Healing Professional Heartbreak
There is so much heartbreak in the world today. The loss of life due to disease, war, famine, substance abuse, depression, and senseless violence breaks hearts every day across the world. While the severity and frequency of which we each experience heartbreak in our own lives varies, anyone who stops and really listens for a moment will see heartbreak everywhere, especially at work. We don't often talk about our corporate, professional, and career challenges using words like heartbroken, but heartbreak, defined as overwhelming distress, crushing grief, or anguish, is rampant in companies and work-from-home offices across the world. Left unaddressed in the professional setting, it will have the same outcome as it does when unaddressed in our personal lives, and slow our collective recovery and ability to move to a brighter future.
Where professional heartbreak comes from
With over 80,000 deaths in the U.S. due to COVID-19 at the time of writing, the real and unexpected loss of human life is certainly creating heartbreak throughout organizations and cannot be minimized. Most leaders and organizations recognize the need to help people through the feelings of loss and grief from the death of a loved one or a co-worker. But, this is not the only reason for professional heartbreak and failing to acknowledge where heartbreak exists, even absent the loss of life is critical to recovering from it.
We can generally recognize heartbreak that stems from the loss of meaningful relationships in our lives, whether that heartbreak is the result of an untimely death, divorce, relocation, or even just part of growing up. My family relocated across the country, twice in two years, and with each move came heartbreak, as friendships that were forged and futures that were planned were altered with each move. Heartbreak can come from the loss of anything meaningful in our life, tangible or intangible. Job loss is certainly heartbreaking. An entrepreneur or business owner who has had to close their doors can describe the pain of that heartbreak. Ask anyone whose home was destroyed in a fire, flood, tornado, or hurricane, and they will share the heartbreak that comes with the loss of their home.
Missed promotions, failed projects, and rejected proposals can also cause their share of professional heartbreak. We can be heartbroken by people at work who disappoint us - when trust is broken and confidence is lost or a leader fails to act with the integrity we were expecting. I can recognize now how heartbroken I was early in my career when a mentor of mine was fired for violating the company's code of conduct. I felt betrayed, angry, and misled - but under all of that, I was heartbroken over the loss of that trusted relationship which would never be the same again.
For the last two years, leaders have been forced by circumstances beyond their control to make heartbreaking decisions. Furloughed workers have received heartbreaking news. Beyond the stress and anxiety that comes with a loss of employment, there is the heartbreak at the loss of meaningful work and the loss of connection from our professional relationships. Even workers who haven't lost their jobs may be experiencing heartbreak as they see their careers slow, projects they devoted years to get shelved or have their wages get cut. Zoom happy hours and remote work teams may not be enough to heal the heartbreak that comes with the loss of community or the loss of inspiration drawn from our work relationships and environments.
What heartbreak feels like
Working through heartbreak, particularly at work, can feel overwhelming. But before you can tackle it, you have to recognize it. More than a mental health issue, the pain of heartbreak can be physically real, as the stress of loss and disappointment overwhelms the body and the mind. Heartbreak is more than job stress or anxiety or fear of what might happen. When we lose a loved one, particularly a child, we are heartbroken not only for the loss of what was but the loss of what never will be. When we go through a divorce or a bad break-up, the grief is not just for the relationship that was, but the future relationship we hoped for. You can recognize it in the wishing for what was, but is no more or in a dogged fight for something that needs to be let go.
Heartbreak is rooted in loss, and if you have felt like you have lost something in the last two years, you aren't alone. Leaders may feel like they have lost their sense of direction or like they have had to give up on their vision for their organization. The heartbreak they feel for furloughed workers is more than empathy for the struggle they know they are going through. Good leaders lead because they want to help people, to make a positive impact on those around them. In times like this, these good leaders are heartbroken over not only the loss of relationships, but they grieve in their inability to help everyone they feel responsible for.
Furloughed workers may feel they have lost their purpose, their passion, and their meaningful work. This can be as devastating as the loss of income and financial security, particularly for those "type A" workers who find value and meaning in their lives in their work and professional success. Workers who remain may be heartbroken over the colleagues they have lost or the projects put on hold. The future they envisioned for themselves, their successes, and accomplishments may suddenly feel out of reach and the loss of hope can be heartbreaking.
How to heal the heartbreak
You wouldn't dream of telling someone who just lost a family member to COVID-19 or had their family devastated by divorce to just ignore their heartbreak and get back to work. In the same way, we cannot just ignore the professional heartbreak threading through ourselves and our organizations. Unfortunately, it happens all the time. When a company I was working for decided to sell a small division to a competitor, the leader appointed to manage the transition complained constantly about those who had interfaced with the division being slow to "move on." That leader wanted everyone to "get with the program" and "face a new reality" that former colleagues would soon be competitors and off-limits in terms of collaboration. The inferred resistance wasn't a lack of trust in the decision, but rather it was a hidden heartbreak no one was allowed to process publicly. Many deep partnerships had been formed between individuals in that division and the corporate office, and the sale represented a real loss to those impacted. It wasn't resistance, it was a need to process and grieve for what was being lost. Instead of pretending we aren't human and don't experience real heartbreak at work, we have to help heal the heartbreak, just as we are trying to heal the damage to the balance sheet, keep our workplaces healthy and heal customer confidence.
