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  • 20 December 2023
  • 7 months

Addressing Grief in the Workplace

Emily Fournier

Marketing and Communications Manager

One of the most silent, often overlooked, but formidable disruptors of the workplace is the feeling—the only feeling—that everybody loves to set a timer or an expiration date for; and that feeling is grief: The internal sensation thought to be experienced at least once by the vast majority of people (at least 86 percent of people over the age of 16 in the UK), but seldom talked about outside of the context of a recent loss or death.

In the UK, it is estimated that at least a quarter of working age adults experience a death or loss in any given year. Nearly two-thirds of employers have at least one employee who goes on bereavement leave each year; and the costs of bereavement to the UK economy are estimated to exceed £20 billion each year. And yet:

  • More than three-quarters of Britons admit to feeling pressured to stop or avoid talking about their grief;
  • At least a third claim to avoid talking about it because they “know it will make others uncomfortable;” and
  • Less than a third say that their employer has communicated with them about grief or bereavement in the past year, while a similar number admit that they don’t know if their employer even has a bereavement policy.

And this mass of stigma or blind ignorance that seems to persist around grief can have considerable ramifications. Namely, it can lead to productivity and profitability losses, and have an adverse effect on employees’ overall performance, motivation, and retention; it can disrupt the culture of the workplace, dissolving once strong or good-natured relationships amongst peers, their managers, and leaders; and worst of all—from the employees’ perspective—it can lead to the development of ‘complicated’ or ‘prolonged’ grief (also known as Persistent Complex Bereavement Disorder): a chronic condition in which a person remains in an ongoing, heightened state of grief long after (typically defined as more than a year or two years) a death or loss took place.

Complicated Grief: How It Happens, What It Looks Like, and What It Means for the Workplace

According to experts, while most people will grieve at some point in their lifetime, 10 percent of them will go on to develop chronic grief, experiencing “intense suffering for a prolonged period—sometimes years…[that can] feel unbearable and even lead to several psychological and physiological symptoms.” These symptoms include, but are not limited to:

  • Intense sorrow or pain; frequent crying; depression
  • Anxiety; PTSD
  • Substance abuse
  • Emotional numbness or detachment
  • Loneliness, isolation; social withdrawal
  • Bitterness, frustration
  • Lack of trust in others
  • Repression
  • Feeling that life is meaningless; difficulty finding meaning in work, life, and relationships
  • Difficulty with reintegration (e.g., returning to work, resuming hobbies, planning for the future)
  • Poor concentration; trouble focusing at work
  • Sleep issues, including insomnia or having trouble staying awake
  • Difficulty carrying out daily tasks and routines
  • Inability to enjoy life or hobbies that one once enjoyed
  • Obsessive-compulsive behaviors; ruminating over the loss and what led up to it (e.g., believing that you did something wrong or that the death could have been prevented)
  • Survivor’s guilt; suicidal ideation

While the explicit causes of the disorder are not known, experts contend that there are a number of factors that can increase a person’s risk of developing complicated grief, including:

  • An unexpected or violent death—especially one that is traumatic in nature or was preceded or succeeded by a traumatic event
  • The death of an immediate family member, including the loss of a child, parent, sibling, or spouse; as well as the loss of someone close to the survivor, including a partner, close friend, or mentor
  • Social isolation or the loss of a support system
  • Co-morbid mental health conditions, including past history of depression, anxiety, or PTSD
  • Financial hardship and other major life stressors

Unfortunately, as some will undoubtedly note, such risk factors are inevitable: should people live to old age, they are going to have to experience the death of their parents; and while no one wants to admit it, many parents will also unfortunately suffer the loss of a child—21 to 42 parents a day, in fact, according to some estimates.

That said, preventing this disorder, then, ultimately falls upon employers to provide a social network or support system for their bereaved employees. This includes, among a number of solutions, creating a space for people to talk, allowing people to grieve openly in the workplace or to express their concerns, creating a support network for bereaved peers, granting workers the right amount of time off to grieve, and providing reasonable accommodations when applicable (such as redistributing work, allowing the individual to work from home, or work in a private area of the office).

Unfortunately, however, the reality is that far too many employers fail to create that safe space for their employees. A typical bereavement leave is a week at best—a couple of days at worst. More than half of employees in the UK observe a collective ignorance when it comes to “knowing how to talk about death and dying,” indicating that many employers fail to properly train or educate their employees on grief. Many employees feel the pressure of “getting back to work” and “returning to normal” lest they should lose their jobs after returning from leave. And across the board, grief seems to be “too-off-limits” or “taboo” to acknowledge in the workplace.

And it’s exactly under these conditions, when grief goes unrecognized and unaddressed in the workplace, when employees‘ grief can become chronic, as they struggle to make room for their grieving process due to work demands, apathy from managers and colleagues, lack of support, the pressure to save face, and perhaps even the harmful belief that they don’t have a “right to grieve.”

