Dealing with Grief in the Workplace

Author: Zenresume Editorial Team
Updated on March 05, 2021

Whenever we feel happy in our lives, our work performance usually improves.

But what about the times of deep anguish?

When tragedies strike, for any number of reasons, human beings need time to grieve — so how can employers better support staff members in need?

Many companies do allow for grievance time after the loss of a loved one. Some designate a certain number of paid days employees may take following the death of an immediate family member. But, is that enough time to truly process the incoming waves of grief? And what about employees grieving losses for reasons other than death?

How Do Employees Manage Relationship Loss?

Nearly half of all marriages end in divorce. Parting ways with someone who has shared a home and bed with you for years causes mourning and feelings of emptiness. Suddenly, the one confidante, cheerleader and comforter a person has disappears. It's enough to make anyone feel lost.

Somdip Dey, the embedded AI scientist at the University of Essex and a member of the board of Directors of ReMe Baskets, LTD, explains his experience: 

In 2018, I went through a terrible breakup. I was in a serious relationship for more than two years and I was also the managing director of ReMe Basket Ltd., a company which focuses on reducing food waste using mobile solutions. In January 2018, my supposed-to-be significant other broke [it] off, saying that we are too different. I had already started planning so many things for us — the wedding ring, the marriage venue and even the house we were going to settle into. All in ruins.
After this news, it shook me to the core, and I was not able to function properly as one of the directors, especially [the] managing director of the company. I realized that my personal failure was dragging me and the company down, so I immediately stepped down.

Mourning doesn't only apply to those who have already tied the knot. When any romantic falling-out occurs, people need time to manage the emotions surrounding the split. Those finding the strength to finally leave an abusive relationship often suffer the feelings of fear, self-doubt, and guilt as valid as those who parted amicably. They may need time to recover, to find a safe place to live and to seek mental health care for problems like PTSD.

Besides, it’s not only broken romantic relationships that hurt. Those who experience a falling-out with a dear lifelong friend go through a grieving process as well, and also may struggle with feelings of guilt.

And What About Financial Disaster?

In a nation where 40 percent of all citizens cannot cover a $400 expense without using credit, even the most fiscally responsible people can lose much of what they've worked for their entire lives in a heartbeat.

Losing a home to foreclosure sometimes results when one earner out of a two-income family gets laid off. Those lacking health insurance or those with high deductibles and co-pays may find themselves with a choice between falling behind on rent or letting an injured loved one go without needed care.

It's easy for someone with ample savings and little debt to say, "It's only money." In reality, devastating financial losses take a severe toll on the psyche.

Those struggling through financial losses mourn the disappearance of their shattered life dream. They also often wrestle with feelings of inadequacy, especially in a society where bootstrapping philosophy makes no allowances for unexpected layoffs, medical expenses or natural disasters.

They may feel like failures even if the cause of their money woes stemmed from outside circumstances, not a personal failure or poor decision-making.

Structured workplace wellness programs can help bolster employees' mental health and make them more resilient in how they respond to stressors like money problems.

Sandeep Kumar Aggarwal, the CEO of SKA Management, specializes in creating healthy corporate environments. He explains the importance of doing so:

Mind-body work helps enhance self-awareness, which translates to better management of negative emotions, the reduction of stress and more careful attention to working out bodily aches and pains associated with working in the office space.
We also all want the desire for meaningful work, belonging, social connection, ownership, and purpose. These elements fuel pride and a connection to the workplace. It is important to create a place that enriches employees’ health inside and outside of work, a place where employees actually want to, rather than need to, show up.

To do this, Sandeep’s company has added employee perks like yoga and meditation sessions, ice cream socials, handwritten CEO notes to employees and cold-press juicers in the kitchen for healthy drink prep. Encouraging employees to live healthier and happier lives can help them balance out their emotions better.

Employees Grieving Physical or Mental Illness

The fragility of human existence means many suffer mental and physical health woes.

The invincibility mindset gives many people the sense that everyone bears responsibility for their illnesses or disabilities when in reality, diseases strike even those with the healthiest habits.

Those diagnosed with physical ailments often mourn the loss of their ability to perform their work functions at the same level as they could previously.

Many with chronic conditions find they need workplace accommodations to continue to perform or may need to reduce their hours or step down to a less demanding position. They also must grapple with the reality that their health may never improve and live with the fear that it will deteriorate further.

Those with mental illness also often struggle with feelings of fear, uncertainty, and despair. Finding the most effective solution for an ailment can take a lot of time, trial and error. Employers can do much to offer support.

