Grief is a fact of life. While there many articles and books that have been published on the subject of grief, very little is available on how to deal with it in the workplace. This is unfortunate because grief can dramatically impact the work environment.
The expense of grief in the workplace
In 2003, The Grief Recovery Institute conducted a study to quantify the financial impact of grief in the workplace. Recognizing that people grieve not only death, but other factors as well, we studied these hidden costs related to multiple losses:
- Death of a loved one
- Family Crisis
- Financial Loss
- Death of extended family, colleagues, and friends
- Major lifestyle alterations
- Pet loss Other losses
The resulting financial loss in productivity to businesses, in 2003, was calculated to be just over 75 billion dollars! We are currently in the process of revising and updating this study, but preliminary figures are coming in more than 100 billion dollars in lost productivity. That is an enormous figure by anyone’s standards.
How can you make a difference?
Recognizing the cost is one thing, but it is quite another to offer any type of support. We are going to approach this from two different perspectives: management and coworkers. While management sets policies to deal with workplace situation, it is the co-workers that these grievers deal with most on a daily basis.
Most larger corporations have policies in place to deal with a variety of workplace challenges. They normally have a policy setting the number of days of bereavement time off related to a death. The national standard, that is frequently mentioned, is three days, and then only if it is an immediate family member, such as a spouse, child, or parent. It is rare that they offer time away from work for any of the other grieving situations identified in the Grief Index.
While three days may allow for time to attend a service, it certainly is not enough time to recover from the emotional pain associated with a loss. The impact of the loss not only takes an emotional toll on an employee but also effects their focus and concentration, which can certainly influence their ability to do their job. Whatever their job involves, whether it be accounting, customer service or assembly line, a lack of focus and concentration negatively impact their performance.
Please understand that we are not saying that people in management are only concerned with productivity and not the emotional well-being of their employees. At this point we are only discussing how an emotionally painful event can relate to productivity in the workplace. Adding another day or two of paid leave is not likely to make a noticeable change in this. There are other actions that can be part of the company policy that can make a difference.
Positive actions management might consider to help grieving employees
- Since most grief generating experiences are unanticipated, it might be that this person receives a phone call that either takes them away from work or generates an immediate grieving response. In either of these situations, either a manager or someone in Human Resources who knows this individual need to inquire as to “what happened.” Knowing the answer to this question will give the best information as to how to make a difference.
This member of the management team should understand that they simply need to listen and not try to “fix” the situation. Our recent article, “Grief Support: Knowing What To Say And What To Avoid,” offers excellent guidelines on what they might say that will help, and those comments that might cause emotional damage. The greatest value at this point is in what can be offered to this new griever in relationship to workplace considerations. Depending on the situation possible actions might include:
- Bereavement Leave
- Sick Leave
- Vacation Time
- Redistribution of workload to accommodate reduced concentration or time away from work. (Depending on the role of that person in the company, it would be wise to stress to this employee that this action is temporary and is in no way a “demotion.”.)
- If this event will require the individual to be away from the job for any period of time, management are encouraged to ask if they might be allowed to share with other staff anything about this event. They need to explain that the reason for this question is simply to help the employee by allowing management to answer questions from concerned coworkers and thereby reduce the number of other people calling and asking what happened. Likely, this new griever will have enough to handle without fielding more calls from co-workers looking for the same information.
It would also be very positive for this company contact to keep in touch with this employee concerning how things are progressing. If the employee is away from work, this could be done via phone calls or emails. When appropriate, some of this information might then be shared with co-workers. If the grief event has not taken them away from work, these continued contacts can help insure that the griever and the management team have an open line of communication, from which they both can benefit.
- If this event is the death of a family member, there may be a standard policy in place to send flowers or a fruit basket as a means of offering support. For many, this is well received, but for some it may seem an empty gesture. A better policy might be to inquire if this employee would prefer flowers, a memorial donation or food for a family meal. This type of offer allows for customizing the gesture to that employee’s specific needs.
- If possible, it would serve the company well to offer an “in-service” for that employee’s co-workers on how to offer the best possible support when the griever returns to work. Advice, based on that previously mentioned article on what to say and what to avoid, could prove very helpful. It’s often the case that people have so little knowledge on this subject that they say things that add to a griever’s emotional pain after the loss, rather than reducing it.
- Most companies would rather retain a valuable employee, than lose them. Since our studies have shown that employees are often less productive when dealing with an emotional loss, this can create problems in the workplace. If a loss of productivity is noted, it would be wise for companies to have support resources available. This might be in the form or having an established relationship with a Grief Recovery Specialist or having a staff member trained in grief support services. The Grief Recovery Institute offers training programs for this purpose.
There are many ways that co-workers can provide support after a grief causing event. Primarily, they need to understand that grief is not just related to a death. Every major change in life can be a source of grief. Once again, that article, “Grief Support: Knowing What To Say And What To Avoid,” can be a very helpful tool in providing both verbal and non-verbal support.
While we pointed out in the article that asking, “what happened?”, is a positive question in most situations, if this information has already been shared with them by management, it’s not something that everyone else needs to ask! It would be far better for these co-workers to begin a conversation with the comment, “The boss (or whoever) told us what happened, do you want to talk about it?” In asking this, co-workers are acknowledging the “event” and offering the griever the option of sharing more or simply expressing any feelings they might have about it.
That article points out that while there are many positive things that might be offered to help this new griever, any suggestions on how they should or should not feel about this event are things that need to be avoided. Likewise, if these co-workers have experienced similar losses, they need to understand that telling this new griever that they “know how they feel” is not helpful on any level, since we each respond differently to any given loss.
Another thing that should be avoided it talking about “The Stages of Grief.” While many people have heard about these so called stages, or grief process, they offer a griever no value in actually dealing with the emotional pain that they are experiencing after any loss. More than anything else, suggesting that they must go through these stages creates elements of confusion that often prevent them from taking valuable positive action to move beyond that pain.
Every work environment is different. Some people work for large corporations, while the vast majority of people work with just a few other employees. It’s difficult to create guidelines that will work in every situation. Our goal in this article is to point out a few basic things that can be used to the best advantage in as many situations as possible.
Perhaps the best thing that anyone can do, when dealing with grief in the workplace, is to offer the new griever information about The Grief Recovery Method as a means of taking grief recovery actions for themselves. This program is a step-by-step approach, an action based program, for dealing with the emotional pain associated with loss. It recognizes that people never “get over” a loss, but with the proper information, they can learn to survive and thrive in spite of it.
Photo Credit: 123 RF Stock Photo by radiantskies