Working Through Grief


Going back to work after the death of a loved one can be a double-edged sword. Most companies will give a week at most for bereavement leave. By the time two weeks have passed, it is expected that the worker will return to normal…whatever that means. This results in people going back to work in fresh, or acute, grief mode. On one hand, returning to work can beneficial. Work played a huge part in how I managed to cope with acute grief. Focusing on other people allowed me to take a break from the constant management of the social and business parts of death and grief. Other positive aspects of returning to work include:

  • A chance to see colleagues who might offer support
  • Structure and stability in all the chaos of loss
  • Contribution and connection
  • A distraction from intense emotions

On the other hand, there is a downside to trying to juggle the demands of work with the demands of grief. My mind’s functioning was harder to control. I turned in reports later than normal and could not handle a full caseload. Grief impacts so much of the brain power people need for work. Those in acute grief suffer from a lack of focus, memory loss, fatigue and depression. They are also less able to manage stress and frustration. The negative impact on grieving in the workplace is concerning. A Swedish study found that 4% of those who lost children left the work-force within six years. Their annual income dropped 10% within that time as well. Those numbers may seem small, but they reflect a big issue. Can something be done about this?

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, about 60% of all workers and 71% of full-time workers get bereavement leave. So, if you know of a company without a bereavement policy, strongly suggest they start one. If you own a company, recognize the needs of employees struggling with grief like Facebook has recently done. On February 7, 2017, the COO of Facebook, Sheryl Sandberg, began giving 20 paid days bereavement leave after the death of an immediate family member. Facebook now also gives 10 days of paid leave for those who have lost an extended family member. This kind of leadership can pave the way for other businesses and is very encouraging. Perhaps your company could follow their lead?

Then, there is The Dinner Party (TDP). TDP is a community of mostly 20- and 30-year-olds in the U.S who gather to discuss their experiences with grief. TDP has also been working to educate employers on the impact of grief on the workplace. Discussing ways to change policies and offer resources, TDP and these companies have been creating better ways to assist employees in grief. These are promising changes, but more change is needed.

The following are suggestions on ways co-workers and employers can better respond to those dealing with grief. These are not exhaustive lists but offer a baseline for where to start.

What if you have a co-worker in grief?

  • Acknowledge the co-worker’s grief through kind words or actions.
  • Be patient, they may not be able to perform at their best right away.
  • Expect tears. They are a normal part of the grieving process.
  • Remember to include them in social plans. It will be up to them to accept or decline the invitation.
  • Be wary of sharing stories of your own losses. This is about their loss, not yours.
  • Be willing to listen.
  • Respect their privacy.

What if you have an employee in grief?

  • Acknowledge the death with a note or a sympathy gift sent from management and workers.
  • It can help to have someone from the workplace attend the funeral to convey the company’s condolence.
  • Accept that the grieving person’s moods may fluctuate and may include tears.
  • Let the person grieve in their own way, knowing that it takes time.
  • Respect the employee’s privacy.
  • Provide some flexibility in work hours in case they get overwhelmed.
  • Help manage their work. If the person finds working to be therapeutic, let them continue with their usual workload. However, offer a lightened load at first.

Do you have good, bad or neutral experiences of how workplaces have managed grief? Do you have any recommendations on how to make the transition back to work better? Please leave a comment.

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