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The walls within: working with defenses against otherness

Online Conference 5-11 July 2021

AM22-PP17: Enable grieving to pave the way for the future

Parallel Papers Session 5
Sunday 3 July 10.15am-11.30am CEST
Paper Code: PP17
CE credits available

Enable grieving to pave the way for the future

Presenter: Akansha Chojher


“Only if we had shut the offices two weeks ago, he would still be with us.” John Smith, a 26-year-old Digital Marketing Manager at a media agency lamented; two months after losing a colleague of the same age to COVID-19.

In his mind, the death could have been avoided had the organization shut its offices in March 2020. However, not all institutions have had the privilege of allowing employees to work from home. Further, there are also organizations which have lost employees despite having shut offices, proactively organised vaccination drives, and done everything to support employees and their families during the pandemic.

Over the last 18 months, organizations have mourned the loss of colleagues over Zoom Calls, Teams Meetings and Telegram Chats; they have also planned ‘drive- through’ memorial services with messages of support for family members who can’t step out of the boundary of their homes or receive sympathies in person. But have we really mourned the grief of having lost over 20 million years of life?[1]

In this context, what is the role that organizations have to play? To answer “none” is an obvious simplification. A more nuanced question would be to examine the extent of the organization’s role - should it support only those colleagues who have been directly impacted. In an unprecedented scenario like the one induced by the pandemic, how does an organization decide who is directly impacted? Grief is multi-layered and multi-faceted. An individual’s grief can be projected into the larger organization system. Through the cycle of projection and projective identification, it can also spread across the organization.

What are the underlying assumptions of the leaders who are involved in deciding how the organization supports grief? Do they do it because, “everyone is doing something and we have to too”, or because it forms the right moral narrative or maybe they view the grief as disruptive to the functioning of the organization and its goals. Unlike goals, grieving cannot be accomplished within established timelines. Grief pertaining to an incident can accumulate over previous experiences, creating a cumulative weight of present and previous grief.

In such a scenario how does the organization (re)align its employees to its medium-term or its more near-term goals. My research interest is to explore this phenomenon and its contribution to The Great Resignation[2] wave gripping organizations across the world.

As a consultant – researcher working with various organizations, my hypothesis is that an organization’s role may have to start by ‘meeting the employees’ where they are. At the organization level, there may be a need, to recognize grieving as a restorative process, and to help those affected to deal adequately with it. The organization may also have to invest in re-imagining the future with its employees instead of identifying ways to re-engage with the previous versions. The paper will explore my own experiences as also the data that emerges from focused group discussions with leaders from other organizations.

Another dimension that I am curious to explore are the boundaries and roles of leaders in grieving. David Kessler, the author of Finding Meaning postulates that “Grief is not anything we’ve ever tackled well in the workplace.” The fact is that we haven’t had such widespread grief to navigate before this. In the context of the quantum of grief that may be currently present, is it time for organizations to create a new role of Chief Grieving Officer or is the future more in need of fluidity in the roles and boundaries of leaders to meet the employees where they are at?

[1] The researchers calculate years of life lost (YLL) across 81 countries due to COVID19 attributable deaths, and also conduct an analysis based on estimated excess deaths. We find that over 20.5 million years of life have been lost to COVID-19 globally.


Learning Objectives

After this session Participants will be able to:

  1. Recognize the organizational social responses against anxiety driven by the pandemic.
  2. Identify markers for grief of loss brought about by the pandemic, beyond bereavement.
  3. Identify and establish connections between the pandemic, melancholia and the great resignation wave.

Biographic Summary

Akansha Chojher comes with nearly two decades of experience as a HR professional. Her last full-time assignment was with KFC in India as Director Human Resources. Currently she is a student, a coach and a consultant. A growing appreciation of the psychoanalytic perspective led her to pursue her Professional Doctorate from Tavistock and Portman NHS Trust, London. She has completed a Executive Masters in Change from INSEAD. Akansha is also a passionate advocate and serves on the board of a not-for-profit organisation focused on vulnerable youth and children in India.