Grief is a normal part of life, and people at work are not unaffected. A landmark study conducted by the Grief Recovery Institute of America found that, at any given time, on average, at least one in four employees is suffering grief.
Such grief can follow many kinds of loss, such as the death of a loved one, relationship breakdowns, job loss, loss of culture or lifestyle, loss of a pet, and loss of health.
Grief in the workplace can hide behind substance abuse, obesity, poor judgement, depression, health problems, interpersonal conflict, injuries, and more.
The annual cost to US businesses alone is a staggering US$74 billion in lost productivity, not to mention about 30 lost work days per grieving employee.
As one grieving manager told The Wall Street Journal: “I put in my full eight-hour day, but for six months, I didn’t do more than four hours of work each day.”
Indeed, acute grief may last 3-6 months and it may take an individual anywhere 2-5 years to adjust their life following a difficult loss.
Managers and co-workers often feel unsure about the best way to help someone who is experiencing grief. Many business organisations offer only minimal support to sufferers, beyond the number of days leave mandated by law.
How then can you show compassion for a grieving employee and create a workplace environment that builds morale, reduces burnout, and improves productivity?
First of all, it helps to know that work actually plays an essential role in helping sufferers to work through their grief. “People create meaning related to their jobs, work roles, and selves at work in a number of ways,” notes the report Grief and the Workplace. The routine, structure and social contact of work can actually provide help and some sense of normality for a grieving individual.
However, when it comes to supporting grieving people, there are some definite do’s-and-don’ts.
Avoid these things
- Don’t tell grieving people that you know how they feel. Do you really? Grief is a very personal experience, and belongs entirely to the person experiencing it. “Do not compare their sad situations with your own: Your examples may seem insensitive and irrelevant,” Professor Christine Pearson told HRD.
- Don’t avoid them because you don’t know what to say or do. Your presence and compassion can speak volumes.
- Avoid offering generalised platitudes, such as “They’re not suffering now. It was for the best.” Such expressions do not help and can even be harmful. It’s better to say: “I know you’re hurting. I care about you. I'm here for you.” The kindest words and actions are often the simplest.
- Do not avoid mentioning the departed one. Many grieving persons appreciate hearing people mention the special qualities that endeared them to the departed one.
- Do not too surprised be by what grieving ones may say at first. They may be feeling angry and guilty. So be extra patient and understanding. If emotional outbursts are directed at you, show insight and try to not get irritated.
- If an employees’ family member has died, why not get their immediate team to send a card with flowers, or have a workplace representative to the funeral to demonstrate support.
Do these things
- Reassure them that work is a second priority to dealing with their emotions. Review their workload to ensure they can cope, while maintaining their dignity and keeping them involved.
- Reassure them that what they are feeling—sadness, anger, guilt, or some other emotion—are normal. Make them feel secure so they feel able to deal with the death in their own way and don’t have to hide their sadness.
- Allow them extra time off to adjust to their loss or to seek professional counselling—perhaps even offering to cover or contribute to the cost.
- Make a note of special dates and anniversaries so you can be extra supportive at those time.
- Above all else be a good listener. “It really helped me when others asked what happened and then really listened,” said one employee. Compassionate listening is one of the best ways you can honour and support the bereaved person through their unique grief journey.
It helps to know that humans are resilient, full of grit, and can overcome almost anything. Just make sure to listen to your employees and help them feel supported.
Doing this will help both the person grieving and those who support them to heal, recover, and feel healthy again.
Grief is an inevitable part of life and the workplace. Managers should be ready and equipped to offer compassionate and practical support. Doing so is good for your business, good for the grieving employee, and good for you.