See, Hear, Feel

EP77: Dr. Ellie Stillwell on emotions at work, including grief

August 30, 2023 Professor Christine J Ko, MD / Dr. Ellie Stillwell, PhD Season 1 Episode 77
See, Hear, Feel
EP77: Dr. Ellie Stillwell on emotions at work, including grief
Show Notes Transcript

Many consider it unprofessional to express emotions, particularly one like grief, in the workplace. Dr. Ellie Stillwell researches work and nonwork relationships and the emotions that are involved, including grief. Grief is a signal of caring, and we touch on how less grief can perhaps be detrimental in terms of less caring and more burnout. Dr. Ellie Stillwell, PhD is an Assistant Professor of Management in the Department of Management at the London School of Economics and Political Science. She obtained her PhD in Business Administration from the University of Minnesota and was previously a Visiting Assistant Professor in the Management and Organizational Development Group at Northeastern University. She has expertise in employee mental health, stress, well-being, organizational culture, identity, and inclusion. She has written on the effects of grief and compassionate action at work. In addition to grief as an emotion, she also is interested in gratitude, pride, envy, and remorse.

[00:00:00] Christine Ko: Welcome back to SEE HEAR FEEL. Today I have the pleasure of speaking with Dr. Ellie Stillwell. Dr. Ellie Stillwell is an Assistant Professor of Management in the Department of Management at the London School of Economics and Political Science. She obtained her PhD in Business Administration from the University of Minnesota and was previously a Visiting Assistant Professor in the Management and Organizational Development Group at Northeastern University. She has expertise in employee mental health, stress, wellbeing, organizational culture, identity, and inclusion. She has written on the effects of grief and compassionate action at work. In addition to grief as an emotion, she also is interested in gratitude, pride, envy, and remorse. Welcome to Ellie. 

[00:00:43] Ellie Stillwell: Hi, thanks for having me.

[00:00:45] Christine Ko: Would you mind sharing a personal anecdote? 

[00:00:47] Ellie Stillwell: This is actually my one year anniversary at the London School of Economics. Moved here about a year ago and have been loving London so far. Really enjoying the different kind of work culture and the different things you can do in London as opposed to different parts of the US I've lived in. That's what I'm celebrating today, my first year. 

[00:01:07] Christine Ko: That's wonderful. You've studied work and non-work relationships because emotions link people in their environments.

[00:01:15] Ellie Stillwell: Work has become so much a part of most people's daily lives. It's an economic reality that we have to work. And as part of that, we've become more enmeshed in our work networks, especially as we have hybrid work environments and things like this. Work relationships actually make up a big chunk of our emotional and social support network. Emotions and relationships become so important at this kind of work, non-work interface. 

[00:01:41] When I talk about emotions, the perspective that I take is that emotions serve a social function to help us connect with people, to communicate with how we're feeling with people. Emotions have social functions that they play in social relationships. So when we express emotions at work, what we're doing is we're trying to connect with someone on that kind of social emotional level of, you need to understand me as a person, as a human. 

[00:02:05] Christine Ko: Could you talk about how grief and compassionate action affect the workplace?

[00:02:11] Ellie Stillwell: I originally got into grief research because I was experiencing grief myself during my PhD. My grandma on my mom's side passed away. And soon after, about a year later, my grandpa passed away. We don't really know how to talk about grief at work. There's this kind of assumption that you are gonna take your three days of leave, which is typically about the amount of time that organizations give people is around three days. Then you're gonna come back and you may get some sympathy for it, or the expectation may be that you've dealt with it and you've moved on. And so for me, when I got into this area, I really realized we didn't know a lot about what grief does at work because the assumption was there wasn't a lot of grief at work, we're grieving at home. One of the things that kind of drove me to this work was wanting to understand how people do deal with those emotions when you can't leave them at home. From my personal experience, part of being able to finish my PhD was actually switching topics and really leaning into understanding what we know about grief at work and what we don't. We don't know a lot, but what we know is that grief does come into the workplace, and it has an impact for not only our emotions and our cognitions and our mood at work, but it can also impact our work relationships, how we relate with others, how we relate with our clients. Ultimately it can contribute to either we go forward in our career and we progress, or maybe we even take a pause and take a completely different career direction depending on what kind of loss we've experienced, right? Grief can be hugely impactful on any part of the career process, both on our day-to-day experience at work, and it can also influence how we think about our work moving forward and the career paths we choose to take moving forward.

