My own idea, which I later dubbed “Code Autumn,” was more modest but still utilized the power of psychological first aid through a timely intervention in the hybrid/remote work context. I arranged with a colleague to have support on all my client-facing Zoom meetings in the event that I needed to take a moment to collect myself. When we rolled out Code Autumn across my department, I extended similar support to colleagues who were dealing with difficult issues and needed to have someone on a client-facing call ready to “have their back” if they needed some emotional breathing room.

Not all organizations can afford a sophisticated intervention process like the one the Cleveland Clinic deployed. However, a program like this — formalized through outreach rather than informal, under-the-table processes in which people still feel compelled to keep silent about their grief — is quick and easy to implement. Code Autumn also ensures a level of support is immediately available to an employee who is new to the company, their role, or a team, and may not have a social network to lean on yet.  This an important benefit, as Great Resignation trends are still going strong and more new hires are coming into organizations than at any given time than in the recent past. 

Code Autumn is highly specific and tactical regarding what the person needs, which is far better than just telling someone you think might be struggling to “let me know if you need anything." While well-meaning, a remark like that can be both too vague to be helpful and unnecessarily intrusive into the personal details of someone’s life. Deployment is seamless: Code Autumn was introduced across my department on a single meeting call and utilized thereafter.

A Targeted Intervention 

It is important to remember that a program like Code Autumn, like Code Lavender, is not a long-term solution, only front-line psychological first aid. Used properly, Code Autumn can:

  • Ensure a consistent, high-quality work experience for colleagues, customers, and other professional stakeholders
  • Provide a quick and convenient way to let colleagues know you need support, without being forced to share private details
  • Serve as a stepping stone in the process of “getting back to normal” and working at full capacity
  • Function as a tangible and visible way to provide colleague support

It's important to note that this sort of intervention is not a replacement for taking time off work when needed, a way to get training, or a means of securing work coverage if you’re not available for an important assignment. Instead, Code Autumn helps by:

  • Operationalizing a colleague support culture
  • Creating a safe space while allowing the person to reacclimate to work after they have taken time off
  • Not asking as much of the support person as someone you asked to “cover for me,” because this support person might not need to be involved and can be free to multi-task unless they need to intervene
  • Creating a significantly less disruptive environment for customers or colleagues by having designated “point people” on the meeting
  • Requiring less “catching up” to do from the person who needs temporary support 

World Mental Health Day Is a Reminder to Listen to Employees — and Perceptyx Can Help

When I posted about Code Autumn on World Mental Health Day on LinkedIn last year, I was heartened by the number of people who reached out to me to discuss my idea as well as more general issues related to disenfranchised grief in the workplace. Although I proposed this idea through other channels, this is precisely the sort of bottom-up idea that the listening platform and expertise of a partner like Perceptyx can capture — perhaps through a listening strategy that involves crowdsourcing, which is a highly transparent and psychologically safe method of listening that can invite all employees to co-create and prioritize mental health and well-being solutions. The need for more solutions, both big and small, is urgent: as the Harvard Business Review observed in 2021, “the future of workplace mental health demands culture change — with more vulnerability, compassion, and sustainable ways of working.”

To learn more about how Perceptyx can help you hear what your employees are telling you they need, please schedule a meeting with a member of our team.

And if you are currently experiencing grief — disenfranchised or otherwise — know you are not alone. If you need immediate help weathering your storm, please reach out to this free resource that's available 24/7.

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