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September 18, 2017
How To

How to: Deal with grief in the workplace

Carol Schoneberg

Grief in the workplace is unavoidable. Whether it's the approaching or sudden death of an employee, or the death of an employee's loved one, the impact will be felt throughout the workplace, either directly or indirectly. Not acknowledging the death or pretending it didn't happen leads to resentment and damages how the employer is viewed by the employees.

Take a moment to think about the death of a central person in your life, and how you cope with your own grief. Perhaps you are an "approach coper" who faces grief and adversity head on, or maybe are you an "avoidance coper" who works hard to compartmentalize, keep busy and push it away? Essentially, we naturally fall into one of these two categories, although some reside somewhere in the middle. While neither approach is right or wrong, the former is more helpful in eventually moving toward healing.

If you are in management, how you handle your personal grief will most likely have an impact on how you approach grief in the workplace, and the policies you set with regard to bereavement leave. The average workplace policy provides employees with three days bereavement leave following the death of an immediate family member.

Confusion, forgetfulness and inability to focus are the universal hallmarks of grief. Grief naturally robs us of the skills we need to do our jobs well. The Grief Index, a study of 25,000 participants, provides an eye-opening perspective on the mental, emotional and financial costs of grief incurred by American businesses. It estimates that:

  • One in four employees is grieving at any given time
  • The average annual costs in lost productivity, lost business and poor performance attributed to the death of a family member, colleague, friend or animal companion is $46 billion a year
  • 85% of management-level decision makers ranked their decision-making from very poor to fair in the weeks or months following the grief incident
  • 90% of those in blue-collar and other physical jobs indicated a much higher incidence of physical injuries due to reduced concentration in the weeks or months following the grief incident
  • When study participants were asked if their reduced ability to concentrate affected them for any period of time beyond any allowed bereavement leave following the death of a loved one, 75% indicated that reduced capacity affected them significantly beyond the allowed leave.

How to prepare more effectively:

  • Bring in a grief expert — experienced with workplace grief — to provide education to your management team. If HR isn't comfortable with death and grief, this will come across loud and clear to the griever. Don't wait for a crisis, do it now
  • Watch your language. Grief isn't something you "get over." Using this phrase shows ignorance of the process and will only leave the griever feeling angry and more isolated
  • Have a designated person to stay connected to the grieving individual over the months following the death — checking in with them periodically as a compassionate listener
  • Be flexible and willing to work with the griever's emotional needs in the early months following the death. Have a system in place if they need to have some unexpected down time.

Not all employees will want to take advantage of the time off — some will prefer to keep working as if nothing has happened in an attempt to keep their grief at bay. For this employee, they may want to use their bereavement leave some weeks or months later when their grief has caught up with them and they are no longer able to meet the demands of their job.

In the long run, you will not regret providing a more generous and humane bereavement leave that allows your employees some additional time to begin their grieving process. The ongoing understanding and support you show them when they return to work will strengthen their loyalty and commitment to your company, and their belief that you truly care about them.

Carol Schoneberg, bereavement services manager and a grief counselor at Hospice of Southern Maine, can be reached at CSchoneberg@hospiceofsouthernmaine.org

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