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  • 28 May 2024
  • 2 weeks

When Grief Goes Unacknowledged and How it Affects the Workplace

Hal Morgan

Grief is a natural response to loss. It’s not a mental health condition or a sign that something is wrong with a person, but it can be debilitating, and the effects of grief can last for a long time.

When people are grieving, they need time to process their emotions and they often need sympathy and support from the people around them. When time for grieving is denied and sympathy and support are withheld, grief can become even harder to bear. This is what happens with unacknowledged grief.

What is unacknowledged grief?

Unacknowledged grief, which is also referred to as hidden, silent, or disenfranchised grief, is grief that is not validated, recognized, or supported by society or the people around a person who has suffered a loss.

When a close family member dies, such as a parent, spouse, or child, grief is expected and supported. Grievers are comforted with visits, consoling messages, and food. Religious and social rituals bring people together to mourn the loss. Time off from work is typically allowed. Managers and colleagues usually accept that the griever may not be at their best when they’re at work. That sympathy and support may have limits and it may be withdrawn before the emotions of grief have run their full course, but it is usually openly offered while it lasts.

For losses that are less direct, less visible, or perhaps tainted with stigma, support is less available and may not be offered at all. The pain of loss is not acknowledged, and the griever is left to bear their emotions alone.

Examples of losses that can go unacknowledged include:

  • Death of a loved one by suicide or drug overdose
  • Miscarriage, stillbirth, infertility, or an adoption that didn’t go through
  • The death of a friend or work colleague
  • The death of a cousin or another relative not considered “close enough” to warrant intense grief
  • The death of a same-sex partner, especially if the relationship has not been openly recognized
  • The death of a patient, for a medical professional
  • The death of an ex-spouse or former partner
  • Divorce or the end of a romantic relationship
  • The death of a pet
  • Loss from the changes in a loved one due to dementia or Alzheimer’s
  • Loss of a loved one to addiction
  • Loss of work community and a sense of stability following a layoff or restructuring
  • Loss of a home or home country due to war or disaster
  • Acts of violence against members of a person’s community

How unacknowledged grief affects people

Anyone who has experienced the death of a loved one knows that the emotions of grief can be painful, unpredictable, and long-lasting. Many people understand that grief can cycle through stages, with reactions that may include shock and disbelief, denial, anger, guilt, and sadness. Support from other people is often helpful to people who are dealing with grief. Emotional support can help them feel less alone in their sorrow, and practical support can help when they don’t have the energy or focus to take good care of themselves.

With unacknowledged grief, those same emotions can be experienced. But without support or even recognition of the loss by others, a person can feel completely alone as they try to cope. They may be told, or believe themselves, that they shouldn’t feel as deeply as they do about the loss, that they should get over it and get on with their life, or that they should be more focused and productive at work. With these pressures not to grieve, or not to show grief, the emotions associated with the loss can be internalized or suppressed. This can lead to problems such as:

  • anxiety
  • muscle tension and pain
  • stomach problems
  • insomnia
  • depression
  • trouble focusing
  • relationship problems
  • mood swings
  • withdrawal or feelings of isolation
  • self-doubt and a loss of self-esteem and self-confidence

Whether a person hides their loss because they feel it is shameful or inappropriate to mention, or others know about the loss but ignore, trivialize, or dismiss it, the result is the same. The person grieves alone and suffers alone. The support that could help them through the grief is not available.

How unacknowledged grief can affect the workplace

While grief is an experience almost everyone goes through at some point in their lives, the common understanding is that it shouldn’t affect a person’s work.

The problem is that grief often does affect work performance. A person experiencing grief may show a lack of energy and focus, poor concentration, exhaustion, and mood swings. They may be quick to anger or prone to tears. When managers and colleagues know a worker has experienced a significant loss, they generally make allowances for these common reactions. It would be cruel to punish grief-related lapses as performance problems (although that does happen). Instead, people typically recognize that the effects of grief aren’t permanent. A manager may suggest a grief-stricken employee get help from the employee assistance program or, if it is an option, take time off. Co-workers, willingly or not, tend to pick up the slack when a grieving employee underperforms.

Unacknowledged grief, though, is by its nature hidden. Colleagues and managers may not know the person has experienced a loss. If they know, they may not understand or accept the intensity of the person’s feelings. The person suffering may not realize that the sadness or unhappiness they feel is a form of grief. As a result, the risk is greater that the employee’s grief response will be seen and treated as a performance problem. Rather than offering support and kindness, or steering the employee to needed support, the behavior may be punished. In the worst case, a good employee may be lost to the organization because of a normal and temporary response to loss.

