Grief in the Workplace

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Maybe it’s me, but here recently, it seems like I know more people in the workplace that have been struck by a tragedy or personal loss.  Whether serious personal illness/injury or loss of a loved one, dealing with loss or grief in the workplace can be very difficult.

I find myself thinking, “What do I say?” Am I going to aggravate them by simply saying “I’m sorry” or “How can I help?”  I definitely feel compelled to say something, but sometimes it feels awkward, uncomfortable, and quite frankly, I personally feel helpless because there is little I can do to ease the situation for a friend or co-worker.

Let me start by saying that I am not an HR professional.  Simply, someone who has been there a few times and have my own experiences to pull from and in talking with a few of you, know that this is a topic that many don’t know how to tackle well.  So, I offer my own thoughts to this difficult and delicate subject.

My personal opinion and experience has been – when responding to a situation involving grief or significant loss:

  • Treat people respectfully.  Be kind and supportive.
  • Don’t avoid or shun.  Talk to them.  Offer your support and check in on them, but allow them their space.
  • If they ask for your support, give it.
  • Be present.  If appropriate, attend the funeral, wake, or go to the hospital.  Back up your verbal support with your physical presence.
  • Pay attention to the longer term.  Clearly when there is a death, many people rally around, but as the weeks pass, the support often goes away.  So continued support is appreciated and necessary.

This is an important topic for leaders. Why?  Because you don’t get second chances or ‘do-overs’ when responding to someone else’s grief or loss.  You have to get it right the first time and there isn’t a manual that says “do it this way” every time.  Times of crisis like this, when there is a great need, often define how people perceive you as a leader and tests what you are made up of as a leader.  In essence, you show your true colors.  Plus…it’s not about you.  It’s about fulfilling a need for another.

Few of us are prepared for it though.  So, I researched around and found some additional tips on how to handle grief in the workplace that I thought pretty universally applied to supervisors and coworkers.

Above all, these situations require judgment and common sense on your part as everyone deals with grief differently and has different needs.

Leaders can play a key role in helping a person to heal. Resuming the normal routine of work is part of the healthy recovery process. Knowing something about the various stages or behaviors that are common in the grief process can be helpful in understanding how to support grieving workers (there are plenty of resources online to learn this – search “stages of grief”).

Here are some additional tips for dealing with grief in the workplace (specifically around loss):

  • Make contact with your bereaved associate as soon as possible after you learn of their loss. Offer your condolences. Listen and respect confidentiality. Expect sadness and tears.
  • Be prepared. Know your organization’s policy on bereavement and personal time and be ready to explain the policy to the associate.
  • Be as flexible and negotiable as possible in allowing your associate to have the time and space to deal with their loss.
  • Arrange for back-ups and replacements necessary to cover the person’s work during their absence. Ensure that phone calls and e-mail messages are re-directed.
  • Get information on services, funerals and memorials to the person’s colleagues in a timely fashion.
  • If appropriate, help to organize some form of group acknowledgment to support the associate, such as issuing a card or flowers, or planning group attendance at a memorial ceremony.
  • Ensure that support continues when the person returns to work. The first few days may be particularly difficult adjustment.
  • Have back-ups or a buddy system in place when the associate returns to work to provide support and check in with the associate periodically to see how he or she is doing.
  • Consider adjusting the workload. Expect productivity, but be patient and reasonable in your expectations.
  • Be sensitive to the cycle of upcoming holidays or trigger points that might be difficult for the associate.
  • Recognize that other cultures may have customs, rituals or ways of dealing with loss that differ from those to which we are accustomed, especially in our multi-cultural workplace.
  • Watch for warning signs of prolonged grief and ongoing performance issues, such as poor grooming, severe withdrawal, substance abuse, or other uncharacteristic behaviors might be warning signs.
  • Offer resources for professional help. As a manager, you are in a unique position to observe a need for help and to recommend assistance through a referral to your EAP or appropriate community resources.
  • Be mindful of how this situation may be directly or indirectly impacting others in the workplace.  There are many friendships in our workplace, and others may also experience varying levels of grief in support of their friend or colleague.

~Jason

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