Sheryl Sandberg Says This Is the Best Way to Handle Grief in the Workplace

Apr 24, 2017

Sheryl Sandberg's new book, Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy, is officially released today, and the Facebook COO finds herself atop the Amazon Best Sellers list again.

Her new book is about grief, and is inspired by tragedy in Sandberg's personal life: In 2015, her husband, SurveyMonkey CEO Dave Goldberg, died suddenly at the age of 47. Option B takes an unflinching look about how to overcome adversity, deal with the worst circumstances life can dish out, and keep moving forward.

Option B marks a significant departure from Sandberg's previous groundbreaking book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, which won acclaim and started a lot of conversations about women, careers, and professional leadership. But Option B has plenty of takeaways for the workplace as well, including how, when, and why people should get back to the office after a tragedy—and how friends and coworkers can help those who are suffering.

170322-sheryl-sandberg-option-b Courtesy of Knopf. 

Sandberg wrote the new book with her friend, the Wharton psychologist Adam Grant. Option B is part memoir, part tutorial, and the workplace is a frequent setting for Sandberg’s struggle to process the anger, anxiety, and other emotions that rise to the surface.

In returning to work after a crushing emotional blow, Sandberg has advantages (which she acknowledges) that most of us don’t: a high-level, high-paying job that made her a billionaire, understanding colleagues and support from boss Mark Zuckerberg. But Sandberg also had to help herself get back in the game, and Option B succeeds best at providing a road map for resilience, both for those coping with grief as well as those who work alongside them.

How Soon Is Too Soon to Get Back to Work?

Most of us will face loss or tragedy at some point during our careers. How much time you can and should take off from work to cope varies widely. Some workers have little choice in the matter, of course. Sandberg points out that even “good” jobs generally have bereavement policies that offer little time off after the death of a loved one, and even less support for people facing challenges like an ailing parent or a grim medical diagnosis.

But Sandberg says that getting back to work is often beneficial for the recovery those grieving. As a recent cover story in TIME explains, Sandberg "no longer automatically diverts work from people facing personal adversity. Now she asks if they want to do it because, counter­intuitively, relieving people of some of their responsibilities could mean denying them a way of finding their bearings."

Still, Sandberg says that everyone should understand when they need help, and be willing to ask for it. The support of colleagues goes a long way, whether that means filling in on an assignment or showing understanding to distracted or erratic behavior. If you are struggling at the office, you should accept the help of your colleagues without apologizing. Just acknowledge it, be grateful, and then move on, Sandberg advises. It’s imperative to cut yourself some slack. Don't beat yourself up if you slip up or flake out.

It’s also OK to be honest; Sandberg recalls the pain that a mundane greeting like “How are you doing?” caused. You don’t have to say “just fine,” if that’s not true. Tell them you’re doing about as well as can be expected, or that you’re having a rough day.

How Can You Help a Grieving Colleague at Work?

If you have a colleague struggling with a heavy emotional burden, Sandberg says you should shift your greeting a bit, to this: “How are you doing today?” It’s a small change, but it telegraphs empathy, which gives your co-worker the chance to open up and reach out if they do need support.

Likewise, your main job as a supportive work colleague or boss is to simply try to be understanding. Accept that your grieving coworker is probably not firing on all eight cylinders, and be willing to jump in and help as needed—hopefully, while being sensitive and tactful enough to avoid making your coworker feel totally useless.

Give your colleague ample time to figure out how to ease back into work. Yet as hinted at above, it's important to ask people what they need and are comfortable with, rather than simply taking work off someone's plate. Being able to get back to work and contribute validated Sandberg and helped her overcome the crisis of confidence that can come with grief.

Option B doesn’t focus solely on workplace interactions; Sandberg also describes poignant moments with her kids as they all try to cope in their own ways, and the support of relatives and friends (like her co-author Grant). But it could be a valuable resource for people trying to keep their professional life together when it seems like their personal life is falling apart.

"For the past two years I’ve tried hard to find meaning and happiness in the wake of our despair. My friend Adam Grant, a psychologist, told me that we are not born with a fixed amount of resilience. Like a muscle, we can build it. Adam and I set out to explore how," Sandberg wrote in a moving Instagram post about her struggle. "It’s my deepest hope that Option B will help others learn what I learned: that when life pulls you under, you can kick against the bottom, break the surface, and breathe again."

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