From job loss, racial violence, or feelings of loneliness and isolation, 2020 made grief in the workplace inevitable. So, what do you do when one of your employees is grieving or when an employee dies?
What is grief?
Though grief is generally defined as death of a loved one, grief is a natural and normal reaction to any loss or change of events. Grief at work can stem from a myriad of life transitions, such as the loss of a home, business, pet, partner, health, or discrimination.
Although everyone grieves differently, the following are common symptoms and signs of grief in the workplace, broken down into mental, emotional, and physical categories.
Lack of productivity and focus
Your star employee is suddenly spacing out in meetings, missing deadlines, or producing lower-quality work. Before becoming upset that your employee is “lazy” or “unmotivated”, assess if your employee’s behaviour is due to a major life transition. Grieving employees are often exhausted from lack of sleep or from new routines, responsibilities, and demands.
Confusion and memory loss
If your employee is suddenly repeating themselves or continually asking for clarification on routine work issues, they could be suffering from “griever’s fog.” When we’re initially grieving and preoccupied with the loss, it’s challenging to process added information. Many new grievers suffer from temporary memory loss and grieving employees commonly report losing things or getting lost.
Depression is common in the workplace and manifests in different ways. Although we may think depression looks like sadness, apathy, irritability, or being withdrawn, others may return from bereavement leave cheerful and smiling.
This doesn’t mean your employee isn’t suffering, but that this could be their way of convening some sense of normalcy. Others could be in denial of the loss and feel the effects of grief at a later time.
Grieving employees are often hesitant to attend team outings or events as social interactions and small talk can feel trite. To make matters worse, many grieving employees’ social circle becomes smaller as only a handful of people in their lives can empathise and relate to their loss.
Similarly, co-workers can feel awkward around grieving employees and not know how to approach the person in an empathetic way, leaving the grieving employee even more isolated.
Anger is one of the most obvious symptoms of grief. Your employee can become argumentative, withdrawn, or irritable over seemingly minor work problems.
When employees have a difficult time coping with their grief, they’re more likely to self-medicate through drugs or alcohol. The symptoms of grief are overwhelming and may even cause recovered addicts to return to substances. One study found that men who were grieving for 2 years or more are much more likely to become addicted to alcohol as compared to the non-bereaved.
One of the most surprising symptoms of grief is the physical toll it takes on your body. Grief weakens our immune system, making us more susceptible to illness. The following are common physical symptoms of grief:
- General aches and pains;
- Digestive problems;
- Changes in appetite;
- Shortness of breath;
- High blood pressure.
How can managers support grieving employees?
One of the most common questions managers have about grief is how to support their grieving employees at work. We’ll dive into some simple strategies that you can do today to create a more inclusive environment for your grieving employees.
Acknowledging your employee’s loss is the first step in supporting them. When I returned to work after my dad suddenly passed away, “It was like nothing had happened. I was expected to get right back to work after the biggest trauma of my life.”
Unfortunately, I’ve talked to many employees who’ve faced similar situations. Open communication with your employees is critical to developing trust and openness.
Expand bereavement leave
Most people take a few days of bereavement leave and return to work business as usual. Especially in the early stages of grief, allow employees to take as much time as they need.
Partner with your HR team to see if your company can extend their bereavement policy. If you’re concerned your team’s work productivity will suffer, remember that it’s better to have a healthy employee than a disengaged body in a seat.
Grief in the workplace doesn’t just show up in the emotional and physical wellbeing of your employees. Your employee may need to take on more caregiving responsibilities or attend appointments for the estate of their loved one.
Employees with flexible work schedules are more likely (54% vs. 45%) than those without to say they have the support they need to cope with stress. Trust your employees to get their work done on their own time and you’ll be able to retain them for the long-haul.
Checks-ins and 1:1s aren’t just for performance issues. They’re also a designated time to check-in with the human side of your employee. Ask your employee how they’re genuinely doing, and let them know you have their back. Even if they don’t feel comfortable expressing how they’re feeling, just knowing that you are supportive can make all the difference in their mental health.