What employers can do to help

Most employers have come to understand that some life stages and changes require accommodation and support in order to retain productive employees. Parental leave, for example, makes it possible for working parents to continue working when they have children. A break is allowed and then they return. Some employers go further and help employees with child care. A good manager will look for opportunities to offer flexibility in where and when work is done as a way to help parents balance their work and family responsibilities.

Grief, too, is a normal life experience, a stage people pass through in response to loss. The phenomenon of unacknowledged grief points to a gap in the accommodation and support practices of many employers.

How can a manager know when unacknowledged grief is behind an employee’s drop in performance? By having a straightforward performance management conversation, pointing out the changes observed, and asking if anything is going on in the employee’s life to cause the changes. The employee doesn’t need to reveal private information and the manager shouldn’t involve themselves in trying to solve the employee’s personal problems, but the conversation, focusing on work, opens the door to offers of accommodation and referrals to support.

Grieving workers, whether their grief is acknowledged or not, have three basic needs in order to process their loss and return to full productivity: time, flexibility, and support.

Time

Bereavement leave is a form of accommodation that recognizes the human need for time to grieve. But bereavement leave is typically limited. It also tends to be governed by a fixed hierarchy of perceived need: the most time off is often granted for the death of a spouse; less time for the death of a parent, sibling, or child; and even less, or none at all, for the death of grandparent or grandchild. The losses experienced in unacknowledged grief, such as pregnancy loss or the death of a friend or work colleague, are usually not covered by bereavement leave policies.

Another, less rigid, framework is needed to accommodate the full range of time needs of grieving employees. It’s unlikely that this can be codified in a hierarchical set of rules, or that that would even be appropriate. One person’s grief over the loss of a beloved pet may be more intense than another person’s emotional reaction to the death of an uncaring or emotionally remote parent. The solution may lie in a respectful and open-minded grant of unpaid time off when employees are unable to function well at work because of their grief, whatever their loss.

Flexibility

Beyond time off, grieving employees need the flexibility to function at less than their best at work while they deal with their grief reactions. This happens now, by default, when employees can’t contribute fully because of a loss, but it’s often accompanied by anxiety and resentment. Grieving employees often know that they are underperforming and may fear that they’ll lose their jobs if their failings are noticed. The overall work requirements don’t change, so the person’s manager and teammates may be openly unhappy about accommodating the lapse.

A better approach would be to openly acknowledge the temporary drop in performance and adjust workloads and schedules so that priorities are adjusted and critical work is shared by others on the team. Safeguards should be in place, too, to minimize the risk of errors due to a reduced ability to focus.

Support

Sometimes the most valuable support an employee can receive is acknowledgement of their loss and recognition of the depth of their feelings. This is a key element in a critical incident response, when employees experience trauma from an act of violence or a death in the workplace. Employees are reassured that their emotional reactions are real and valid, and guided to professional help as needed. That’s a clinical response, requiring professionals trained in recovery from trauma. But at its heart are acts of listening, kindness, and referrals to needed support that any manager or work colleague can provide.

To enable this kind of support from managers and work colleagues, training in normal reactions to loss, and how to respond, can be helpful. The goal is not to turn staff into therapists, but rather to open their eyes to the way loss can affect a person, including their performance at work, and show them appropriate and helpful ways to refer the needy employee to the employee assistance program for support.

Training in the nature of grief and how to help should include an explanation of unacknowledged grief and how ignoring or dismissing another person’s grief can be hurtful. Awareness of normal grief reactions can also help employees respond more generously when a grieving colleague can’t keep up at work, and responsibilities need to be adjusted across a team.

Unacknowledged grief may be hidden at work, but it’s there. It’s there when layoffs and reorganizations occur, when employees suffer pregnancy losses, and when anyone who is close to an employee dies, whether they are recognized by others as family or not.

Unacknowledged grief, like all forms of grief, affects the workplace by temporarily diminishing the energy and focus of affected employees. Since loss is an inevitable part of life and grief is a normal human reaction to loss, employers need to find ways to give grieving employees the time, flexibility, and support they need. The payoff will be in the retention of valued employees and the emergence of a work culture that is kinder, more engaging, and inspiring of greater loyalty.

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. 

Sources

Doka, K., ed. (2002). Disenfranchised grief: new directions, challenges, and strategies for practice. Champaign, IL: Research Press Publishers.

Jarvis, M.R. (2023. 22 March). The consequences of unacknowledged grief in the workplace. MIT Sloan Management Review. https://sloanreview.mit.edu/article/the-consequences-of-unacknowledged-grief-in-the-workplace/

Raypole, C. (2020, 30 March). Disenfranchised grief: When no one seems to understand your loss. Healthline. https://www.healthline.com/health/mental-health/disenfranchised-grief

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