“Grief can be a burden, but also an anchor. You get used to the weight, how it holds you in place.” –Sarah Dessen.
Supporting grieving employees is not just a moral obligation but also has significant implications for the business. When an employee experiences a loss, their productivity and work performance can be severely affected, possibly leading to mistakes, missed deadlines, and a downturn in the quality of work. Grief also affects employees’ mental health, leading to long-term negative consequences if not adequately addressed.
Moreover, how a company responds to an employee’s grief can shape the corporate culture, business values and influence employee morale, retention, and recruitment. A supportive and empathetic response can strengthen employees’ bond with the company, fostering loyalty and employee engagement. It can also enhance the company’s reputation as a compassionate employer, attracting potential talent. This article explains how managers and coworkers can support colleagues through the grieving process and programs to help individual employees deal with grief in the workplace.
How Employees Experience Grief
Grieving is the emotional suffering we feel when a loved one (or material item) is taken away. Often, the pain of loss can feel overwhelming. Individuals may experience all kinds of difficult and unexpected emotions, from shock or anger to disbelief, guilt, and profound sadness.
During the grieving process, there is an initial struggle to accept the reality of loss, often accompanied by numbness and even hallucinations. As time progresses, natural anger might arise due to a perceived injustice of the loss.
Individuals may also bargain with themselves or their beliefs to seek relief from the pain. This often gives way to a period of intense sorrow and longing, causing questioning of life’s meaning. However, eventually acceptance emerges, allowing for a new way of living while holding onto cherished memories.
What are the Top Causes of Grief?
Various factors beyond the death of a loved one can trigger grief. Four of the most common causes of employee grieving include:
1) Job-related Changes:
- Gaining or losing a promotion or career opportunity
- Changes in work conditions, hours, or responsibilities
- Loss of income or feelings of job security
- Retirement from a long-standing career
2) Relationship Changes:
- Welcoming a new baby to the family
- A child leaving home for college or other reasons
- The end of a close friendship
- Experiencing infidelity, separation, or divorce
3) Health Changes:
- Adopting new habits or lifestyle changes
- Personal injury or sudden illness
- Changes in a family member’s health condition
- Coping with a long-term or terminal illness
4) Life Changes:
- Transitioning to work life after graduation
- Moving away from home to a new location
- Dealing with pregnancy-related challenges or loss
- Coping with the death of a spouse, family member, friend, or pet
How to Identify Grieving Employees
Company leaders and peers must acknowledge their coworker’s loss and set an example by expressing sympathy and providing appropriate company-wide responses. Signs of a grieving employee include:
- Decreased Concentration: Grief can lead to confusion and an inability to focus on tasks.
- Shock and Numbness: Employees may experience an initial shock phase after a significant loss.
- Below-Normal Functionality: Job performance may be lower than usual for weeks or months.
- Increased Absence: Grieving employees might take more time off work.
- Changes in Habits: Habits like sleeping, eating, clothing choices, and even coming to work might change.
- Conflicts and Attitude Changes: Grief can cause conflicts with colleagues and shifts in personality from calm to angry or aggressive to passive.
Remember that employees showing no grief symptoms might still need support. Grief support is available through health and community organizations or a company employee assistance program (EAP).
How Can Managers Support Grieving Employees?
Managers can support grieving employees by expressing condolences and offering emotional support during the immediate aftermath of the loss. They should prioritize the employee’s needs over work responsibilities and consider accommodations such as bereavement leave. In addition, managers can inquire about the employee’s preferences for sharing information with coworkers about memorial services and take cultural sensitivities into account when making gestures like sending flowers or making charitable donations.
Managers can arrange to cover the grieving employee’s workload in the event of absence. When the employee returns to work, managers should acknowledge the loss privately, allow the employee to lead conversations about their grief, maintain confidentiality, and offer flexibility in workload and time off as needed.
How Can Coworkers Provide Support?
Coworkers can provide support by acknowledging the loss and respectfully expressing condolences. Team members should allow the grieving employee to share their feelings and respect their privacy if they choose not to discuss it. Coworkers can also help ease the transition back to work by offering a welcoming and understanding environment without pressuring the employees to share their emotions.
If the grieving employee needs time off or assistance with duties, coworkers can be present and understanding, covering for them when necessary. Additionally, coworkers should show compassion over the following months, offer help, and suggest outside support if they notice prolonged interference in the grieving process.
Designing an Employee Assistance Program
Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) can support grieving employees by offering a range of services that address various personal problems. EAP programs often provide individual assessments, short-term counseling, management consultation, referrals to treatment, and employee education. Companies can design their EAPs based on the following principles:
- Provide services that cover physical, mental, and emotional well-being.
- Make services easily accessible through in-house, external, or blended programs, allowing employees to choose what suits them.
- Adapt to different needs, including substance misuse, mental health, legal, and financial concerns.
- Maintain strict confidentiality to create a safe space for seeking help.
- Create mechanisms to assess program effectiveness and collect user feedback for continuous improvement.
EAPs are a good option companies can use for assisting employees in dealing with grief, stress management, balancing work and family life, and other health and wellness issues.
“The weird, weird thing about devastating loss is that life actually goes on. When you’re faced with a tragedy, a loss so huge that you have no idea how you can live through it, somehow, the world keeps turning, the seconds keep ticking.” – James Patterson.
Managing grief in the workplace is a multifaceted process that requires understanding, empathy, and actionable support. By recognizing the potential triggers of grief, identifying grieving employees, and fostering a supportive environment, businesses can help mitigate the effects of grief on individual employees and the organization.
Grieving is a unique challenge for employers. However, a well-prepared and compassionate workplace can emerge stronger and more united in the face of adversity. Remember, it’s not just about supporting your team during difficult times but also about building a culture that values the well-being of each member.
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