At the same time, check-ins are not therapy sessions. Refer employees to therapy or Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs) so they can get the services they deserve. Make sure they have the time to attend therapy and have them block space in their calendar!
Grieving people are often told vague promises such as, “Let me know how I can help.” This places the emotional burden on the grieving person to advocate for themselves. Instead, you can say something like, “If you need me to pick up groceries or cover the client meeting, let me know.”
Only commit to something that is achievable for you. Lack of follow-through will only hurt the relationship.
Similarly, if you’ve never lost a love one before, don’t use statements such as “I understand what you’re going through.” Avoid stating clichés, such as “Be strong”, “They’re in a better place now”, or “I feel so bad for you.”
Such statements belittle the person’s emotional experience and though well-meaning, are disingenuous. Instead, acknowledge the employee’s grief by simply stating, “I acknowledge this is a difficult time for you” or “I recognise this is painful.”
If you notice your employee is less productive than usual, approach them with empathy and curiosity. Instead of saying, “Where’s the report you said would be on my desk today?” you can state, “I noticed you haven’t been meeting the report deadlines. Is everything okay? How can I help make sure that you don’t fall behind?”
By opening up the conversation, your grieving employee can be transparent about their needs.
Encourage your team to practise healthy eating, exercise, and sleep habits through healthy snacks, team walks/runs, and days off. You can even have a dedicated Slack or text channel to encourage healthy habits! Not only will this help your entire team bond, but it holds grieving employees accountable for their self-care.
It takes a village
Team members can offer to do extra work tasks for the grieving employee or give donations or meals to the family. If you’ve lost an employee, the team can create a plaque in their honour and present it to the family.
Grieving people are often surprised when their family and friends only help them right after the funeral. Small and consistent acts of kindness go a long way and communicate that you know grief is a long-term journey.
How can organisations reduce grief stigma at work?
Creating an inclusive culture where our employees feel comfortable expressing their mental health needs isn’t solely owned by the managers or HR. In order to truly create a culture of compassion, employees must feel heard and supported from the top-down. Below are some strategies your organisation can adopt.
One of the reasons employees are hesitant to speak about their personal struggles is they often don’t see leaders admitting their challenges. If an employee passes away, make sure your CEO and senior leaders address it in a company-wide meeting.
If possible, have senior leaders speak about their experiences dealing with grief. You’ll be surprised how much your employees appreciate knowing that the people at the top are humans too.
Mental health campaign
It’s no secret your employees are struggling with pandemic-related mental health concerns, but adding grief to the mix is extra challenging. To address this, create a mental health campaign.
Start by forming Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) and partner with HR and an executive sponsor. This ensures that employees affected by grief have a say in creating more inclusive company policies.
Respect all types of grief in the workplace
Whether your employee is grieving the loss of a pet or partner, remember that all grief is valid. Remember to acknowledge the loss of LGBTQ+ partners, foster children, unmarried partners, or other blended family members.
Conduct employee pulse surveys
One way to quickly gauge your company culture around wellbeing is to conduct employee pulse surveys. Conducting surveys, sharing organisational and team results, and acting upon feedback is one of the most effective ways to build a culture of belonging, even during a crisis. At 6Q, we offer easy customised tools so you don’t have to create your own!
Grief in the workplace is a multifaceted issue and grieving employees need supportive communication, transparency, and psychological safety at all levels of the organisation.
The pandemic has taught us that grief and loss can no longer be ignored by businesses. Though grief and loss has received special attention this year, these issues have and will continue to exist post-pandemic.
By opening two-way communication with your employees and proactively addressing tough issues head-on, you’re showing your employees that you value them not just as business assets, but humans first and foremost.
This not only boosts employee engagement and productivity, but builds relationships with your teammates if you experience a loss one day. I hope you start today to create an organisational culture that is compassionate, inclusive, and allows your employees to bring their whole selves to work.
About the Author
Chelsia Durkee is a freelance writer specialising in mental health, human resources, and corporate culture. She is passionate about employee engagement and is an avid believer that compelling stories change lives. You may follow her on LinkedIn