If you have had to furlough employees, cut back on salaries and benefits, or close your doors, even temporarily, you are likely leading in a heartbroken organization and may very well be heartbroken yourself. Even if the future looks bright or you think you have turned the corner, it is likely that heartbreak is still there in you or your team and needs to be addressed. Rebounding from the break-up doesn't necessarily heal the heartbreak, so even if the business is looking up, or you've found another job, take time to take stock of how you and your people are feeling and detect the heartbreak that may very well be there. If you find yourself heartbroken or leading in a heartbroken organization, consider these practical steps.
- Admit it. Shock and denial are the first stages of grief, and hopefully, you and your organization went through this already. This is where most of us were in the weeks leading up to and after the pandemic hit and the world around us began to shut down. If you haven't acknowledged to yourself or your organization that you are heartbroken, you need to admit it and fast. Be open and transparent about your own feelings and what you are heartbroken about. One of the reasons Arne Sorenson's video message to Marriott employees has been so widely shared is that you can feel and connect with how heartbroken he is for his employees and his industry. To deal with heartbreak, you have to recognize it is there and be willing to tackle it in the open. If you've been let go from a job you love, it's okay to admit that it is not just stressful, it's heartbreaking. If you just worked hard for years to get your degree, and can't find a job or lost an internship - it's okay to admit you are heartbroken. If you lost a key customer, had to stop a project you've been fighting for, or watched a company you built disintegrate - it's okay to admit that what you are feeling is heartbreak.
- Let it out. Once you acknowledge your own heartbreak or the heartbreak in your team, prepare for a wide range of emotions that we generally like to avoid in the workplace: anger, pain, guilt, and fear - all outcomes of loss and grief. If you are a leader, give your people the time they need to grieve - for the setback in their careers, for their friends that are no longer working with them, for the customers and relationships they have lost. Help your team recognize these feelings and identify if it is what may be driving undesirable behaviors. Create a safe space for people to let their heartbreak show - it has to be okay to cry. If you just expect people to soldier on, as if the anguish in and around them doesn't exist, you frankly shouldn't be in a leadership position. If you've lost your team because you have lost your job - by all means it is okay to cry. When my 9-year-old was feeling quite heartbroken at the news she wouldn't be going back to the classroom during COVID, we sat together and cried. Giving her time to grieve for the loss of what she had hoped for helped her focus on how to make the most of what she had at that time. You can't deal with heartbreak by holding it in. Find constructive ways to get emotion out - workout, paint, do yard work or just talk to a friend. If necessary, seek professional counseling and if you are in a position to do so, provide access to mental health and crisis resources to others.
- Don't go it alone. #InThisTogether has been the mantra of the coronavirus mayhem, but actually working through our heartbreak together is tough - it's messy and ugly and raw. We live in a society that doesn't exactly embrace the concept of a crying CEO, and so it often seems easier to go it alone. Leaders who express genuine emotions are often portrayed as weak, particularly if they are women. I once had an employee who took almost a week off because she was embarrassed about being seen crying at work. She had just learned of the tragic death of her best friend, was going through a difficult divorce, and had a parent diagnosed with Alzheimer's. She had nothing to be embarrassed about, and when she returned to work, we cried together many times before her heartbreak started to heal. But, we don't like others to see us hurting, so it is easy to withdraw. While some alone time for reflection is necessary, being left alone during heartbreak can lead to depression and worse. So make sure your organization is a support network that heartbroken professionals can tap into, and if they opt not to, make sure they have somewhere to turn. Just because you may have lost a professional network, doesn't mean you have to go through the crisis of furlough or job loss alone. Reach out to mentors, professors, and peers. In no way are you in this alone, so don't ever feel like you have to go it alone.
- Re-frame the future. Think back to your first big relationship break-up, probably at some point in high school. For many of us, that first serious relationship came with a fairy tale, albeit fuzzy, vision of the future. Moving on from that break-up was easier as soon as we could envision a future without our ex in it. As I mentioned earlier, one of the challenges of heartbreak isn't just getting over the loss of what we had, but getting over the loss of what we had hoped for. When we lose a loved one, we grieve for the loss of the experiences that won't be made, not the memories that remain. Many people don't recover from professional heartbreak because they get stuck grieving for a future that may no longer be possible. I didn't make it into an Ivy League college, go to law school, or get a promotion I really felt I deserved. These are all professional aspirations that I had hoped for my future at some point, and at times, even thought were necessary for me to be successful. But just like I was able to re-imagine my future without my high school boyfriend in it, I overcame professional heartbreak by re-framing the possibilities for my future. If you are a leader in an organization whose vision has been drastically altered, as you grieve for a future that may no longer exist or be attainable, re-frame what is possible for you and your teams - not in terms of what won't or can't happen, but instead in terms of the new realities and possibilities. We can all agree the future we envisioned before COVID may be very different from the likely futures that exist now - but the bright side is that there is a future. If a twenty-year career with a company you loved and planned to retire from just came to an abrupt end, take time to envision the possibilities you had never considered before. While it doesn't immediately lessen the loss, it does ease the transition. Staying hung up on what you thought or planned or hoped the future would be doesn't help. Invest real time and reflection into considering all the possible, positive futures that are now available to you that weren't before when you were fixated on just one path.
Heartbreak can co-exist with optimism about the future, and often does for a time. When I finally saw my future without my first boyfriend in it, I certainly didn't see my husband or my four beautiful children, but I saw a future that made each step toward what would become my reality possible.