How to Manage Grief Effectively at Work

Companies need a better approach to grief. In recent years, people are turning to their jobs to fulfil not only their financial needs but also their spiritual and social needs. As traditional support systems like extended family, religion, and government have become less influential to many, the workplace has increasingly become a source of fulfilment. The workplace offers more than just a salary but a place of meaning and belonging to many. Whether you go to work for this or simply to pay your bills, the fact is most of our time is spent at work and therefore it is often fundamental to our well-being we feel supported here, especially through life’s challenges.

It is not just our approach to work that has changed but also our attitudes at work. We are seeing a continued shift from the “suffering in silence” mentality that we were so used to in the workplace = the idea that one should leave their personal challenges at the door when entering.

grief

As a result, there is a growing acceptance of vocalising our hard times and showing our vulnerability. This however is not without new challenges for those in HR and management roles, especially when it comes to grief.

Grief is a complex emotional response to a significant loss, encompassing feelings of sorrow, sadness, and anguish. While commonly associated with the death of someone we love, it can also arise from other losses such as relationships, jobs, or major life changes. When managing grief as individuals or an organisation it doesn’t stop here, we have to consider the knock-on effect this loss has on so many other areas of one’s life, what we know as secondary losses.

If someone is unwell then they can often take paid leave until better, but it is not this easy when it comes to grief. It doesn’t follow set timelines and rarely comes and goes in one wave. It occurs in stages, ebbs and flows, rises and falls and its impact varies hugely depending on the individual, the situation, the environment and much more.

Regardless of the way it creates an impact, it impacts us all, yet it appears from a professional standpoint we aren’t quite understanding how to manage this:

  • 43% of employees who had been bereaved felt pressurised to return to work before they were ready.
  • Only 1 in 3 employers had a bereavement policy and often this didn’t reflect what happened in practice.
  • 31% of managers would welcome help on how to support bereaved employees.

(Marie Curie, 2021)

Laszlo Bock, Google’s Chief People Officer, once said in an interview “There are many taboos at work and death is one of the greatest.” During his time at Google, Bock championed a distinct human resources policy. This policy ensures that the partner of any deceased employee receives 50% of the employee’s salary for a decade, along with a monthly allowance for each school-age child, irrespective of the employee’s role or duration of service. The impact of this policy was substantial.

Now obviously we don’t all have the same profits to play with as Google and of course, the financial strain that may be connected to grief only scratches the surface of the pain. But the taboo of death at work still stands and it is something we need to work together to change.

We spoke to our very own clinical psychologist Dr Charlie Cole (DClinPsy), Clinical Academic in occupational wellbeing, trauma and PTSD, to get a better understanding of what the workplace needs to do to better support grieving individuals. Dr Cole reminded us “The experience of grief and loss varies from person to person” and applies the TEAR framework to navigate and manage the emotional reactions one may encounter during grief (Worden, 1991):

(T)o accept the loss – when we lose someone or something, we may find ourselves struggling to come to terms with what has happened. Rather than avoiding the loss, it can be helpful to allow time to reflect on and process it in small doses. This could mean keeping a journal, re-visiting memories, looking at photos or speaking to others about the loss.

(E)xperience the emotions that accompany loss – few of the emotions that accompany loss are positive and therefore, it makes sense that we’d rather not feel them. However, the more we suppress these emotions, the more they return.

(A)djust to living after a loss – when we are grieving, life can feel on hold and we might stop doing a lot of what we used to. This can have a detrimental impact on mood in the long term.

(R)einvest in your future – after loss, life can feel very uncertain, and a lot can change. At times like this, it can be helpful to reflect on your values and consider whether you are living in a way that is meaningful to you.

This framework can be a great starting place for organisations when building a grief strategy, see our suggestions below:

  • The culture of the organisation is fundamental here and individuals feel safe and supported by their peers and leaders – creating a safe space for people to talk or feel part of when they need it the most is key.
  • Individuals should be given the time and space they need to reflect at their own pace on what has occurred – flexible working should be encouraged upon return to work, for as long as the individual needs.
  • Managers and leaders should be trained in facilitating discussion in this area and providing a safe space for the individuals impacted to be able to speak and process.
  • Key partnerships should be formed to provide resources and support services where needed
  • Workshops and educational sessions on managing grief after loss, as well as other topics that teach other key skills such as Emotional Intelligence, should be a key offering – equipping individuals with the correct tools and also great for team bonding.
  • Work is a key part of individual’s routines and again organisations should encourage a flexible approach to this so individuals can start building up a routine when they are ready and have support doing so if needed.
  • Initiatives and courses that offer teams the opportunity to up-skill or be part of a new group can really help after a loss – giving individuals an area to focus and new connections and skills to learn.

 

At HumanOS we understand when it comes to Grief in the workplace education, compassion, open conversations, building flexible working strategies and strong company cultures can make a big difference for both the organisation and their individuals. The priority always being individuals having access to the correct resources and specialists when they need them and without complication.

I think also important to remember and I say this as someone whose life was turned upside down by the loss of my father in my early 20s – one of the most powerful things I have experienced and witnessed countless times in others impacted by many types of grief, are the huge amounts of individual growth and appreciation for the life we see once we begin to live around the pain. We call this psychological phenomenon Post-Traumatic Growth. It is based on the premise that going through an incredibly difficult situation and having a close encounter with mortality or loss can change your view and perception of the world as you move forward. It often results in a regained appreciation for life, hope, deeper connections with others, and the desire to get the best out of life.

It is fundamental that organisations foster an environment and create space for the individual to allow for this.

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Bianca, Co-Founder @ HumanOS 🌅

References:

Marie Curie. (2021). Current practice and data on bereavement at work. [online] Available at: https://www.mariecurie.org.uk/help/support/bereaved-family-friends/work/employer-resources/research-data-bereavement-work.

Nawaz, S. (2017). How to Offer Support to a Grieving Colleague. [online] Harvard Business Review. Available at: https://hbr.org/2017/04/how-to-offer-support-to-a-grieving-colleague.

Worden, J. W. (1991). Grief counseling and grief therapy: A handbook for the mental health practitioner (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Springer.