The Organizational Development Muse

Dr. Mark L. Vincent's Blog

Organizational Leaders: Responses to employee grief, stress and burnout

Posted by Mark L. Vincent on Jun 11, 2014 5:30:00 AM
Guest blogger,
Nathan Leaman
 is a Leadership Talent Pool Manager at Kohler Co. He recently developed the following post as part of his graduate studies.nleaman


Some people see meaning behind everything…a connection between seemingly disparate events that all point to the same idea or conclusion.

I am one of those people.

In the course of the past seven days, I had the following happen to me:

  1. I sat in my office talking with someone about his career and where he is headed.  At what I thought was the end of our conversation, I asked him how his family was doing and he proceeded to tell me he was going through a very tough time in his marriage and was worried about the impact on his children.
  2. I met with someone from Marketplace Chaplains to network and hear about their organization. This is a company who places chaplains within businesses a few times a week to meet with people and be available should they need help.
  3. I read an article titled “Compassion at Work.”  It was written by researchers associated with the Center for Positive Organizations out of the Ross School of Business.

“Clearly, suffering is pervasive in the workplace.  Statistics on grief, stress, and burnout at work reveal that suffering is also costly” (Dutton, Workman & Hardin, 280).  The authors go on to share that $75 billion is lost annually due to grief in the work place and $300 billion due to work related stress (280).  Such challenges might be caused by a personal tragedy associates are going through, a particularly challenging work assignment, difficultly with co-workers, hostility in the workplace or economic factors causing organizations to make difficult choices.

As I reflected on these facts and my conversations from last week, I could not help but wonder how much of an impact these situations have on an associate's learning and performance.  The following questions started racing through my mind:

  • When faced with serious personal tragedy, how can we expect people to remain open to experiences and exercise a growth mindset?
  • If a workplace is not perceived as safe or associates do not have a means to talk through their challenges, what is their work product really going to look like?
  • How often do we look at the “whole situation” an individual is in before we create plans to address poor performance?

I would imagine that in many circumstances, the individuals themselves do not even know how much of their ability to learn and perform is impacted by the events they are going through.  Nor do they know what do to about it.

However, according to the research, there are many things that organizations can do to foster more understanding and help with suffering (298).  I would like to end this blog post by focusing on the role of leaders. In many ways, these behaviors mirror the key components necessary for learning organizations from the multi-facet model we’ve been exploring in class.  Leaders must:

  • Treat individuals as whole people who carry emotions into the workplace and display them.
  • Encourage permeable work and life boundaries.
  • Facilitate high-quality relationships among employees.
  • Implement practices that foster noticing, feeling, sensemaking and acting in ways that foster compassion.

In other words, leaders need to make it safe to be human.  Life...real life...does not stop at the door to work.  It has a way of happening…in living color…without warning…right before our eyes.  And leaders, more than anyone, have the ability to create, foster and nurture organizations that are willing to see (and deal) with this reality. 

As a leader in my organization, the next time I come face to face with suffering at work I hope to remember these thoughts and ask myself a simple question:  “How will I want to be treated when it’s my turn to suffer?"



Dutton, J., Workman, K., Hardin, A. (2014). Compassion at Work. Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior. Vol. 1: 277-304.


Topics: process consulting, Organizational Leadership, Mark L. Vincent, Design Group International, organizational development resources, marketplace chaplaincy, employee suffering


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