Sadness may be the most unwelcome emotion at work. Working with sad people crushes enthusiasm, drains productivity, and dulls esprit de corps. Sad employees display low energy and lose interest in what once engaged them.
According to our survey and interview data, sad employees tend to show up later, leave earlier, avoid potentially unpleasant meetings, seek off-site assignments, and seize opportunities to work remotely. Those deeply saddened become apathetic. Some sad employees give up and quit. Despite such costly consequences, however, executives will find scant research or recommendations about dealing with sadness. To improve this, I offer the following suggestions based on my research and consulting.
  • Be present. Sadness is often accompanied by feelings of isolation. As I have observed in crises and less extreme negative circumstances, executives who remain accessible impart strength, as well as a sense of communal concern and connection, to their followers. 
  • Don’t say, “I know how you feel.”  While engaging with sad employees, resist the temptation to push for higher spirits or to provide advice about how an individual should cope with sadness. Specifically, do not tell sad employees that you know how they feel — you couldn’t. Do not compare their sad situations with your own: Your examples may seem insensitive and irrelevant.
  • Give them space. With dramatic loss, employees may seem detached or disoriented, behaviors that can increase a manager’s reluctance to intervene. Nonetheless, practical approaches from managers and executives can help lighten the burden. If employees have experienced a serious personal loss, help them temporarily make work a lower priority so that they can focus on dealing with their grief. Allow employees to overcome their sadness at their own pace. Help them connect with their natural support systems. Some options to temporarily relieve the full burden of work include providing time off or a few days of shortened work hours, permitting affected employees to work remotely, identifying avenues for transferring some of their responsibilities to colleagues, and encouraging them to postpone or cancel work travel. 

Transform Tension Into Collaboration
October 25, 2017 | Tempe, AZ

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A senior manager who faced family trauma described the relief, gratitude, and impact she experienced after receiving compassionate treatment at work. “My boss’s immediate response was that now was not a time to be concerned about work,” she said. “He acknowledged, without flinching, just how traumatic my personal loss was and that it had implications for me personally and professionally. He did what he could to help me delegate my obligations so that I could spend more time with my family. When I returned to work, my colleagues accepted that I would be working in a haze of sadness for quite a while. All of this helped a lot. I was always dedicated to my work and to my workplace. This experience deepened my connection to both.”
  • Be supportive. Support from business leaders during a tough time can have an immense impact on an employee’s morale. The founder and former president of a very prosperous network services organization credited empathy during times of duress as a key contributor to his company’s extraordinary success. As he put it, “We were especially intent on supporting people through difficult experiences. All of us go through them. It’s the right thing to do. What we learned over time was that our employees, even those who simply knew about the company’s responsiveness and were not direct beneficiaries, more than reciprocated with unflagging loyalty.”
  • In times of loss and sadness, seize opportunities to demonstrate character. Many managers confess that they become befuddled when employees cry. Of course, this is not a helpful reaction. To improve, begin by accepting that crying is a legitimate way to display negative emotions (even if you prefer to express sadness or frustration in a different way). Allow employees some time to work through their initial reactions to an upsetting circumstance. If needed, offer a dignified, temporary exit with respectful cues like, “This has been a long day. Shall we wrap up for now and reconvene tomorrow morning?”
About the Author
Christine M. Pearson is a professor of global leadership at the Thunderbird School of Global Management in Glendale, Arizona.  A groundbreaking international business school for more than 70 years, Thunderbird is a unit of the Arizona State University Knowledge Enterprise. 
About the Research
This article draws on a stream of research that the author, in collaboration with coauthors, has carried out for more than two decades to understand how managers and employees handle the dark side of workplace behavior — from exceptional incidents involving organizational crises to commonplace uncivil interactions among employees.i All of the studies examined some aspect of the role of negative emotions.