Brian Zotti, the customer experience professional at Capital One, explains his experience with minority stress in the workplace:

I was struggling with my identity as a gay man in the business world with few to no role models and a deep fear that I would lose not only my credibility and momentum rising through the organization, but also my friendships. I was terrified at how the loss of those friends and family would distract me so severely that it could end my career as well. The process of coming out was unexplainably difficult for me. In fact, I was so sure that coming out was going to lead to my world ending that I started to mourn the death of my own identity. 

"Fortunately, Capital One had set up networks for its employees designed to bring together traditionally underrepresented minority groups — Asian, African-American, Hispanic, women, LGBT, etc. They invested money and thought leadership when designing the communities.

The groups came together virtually and in person to participate in a meaningful and constructive dialogue, which not only made the organization more aware of the challenges each group believed to be the most important, but it also provided a way for me to gain perspective, hear advice and build friendships with others that had similar experiences themselves. Communities like this at work are life savers and career savers!"

How Can Employers Help Grieving Employees?

If you're an employer and one of your staff has suffered such a loss, what can you do? What can you say, and how can you approach the delicate matter tactfully?

Certified grief counselor Tracee Dunblazier offers some practical tips for professionals managing workplace grief:

The most important thing to know about grief is that it comes in waves, at any time. As an employer, it's paramount to dispel the cultural shame that comes with being emotional in the workplace. Let your people know that grief is a natural part of any transition or loss — and that they won't be judged should they happen upon a trigger for their grief, during their work day.

"There is a big possibility that your employee has a fear of falling apart in front or their co-workers, but the truth is the more one tries to resist the emotion when it comes, the longer it lasts and the less focus one has to complete their work. Encourage them to naturally work through the grief at their desk, or feel free to take a five-minute break to allow the emotions to release. When the emotion has moved through, it will be easier for them to regain a productive equilibrium.

Most importantly, be willing to create a dialogue with your employees about grief, encouraging them to speak about it freely with you and amongst themselves. Being comfortable speaking about it prepares them for when they or someone they work with needs their understanding.

For employees, it’s good to understand that there is a happy medium between telling all your personal business to co-workers and letting everyone know that you are grieving something, in whatever detail you are comfortable.

It's important in times of emotional imbalance to let those people know that if they see you in an emotional state, that you are okay. Depending on the work dynamic, it's also helpful to let others know what you need, whether that means you prefer to be left alone or you appreciate a well-timed joke or just a warm pat on the shoulder.”

The key tips to know when supporting those in mourning include:

  1. Acknowledge what happened. Talking about loss makes many people uncomfortable. Take the employee aside and offer sincere condolences. Offer to tell other staff what happened to take the responsibility off the mourner's shoulder.
  2. Ask what they need. People grieve in different ways. Some need time off, while others find escaping into work comforting. Instead of pointing straight to the bereavement policy in the handbook, ask what the employee would find supportive. They may want to work half days while they process grief, they may wish to telecommute or they may need a quiet office to retreat to when sorrow overwhelms them.
  3. Offer resources. Ask the grieving employee if counseling services will help them process their emotions. If you have an employee assistance plan, remind employees of that benefit. If you don’t have one of these, consider getting one started, or at least offering a list of employee resources for grief management and support. If the budget allows, perhaps you can even offer to connect them with an outside counselor and pay for a number of sessions.
  4. Show understanding. Grief is funny — some days are manageable, while others fall apart. Be understanding when the employee has a bad day. If their work performance suffers for an extended period, schedule a time to speak privately about the issue. Before the meeting, plan what to say and what to offer, such as assistance in getting back up to speed or moving to a less stressful position.

Many employers consider sending flowers and cards signed by co-workers the extent of their duty to the bereaved. While such gestures are thoughtful, practical help in transitioning back to work after a loss matters just as much.

A More Empathetic Workplace

Not everyone feels comfortable approaching sensitive topics like divorce, death, health or financial issues. Handling employee grief the right way will help your team members transition and heal more quickly. You hired the best of the best — but remember, no matter how stellar a grieving worker is, they are still human, too.

So, what do you think?

  • Can you think of any life events we didn’t cover that could be grief-inducing? How might they be handled best, in your opinion?
  • Have you had an experience, as either an employee or an employer, in which you dealt with grief in the workplace? How did you handle it?
  • Would you prefer to apply for a job that makes it clear during the hiring process that the workplace culture is sensitive to mental health issues?

Let us know in the comments! We can’t wait to hear your thoughts.



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