[00:03:54] Christine Ko: Like you said, if you are grieving about something, whatever loss it is, like you were saying, whether it's a pet or a family member or job or some other event, illness, that you are just supposed to do that at home or on your off-duty hours. I agree with you. I'm not sure that I'm really able to do that.

[00:04:15] Ellie Stillwell: I know from my part, I definitely wasn't able to keep all of my grief at home. The emotion of grief comes out of the emotion of attachment and of love. The more attached you are to something or to someone, the more intensely we imagine that your grief is going to be. It's helpful to keep in mind that grief is a natural process, and it's a natural emotion that we as social creatures go through whenever we're separated or parted from something that we're attached to. It's part of the process of loving someone and being attached to people and being attached to things is that when we lose them, that hurts. And that's hard to leave at home.

[00:04:52] Christine Ko: Yeah. I recently have been going through some medical issues and I feel like that I've also been grieving. I wouldn't have expected to, but I don't know. It feels like grief to me. I don't know if I'm grieving for lost time or lost health, although I'm better now. 

[00:05:10] Ellie Stillwell: I think your experience probably aligns with the experience of a lot of people who are going through either changing health issues or dealing with a new chronic condition.

[00:05:19] One of the projects that I'm working on at the moment is we're looking at how folks with long haul covid symptoms are dealing with not only the change to their sense of self and identity, but also thinking about, how do they feel they're being perceived at work? We still have this chunk of the population that's dealing with these long covid symptoms that are varying degrees of accepted within the medical community, right? One of the things we, we do ask them about is a sense of loss. One of the things that comes up is this sense that if they didn't have pre-existing health problems, it's that shock, right? Of oh, not only mortality salience, but this is something that's gonna impact me moving forward.

[00:05:57] And also just having this feeling that they either can't quite get back to where they were at work or people are seeing them differently. They've lost this sense of themselves; they don't really know their limits quite as much anymore. Or sometimes they have to take breaks when they wouldn't have had to previously.

[00:06:14] There's a lot of kind of this, I was like this before, but now I'm not. Whether or not we can name that loss. It is a sense of loss in what we could personally do, what we can expect of ourselves. Especially for folks that had a tie to any athletic identity or something like that. When you lose that kind of, I used to do sports and now I can't. There's a lot of loss that goes in with health change in general. 

[00:06:37] Christine Ko: I love what you just said because I think definitely when you touched on long covid symptoms and how some of them aren't so accepted in the medical community. What's interesting to me is I think in general the medical community in a way doesn't accept illness at all. Our goal is to cure people, to fix the problems, to make people better. That is a good goal. Really a focus on, okay, this is a problem or this is a symptom, and how do I just fix that? But as a doctor, I'm failing all the time because I can't cure everyone. As you mentioned, long covid symptoms or just other chronic conditions, they are chronic, and we actually don't have cures for a lot of diseases. Sadly and probably to my, as well as my patient's detriment, I wouldn't really think about the emotions and definitely not grief involved in any illness that someone's experiencing. 

[00:07:34] Ellie Stillwell: In the workplace, we've slowly been moving out of kind of the leave your life at home world of work. In some sense we're still expecting employees to leave their emotional lives at home, and so leaders aren't necessarily prepared to deal with emotions when they come up at work, in particular, negative and difficult emotions like, anger or grief. The workplace is typically a very, "keep it positive with a smile" kind of place, right?

[00:08:00] Grief in particular: how do we talk about grief at work? Sometimes you'll get the, why do we need to talk about grief at work? What's it got to do with the workplace? If you're working in organizations that are adjacent to a lot of death and pain, then a part of your daily work is dealing with the emotional pain of others. Learning how to deal with these emotions, not only as a person, but also as a leader is one place I really think that our science around organizations and leadership could grow quite a bit is how to help leaders not only manage other people's emotions but their own as well. 

[00:08:33] Christine Ko: I think you're right that a reason to talk about feelings at work with colleagues is that sort of maybe a first step to learning how to deal with a difficult emotion in maybe a slightly lower stake environment than if you're talking about a, to a patient about, about, their, really poor prognosis or something like that. 

[00:08:57] Ellie Stillwell: An additional kind of complicating factor here is this idea of timelines, right? I think in most careers and in medicine and people's lives, we like to have some sense of, alright, so I've gone through this, it's gonna take me six weeks or something to recover. With grief, sometimes we talk about this year timeline where, you know, in about a year we expect the most intense symptoms to have subsided. And I think the modern research on grief is really showing that this timeline doesn't necessarily weigh out. A lot of it has to do with the personal connection, with the griever, with the person who's had the loss, right?