As this happens, employees are ultimately subjected to a myriad of mental, emotional, and physical consequences that impact not only their own performance, but that of their teams and the entire organization as well. As findings from one study revealed, among these complications include:

  • Sleeplessness, appetite changes, and fatigue resulting in higher rates of sick days and absenteeism;
  • Being “in a fog” or “on autopilot” which not only hinders their ability to keep up with current tasks and demands, but also stifles their creativity and impedes upon their ability to come up with new ideas—sabotaging the inventiveness or innovativeness of their organization;
  • Apathy toward one’s job, coworkers, managers, or employer, decreasing morale, disrupting team cohesion and weakening camaraderie, and ultimately creating a more hostile or toxic work environment; and
  • Half-heartedness or “phoning it in,” as bereaved employees repeatedly make note of struggling to “bring their whole or best selves to work,” which can of course lead to higher turnover down the road, a decreased bottom-line, a declining reputation, and a harder time attracting and retaining new talent.

When it comes to the organizational consequences of complicated grief, additional research also indicates that up to three-quarters of grieving employees report declines in productivity; nearly 70 percent report declines in the quality of their organization’s products or services; a whopping 90 percent report being less likely to recommend their organization as a good place to work; and up to 80 percent report making more frequent errors or mistakes.

How Employers Can Respond to Grief in the Workplace

Put simply, when it comes to addressing grief in the workplace, one of the best things that employers can do is exactly that: address it. This means talking about it, acknowledging it, creating space for it, taking the time to learn about and understand it, and advocating for those who experience it—something that far too few employers currently succeed in doing.

Action Through People-Centric Policies

At the most basic level, this requires employers to update bereavement, sick, or parental leave policies to ensure that they are people-centric in nature and that they demonstrate a robust and sympathetic understanding of the unique needs that those who have recently undergone a loss experience. Principally, this must include taking into account the various legal, financial, familial, and social responsibilities that one may have to deal with following a loss, and considering how well these are honored by current time-off policies. Study findings consistently show that employees are often less-than-satisfied with their employers’ bereavement benefits, citing that the time their allowed off is insufficient, and that the process of obtaining bereavement leave is often much too complicated for them to deal with while mentally, emotionally, and physically absent.

Another gap or limitation present throughout current bereavement policies that often leads to distress and dissatisfaction among bereaved employees is the use of restricting labels to define relationships that are covered by bereavement policies, such as “immediate family member,” which often excludes significantly close relatives outside of parents, siblings, or children; long-term domestic partnerships; and close friends. Such restrictive language is often what inspires employees to feel like they “have no right” to grieve over the loss, whether in the workplace or beyond, leading to chronic and unmanageable grief. As an alternative, experts recommend that employers stick to looser, more inclusive phrases, such as “close relative,” or “close relationship” to honor those who may lose, for instance, aunts that served as mothers; friends that served as brothers and sisters; a long-term boyfriend that served as a life partner; and more.

Training and Education for a Safer Workplace

In addition to improving and expanding upon bereavement policies, experts and employees alike also underscore the importance of enhancing current training and educational initiatives to include topics related to grief and loss. In fact, according to researchers, by taking a proactive approach to addressing grief by educating employees on the grieving process and how they can manage or regulate their emotions, employers can work to prevent complicated or chronic grief from cropping up in their workplace and expedite both the grieving and return-to-work processes for their bereaved employees.

Likewise, research also demonstrates that a manager’s ability to respond appropriately has a direct impact on the employee’s perception of support, and thus their ability to cope with their grief—and that ability to respond appropriately requires managers to have skillset needed to recognize signs of grief in the workplace, approach employees with sympathy and sensitivity, and communicate and collaborate with them in a way that honors their needs. Thus, managers need to be trained on how to execute crucial tactics and techniques, such as:

  • ‘Active’ or ’empathic’ listening;
  • Knowing when to offer advice or referrals to internal or external resources—and when not to;
  • Knowing what to say to someone experiencing a loss—in other words, how to appropriately offer condolences;
  • Knowing when to talk about the plan for the employee’s return to the office;
  • How to include employees in the process of planning their return-to-work; and
  • Recognizing when additional accommodations might be needed and how to go about implementing them

Compassion Through Culture

On a similar note, just as well-educated and well-intended support from managers and coworkers can make all the difference when it comes to how well employees are able to cope with their grief, studies show that work relationships in general have an understated impact on the grieving process. Just as toxic relationships can contribute to unrecognized, suppressed, and chronic grief, so, too, can positive relationships contribute to well-managed, well-processed grief.

As Worden’s Four Tasks of Mourning posit, the final step toward fully processing one’s grief and transitioning out of their state of mourning is to “reinvest their energy in their new reality;” in other words, to find meaning, connection, and fulfillment in a world without the deceased. For most people, the relationships that are formed at work—sometimes even the work itself—are one of if not the main source of meaning-making outside of one’s family, home, and more intimate community.

That said, it’s on employers to cultivate a workplace culture that espouses compassion, care, and concern for others, and that boasts a strong camaraderie between coworkers. One of the most effective ways to do this, apart from training and educational pursuits, is to create employee resource groups or support groups; mentor- and ambassadorship opportunities; and team-bonding or –building events and activities. Chiefly, these should include grief support groups and workshops that enable others to talk about their grief and be comforted by their coworkers, as research consistently shows that bereaved people can benefit greatly from talking about their experiences and building connections with those who share similar stories, especially in group settings.

