Why the best employees may struggle the most with loss

4 min read

High performers in the workplace have a lot of things in common: They are more likely to tackle problems head on, with logic, tenacity, and assertiveness. They are used to being able to cut through difficulties and resolve issues quickly. And they are people that others turn to for help—but not necessarily the other way around.

When a star performer has suffered a traumatic loss, however, these qualities may make the grieving process all the more humbling, bewildering, and disorienting.

For the first time, they may feel like they’re falling behind compared to their colleagues, and they may even have cognitive difficulties like brain fog and anxiety. Some may also experience deep shame at the loss of their identity as a high achiever, if only temporarily.

If this continues unchecked, many top performers may feel increasingly isolated, and may even leave the company for a fresh start elsewhere.

However, a supportive manager can help to manage their expectations and as they go through these common experiences associated with grief and loss.

Help them let go of “back to normal”

Though grief is often associated with depression because of the deep sadness and exhaustion that accompanies it, grief experts say it is actually more like a learning process in the mind and body. And it unfolds in its own time.

It takes as long as it takes, and every grief is different. No amount of willpower will make things go according to a schedule or a timeline, as much as that would make life easier.

By jumping back in too soon, and pushing themselves to get “back to normal” as soon as possible, high performers often put tremendous pressure on themselves at a time when energy is low and stress is high.

It is a recipe for exhaustion, which only exacerbates any cognitive, physical, and emotional struggles they already have.

Extend extra care to executors

Another issue to consider for a top performer who is struggling is this: If they are a leader in the workplace, they likely are a leader at home.

The same qualities that inspire people to rely on them at work lead family members to depend on them for important matters. And after a loved one dies, the most crucial role is the executor.

Also called administrator or personal representative, the executor is legally empowered to act on the estate’s behalf and is legally responsible for leading the estate through the probate process and, ultimately, distributing assets to the people who inherit them.

The qualities that make them a top performer may make the grieving process all the more humbling, bewildering, and disorienting.

While executors are chosen for their competence and reliability, Empathy’s Cost of Dying Report shows that employees who serve as executors struggle far more than their non-executor counterparts.

For instance, 57% of executors reported having panic attacks and 52% said they experienced frequent illness in the aftermath of loss (compared to 45% and 35% of non-executors, respectively).

In addition, 80% of executors say they experienced confusion (compared to 70% of non-executors), and 81% reported changes in sleep patterns (vs. 74% of non-executors).

With so many people depending on them, there is great incentive for a top performer—especially if they are serving as executor for their loved one’s estate—to cover up their feelings and keep up a confident front for others.

Unfortunately, none of us can think our way out of grief.

Top performers are used to enacting their will, but the more they try to control the situation, the likelier those efforts are to backfire—prolonging their suffering and possibly keeping them at a reduced productivity level for longer than necessary.

It is crucial that managers understand the toll that loss can have on an employee. With thoughtful bereavement care, they can skillfully help their employees take the time and space necessary for the grief process to unfold.