[00:09:29] But we still have this kind of perception that three days is enough for bereavement leave. You can go to your funeral and come back and you're good. And that your grief emotions have a conclusion and that should conclude within a foreseeable future. Going back to my grandparents example, my grandma died fairly unexpectedly, and then my grandpa declined in health over the next year. And so it's one where the timing of losses can cascade like that. Grief isn't necessarily a simple timeline of you're gonna get better by X date. 

[00:10:02] Christine Ko: Yeah. Or if you're not better by this date, you're just being difficult and melodramatic or dramatic. Do you have simple tips for people if they wanna start addressing grief in the workplace a little better or more optimally?

[00:10:16] Ellie Stillwell: I can try. It's one of those where when you're dealing with grief, it really depends on the person who's experiencing it. If you're trying to help someone who's grieving, something as simple as just acknowledging that the losses happened, either signing a card or just checking in. That process of acknowledging the loss. Recognizing that you've gone through something and whether it's a card or I check in and say, Hey, like that initial recognition of the loss is actually hugely important. From there, like really just trying to genuinely check in. How are you doing today? How are things at home? And not necessarily like asking about the loss specifically, but if, for instance, if someone's lost someone and you know that they have family responsibilities, it can be something around how are kids doing. Just that regular check in. One thing that we experience a lot with grief is this kind of diminishing returns of support, right? Which I think a lot of times we might talk about in terms of compassion fatigue, but really I think people just don't recognize that maybe I still need support months and months later, even if it's just a little check-in.

[00:11:20] I think the last thing I would say is: making sure that when you're offering support, you're offering it from a genuine, compassionate, supportive place and not trying to explain away someone's grief.

[00:11:34] So for instance, if my grandparents were, 95 to a hundred years old, you may have some people that try and comfort you by saying, wow, they lived such a great life. But focusing on "you shouldn't be sad because" is not the way to necessarily comfort someone who's grieving.

[00:11:49] So really make sure that you're acknowledging the loss. You're recognizing that there was a loss and you're talking about it and you're not afraid to talk about it. Two, providing that emotional support and continuing to follow up with that person. Even just little check-ins. And three, make sure that your support is as supportive and compassionate, and as least judgmental as you can possibly manage. 

[00:12:10] Christine Ko: There's a lot of grief that I think is unspoken and not really talked about in healthcare. Would you have any recommendations on how to change that culture? 

[00:12:19] Ellie Stillwell: Culture change can be really difficult, right? Because a lot of it is systemic issues that prevent us from having more humanistic systems. But I think from the individual level within healthcare settings, what people can do is even just practice that kind of act of self-compassion, of acknowledging when you're feeling difficult emotions. The problem is when we don't take time to recognize that, we still felt that emotion, right? When we completely shut down an emotion and don't let it surface at all, that's when we see heightened levels of burnout, and it can really cascade into difficult things. 

[00:12:51] I think sometimes we have this perception that folks in healthcare are immune to working in these difficult environments. Recognizing within teams that we need to take some time, and if we had a difficult week, let's debrief and let's talk about this from an emotional standpoint or something like that. Or let's, meet beforehand and have breakfast.

[00:13:08] Or, I think a lot of debriefing sessions, which I think are already a part of a lot of systems in healthcare can be turned into kind of these compassionate sessions of letting people vent, letting people talk about what was difficult. Trying to create micro safe spaces or micro kind of pockets of support that people can lean into. A lot of that culture really starts bottom up. Starting with acknowledging your own emotions, acknowledge other people's emotions. Try and turn some of the debriefing sessions around patient pain and things like that into kind of emotional deep debriefing sessions for the teams involved. And outside of maybe punitive action, really just trying to get at, how are you feeling? Because we know burnout is huge problem in the healthcare industry. Recognizing ways to reduce that is really important.

[00:13:54] Christine Ko: There's a sort of a misconception that really talking about emotions leads to burnout, for healthcare, so avoid empathy and empathizing too much with patients because then you will burn out.

[00:14:06] Ellie Stillwell: Yeah. That misconception or that perception, that in order to be successful, I need to suppress my emotions a certain amount is, again, going back to: the reason we grieve is because we care. And so if I am trying to reduce the amount that I am grieving, I'm trying to separate myself from the caring component as well. The reason we grieve is because we care.

[00:14:29] Christine Ko: Do you have any final thoughts? 

[00:14:31] Ellie Stillwell: Thank you for inviting me to talk about this stuff. I think having these conversations is really important.

[00:14:36] Christine Ko: Thank you so much for spending time to do this. 

[00:14:40] Ellie Stillwell: Yeah, thank you.