Grief in the Workplace
By Dr Bill Webster​

We have not recognized the enormous effect grief has on the workplace. Not only does it affect those who experience bereavement, there are many struggling to cope with and grieving over OTHER significant losses — divorce and separation; relocation; job changes; injury; being passed over for promotion; being laid off; early retirement; and unemployment.At any given time, a significant section of the work force may be coping with a major personal loss.

Much as we would like to subscribe to the concept of a compassionate society, the real world can be cruel. The expectations of the workplace are that the employee will perform and produce, devoid of human emotions and unaffected by personal experiences.  In some work environments, the expression of personal feelings is taboo, often interpreted as weakness.Yet, if bereavement produces a necessary emotional response, a conflict between the needs of the individual and the goals of the workplace seems inevitable. 

Most companies recognize death as an acceptable cause for absence from work.Many give three days off to help employees cope with the loss of a loved one, although there is often a hierarchy of loss, with three days for the loss of a spouse, child or parent, ranging down to one day for other relatives.Sometimes there will be an informal policy regarding the death of a co-worker or a “friend” (a term we cannot assume we understand in today’s society without some knowledge of the actual relationship). Most companies respond to a death with meaningful gestures such as sending flowers or memorials, and are supportive around the time of the death.

An understanding of the grief process indicates people are generally in a state of shock and numbness in the days after a loss. Confusing numbness with strength, some people feel support can be withdrawn shortly after the event.We expect or hope people will just “get on with it”. Yet, most manifestations of grief do not appear until weeks or months after the event. Because there is not much understanding of this process, this reaction catches both the individual and the employer by surprise.

Over time, the bereaved employee may experience some of the following symptoms: inability to concentrate; lack of motivation; impaired decision-making; confusion; memory gaps; anxiety; crying; social withdrawal; apathy; decreasing productivity; and other seemingly in appropriate emotional responses.  These are all the more bewildering because they are uncharacteristic of the person. As a result of these normal but dysfunctional responses, such employees often have a high absentee, sickness, alcohol and drug use and accident rate in the months after a significant loss.        

Because of the effect a troubled employee has on productivity, which is after all the bottom line in business, many companies have responded with employee assistance programmes (EAP). Such programmes address many issues, such as substance abuse, marital and emotional problems, and play a significant part in helping an employee cope with a personal loss. Unfortunately, often only larger companies are able to offer such help, yet these resources are needed by all. Where there is no programme available through an EAP, arrangements could be made by businesses or other referring agencies to connect people with an ongoing grief support program through a local funeral home.

Every manager or executive will eventually be confronted with a death in the workplace.  There is a need to provide them with information enabling them to understand the grief process and so understand the grieving employee. Such understanding will enable the workplace to become more accommodating to the needs of their people. Three days of funeral leave only begins to address the grieving individual’s needs. Healing takes time, often much longer than people expect. The full impact of grief is felt long after the funeral.

Most people do not have the opportunity or the financial luxury of taking an extended leave of absence. Usually they must keep on working while they are putting their lives together. Finding energy to do both can be a challenge. Managers and knowledgeable co-workers can do much to support grieving people through this stressful time, and thus dramatically reduce non-productive behaviours. The ability to identify employees experiencing grief and loss and refer them to the appropriate resources can be vital to the well-being of the work climate as well as to the individual. Grief is not a mental illness nor aberrant behaviour, though it is sometimes treated as such. Loss is a fact of life. Grief is the reaction to that loss, and must be worked through by the individual in order to heal.

Some ideas for the business manager: organize lunch time seminars for interested staff and employees; access community support groups often available through local funeral homes; offer bereavement counseling resources; and offer training workshops for staff on understanding grief and support for grieving employees.