Facing Grief at Work

Twenty-three years ago this week, I got a phone call from my parents with the tragic news that my sister had died in a bus accident the night before in Bolivia. She had been volunteering with her husband and they were traveling from their village to the main city. She was thrown from the bus, while he was stuck inside. He freed himself and found her, but she died in his arms on that dark hillside. She was 25 years old.

That call led to my first lesson that no one handles grief the same way. After the shock wore off that morning, my only thought was to finish my MBA final projects before leaving so that I could still graduate on time. Though my roommates tried to pry me out of the study carrel, I was insistent. My way of coping was to bury myself in work, her photo propped on my computer.

My mother went on to write a book about grief, strength and renewal, expressly for parents who lose adult children. While grief is a universal human experience, one of her key insights was that it doesn’t follow the five stage linear progression model as neatly as it may seem. Everyone has their own journey, their own timeframe and may need different types of support at different times.

The Grief of the Pandemic is Universal

One out of five Americans has lost someone close to them to COVID-19. COVID-19 has been particularly cruel as family members died alone or close to alone, which inflicted it’s own secondary trauma. The inability to have rituals intended to support grieving families has compounded the loss. Some family members survived the disease that killed their spouse, parent, friend or child and have survivor guilt. As the world opens up and people are excited to “get back to normal”, those grieving may be feeling completely out of synch or forgotten.

Given the data, it’s highly likely you work with someone in this situation. Yet work is generally a terrible place to grieve. In a prescient HBR article published six months before the pandemic, When a Colleague is Grieving, How to Provide the Right Kind of Support, the authors noted that the standard workplace response is silence and avoidance.

Managers come to work prepared to celebrate births and birthdays, and even to handle illnesses, but when it comes to death, they fall silent and avert their gaze. The default approach is to try to spare the office from grief, leaving bereaved employees alone for a few days and then hoping they’ll return expediently to work. This approach makes management complicit in … a “conspiracy of silence” surrounding death…[that] deprives people of the support that work could offer in times of mourning, erodes collegial bonds, and drains working lives and workplaces of meaning.

It’s also important to understand that COVID-grief is different, something that the American Psychiatric Association refers to as disenfranchised grief. It also hit people who were already facing the mental health challenges of social isolation, fear and significant disruption in their lives from the pandemic. So what can we do for those who are mourning?

1. Be Present, Listen & Be Patient

A nearly universal piece of advice is to ensure those grieving know it’s OK to share how they are feeling at work. Equally important is to suppress judgement. Now is not the time to ask whether they wore a mask, were at a party, or “how they got it”. Acknowledging the loss without making demands of the person is the best a manager can do, and let the griever take the lead.

2. Find Ways to Honor Those Lost

Lazlo Bock, former CHRO for Google, celebrates Dia de Los Muertos at his new company to honor people who have passed. Finding a way to honor loved ones lost during the pandemic, whether through a charitable donation or event in their name, a wall with pictures or a slideshow, or even a place to light candles can help people feel their loss is being acknowledged and supported collectively.

3. Relook at Policies, Watch for Struggling and Speak Up Early

The time a grieving person may need doesn’t fit neatly into a bereavement policy, which is more aligned to the actual logistics of burying someone, not processing their death. Adam Grant (a WeSpire advisor) and Sheryl Sandberg made a forceful argument that most corporations don’t offer nearly enough time for emotional recovery. Whenever possible, let people know you can be flexible and create space for their grief. Let employees donate vacation days to each other. Offer employee assistance funds to ease some of the financial burdens. If you see someone struggling, take them aside and let them know you want to help – or suggest they take a break. If you can tell they are struggling significantly, encourage them to seek out professional support.

The workplace has the opportunity to be a supportive community that helps those who have lost loved ones and aids in their healing. It just needs us all to end the conspiracy of silence.

“Grief is not a disorder, a disease or a sign of weakness. It is an emotional, physical and spiritual necessity, the price you pay for love. The only cure for grief is to grieve.”

Earl Grollman

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