Grief in the workplace


Death is never easy to talk about regardless if it’s a personal loss or someone close to you is experiencing the loss. Heartbreaking and unthinkable incidents happen daily. We hear about them on the news and when you least expect it, it hits home. The immediate impact is without a doubt overwhelming, but ongoing support is most critical because grief does not have an expiration date.

How an employer supports a bereaved employee will have long lasting consequences in that person’s life. If treated with sensitivity and compassion, the employee will feel valued by the organization and their commitment to their job will be strengthened. If treated poorly, not only will their performance suffer, but their overall well-being could be damaged even more so than what they are already experiencing.

Bereavement leave is crucial. Allowing adequate time for the employee to manage practical responsibilities and recover from the immediate emotional impact cultivates goodwill. Sadly, the average bereavement time offered in the United States is 3-5 days. Can you imagine going back to work within 5 days after losing a child, a parent or a spouse?

Bereavement leave is one aspect of this tragic life event. How should you acknowledge what happened and offer proper condolences? How do coworkers and supervisors support this person in a new fragile state? Is flexibility extended to the griever so they can cope with their loss? Regrettably, it’s very common for employees to suppress their grief in the workplace.

“It’s almost universally unsafe to communicate the degree to which you are distracted by grief at work,” says Russell Friedman, executive director of the Grief Recovery Institute in Sherman Oaks, California. “People are afraid others will accuse them of slacking off or not carrying their weight. They’re afraid they’ll lose their job.”

If not handled properly, grief can create a toxic situation for both the employee and the employer. Grief causes physical and psychological side effects that result in loss of productivity, poor judgement, absenteeism, etc… The Grief Recovery Institute discovered that:

  • Eighty-five percent of management-level decision-makers indicated that their decision-making ranked from “very poor” to “fair” in the weeks or months following the grief incident that affected them.

  • Ninety percent of those in blue-collar and other physical jobs indicated a much higher incidence of physical injuries because of reduced concentration in the weeks or months following the grief incident.When study participants were asked if their reduced ability to concentrate affected them for any period of time beyond any allowed bereavement time, in the case of the death of a loved one, 75 percent indicated that reduced capacity affected them significantly beyond the allowed leave.

  • Asked to estimate the amount of lost days they believe were the direct and immediate result of their reduced focus, 50 percent reported at least 30 lost days in which their value to the company or business was dramatically reduced, and may well have contained significant negative consequences in the form of poor decision making, poor supervisory skills, reduced sales ability and increased workplace accidents and injuries.

“It is generally acknowledged, and confirmed by our study, that the death of a loved one is the loss event that has the highest probability of affecting people’s ability to function in the workplace,” Friedman says.

So what can your do to support grieving employees? Here are 3 quick tips to help you help your employees.

  1. Be flexible. People need time to refocus and there is not a one size fits all solution. Realize you are engaging with a human who is emotionally traumatized and needs time to refocus.

  2. Be present. Don’t shy away from being supportive. Ignoring the loss is possibly the worst thing to do. Show compassion by offering help, or a listening ear, or simple kind gestures of understanding.

  3. Don’t judge. This was not your loss so you cannot begin to understand the depth of pain they are feeling. It’s important to keep in mind that the personal connection, outside circumstances and other factors play into grief so death experiences may be relate-able although they are never comparable (learn more about this in our webinar training.) Employees need a safe environment to heal, and if they are being judged they will internalize their emotions which prolongs the healing process.

NOTE: “Grief” comes from various forms of loss, not just death; this article focuses on the death of a close family member. Sign up for our webinar to learn more information on how to handle [any] grief in the workplace.


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