Accommodations and Appropriate Support Resources

And when it comes to creating a benevolent work environment that encourages bereaved employees to seek help, equally important to cultivating that internal support system for employees to reach out to is building up a strong repository of relevant resources, services, or accommodations for employees to reach out for.

Among the basic accommodations that bereaved employees express a steadfast interest in include:

  • Adjustment and redistribution of work duties and responsibilities
  • A private space in which to work quietly or take a break
  • Flexible work schedules, including permission to work from home, arrive to work late, or leave early
  • Decreased workloads
  • Additional paid time off for extreme circumstances

In addition to accommodations, however, one of the main sources of support that bereaved employees seek in the workplace is comprehensive and relevant care and support from their employers’ wellbeing programs. As experts note, grief is its own ailment separate from common mental health disorders like depression and anxiety; as such, it cannot always be effectively addressed under such a broad or more generic scope. Instead, experts contend that such individuals need therapeutic interventions that specifically target grief and bereavement. This includes counseling interventions that lay out the possible stages of grief and help a person come to terms with the intense thoughts, feelings, or behaviors that they may experience in the face of a loss—especially those that may last long after the sting of grief subsides. More standard interventions that can also be particularly beneficial for bereaved employees include:

  • Mindfulness interventions, including guided meditation, yoga, and tai chi;
  • Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), which promotes acceptance of one’s reality, one’s thoughts and feelings, and encourages positive forward-thinking;
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which enables individuals to recognize negative or harmful thought or behavioral patterns, reflect on their root causes or sources, and develop healthier habits;
  • Cognitive processing therapy, which is used for especially traumatic instances and cases of PTSD or traumatic grief; and
  • Narrative therapy, which helps individuals to separate themselves from what happened and their reaction to the loss

Crisis intervention support is also critical for employees who experience a traumatic loss in the workplace, such as the loss of a coworker or coworkers due to circumstances such as a shooting, a natural disaster, a fire, or other emergency. Crisis support also plays a crucial role in supporting employees who have recently undergone a loss due to external disasters, such as those related to natural disasters or weather events, wars or political conflicts, and more. Financial and legal assistance can also prove prudent for bereaved employees as they manage the deceased’s estates, funeral costs, and wills.

Strengthening the Impact of Bereavement Benefits with Return-to-Work Support

Finally, one of the most undermined and therefore neglected components of bereavement support that employers would be wise to pay more attention to are return-to-work interventions. There are a number of different factors that can influence how well—or how poorly—a bereaved employee’s return to the office goes. For starters, there’s the issue of returning too soon, which can be remediated by providing flex time or longer bereavement leaves as previously mentioned. Then there’s the potential presence of stigma, ignorance, and apathy in the workplace, which can be remediated with educational and cultural interventions. The extent of how severe, traumatic, and/or sudden a loss was can also impact how much clinical support is needed in order for employees to get back on track and process their grief.

But then—and this is where return-to-work strategies become requisite—there’s the general roadblocks that are bound to pop up after an employee spends a long time away from the workplace: namely, disconnection and disengagement; stress, anxiety, uncertainty, and insecurity; difficulty readapting or adjusting to workloads or work processes; and difficulty assimilating back into the social and/or physical environment of the workplace. To resolve these, employers will need to invest in and implement rehabilitation, reintegration, and reconnection programs that help employees make a successful return to work by helping them to:

  • Identify and implement strategies for a fulfilling life post-loss;
  • Reinvest energy back into the work that they do and into the relationships they have with those who are still here, like their coworkers;
  • Manage their thoughts and emotions as they transition back to the workplace, asking for help or reorganizing tasks or agendas as needed; and
  • Continually strive toward moving past their grief and making space for further growth in both their work and personal lives

At the end of the day, creating a compassionate and supportive workplace for bereaved employees is not just a moral obligation—part of employers’ duty of care—but also a crucial organizational strategy. By providing sympathy and understanding; flexibility and patience; and an abundance of resources, employers can ensure that their employees have the support needed to navigate their grief successfully and make a successful return to work—outcomes that are necessary in order to retain talent, limit productivity losses, maintain an orderly and good-natured workforce, and continuously adapt to whatever hardships, catastrophes, or crises make their way into the workforce.

According to the latest estimates, nearly two-thirds of UK employers will have at least one employee go on bereavement leave each year. Given the universality of the condition, by demonstrating a profound commitment to their grieving employees inside the workplace today, employers can also signal to the rest of their workforce that when the time unfortunately, inevitably comes, they too, will be supported and granted the space to process their loss and come to terms with a reality without the deceased.

Workplace Options helps employees balance their work, family, and personal needs to become healthier, happier, and more productive, both personally and professionally. The company’s world-class employee support, effectiveness, and wellbeing services provide information, resources, referrals, and consultation on a variety of issues ranging from dependent care and stress management to clinical services and wellness programs. Contact us to learn more. 

This content is intended for general information only. It does not provide specific direction, advice, or recommendations. You may wish to contact an appropriate professional for questions concerning your particular situation.

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