By Noreen Carrington, MA, LMFT, FT, Executive Director, Center for Grief Care and Education at San Diego Hospice
Work is a huge part of our lives – it takes up our time and resources as well as provides professional satisfaction and monetary gain. So when an individual experiences a death it’s no surprise this will impact the workplace environment. As a bereavement specialist, a manager with oversight for 40 clinicians and an individual who has functioned in a work environment while grieving, this blog hopes to provide insight in how managers can handle workplace grief.
I first put on my professional hat when looking at this issue. As a specialist in the field of thanotology (grief, loss and bereavement), I know the statistics: Annually, 1 in 4 employees experience the death of someone close to them, which results in approximately $37.5 billion dollars lost in productivity as grieving employees are either absent from the workplace or not as productive (James and Friedman, 2003).
I also understand managers want to connect with employees but also need to maintain appropriate professional boundaries. Additionally, death is a difficult topic in our culture, thus, its understandable some managers may feel uncomfortable or uncertain when talking to employees who are returning to work after a death. Managers also have the added component of the ensuring that the work continues.
Lastly, I reflect on a time when I returned to work following the death of my brother. Even working at a hospice, where everyone is supportive and familiar with issues surrounding death, I still experienced discomfort as I exited the elevator on my first day back. I knew, for me, telling my story would be part of my healing process but I wondered if this sharing would burden my colleagues, overstep their generosity or make me too vulnerable. And even though I was looking forward to getting back into the routine of a structured workday that took my mind off my feelings, I found I wasn’t as focused in my daily tasks.
These experiences have helped me craft a list of strategies for managers who are interacting with a colleague or employee grieving a death:
- Let your experiences with grief add empathy to the situation.
If you were in a similar situation, recall what was helpful to you on a personal and professional level. This will help guide your actions, thoughts and statements.
- Don’t shy away from a conversation with your employee about the death and their grief.
Sharing your compassion for the employee’s experience, and allow space for them to tell their story, is a wonderful way to connect with your employee during this difficult time in his/her life.
- Ask the employee what would feel most supportive to them.
This may include additional days off, time during the day for them to take care of their personal needs or the freedom for them to be honest with how they are feeling. Prepare ahead of time for what you can allow them do to better manage their grief in the workplace.
- Don’t be afraid to talk about work expectations.
While your conversations with employees who are grieving can be full of compassion, they also need to include realistic expectations about work continuing.
- Read, research and learn more about grief.
The following two fliers: When an Employee Dies and Manager’s Role With Grief contain helpful information written by bereavement experts. For more information on how statistics of how grief impacts the workplace environment, consult The Grief Recovery Institute Educational Foundation Inc. (2003), Grief Index, The “Hidden” Annual Costs of Grief in America’s Workplace 2003 Report by primary authors John W. James and Russell Friedman.
- When appropriate, suggest grief support outside the workplace
Perhaps your Employee Assistance Program or a local grief center can provide support. Or you can suggest the Center for Grief Care and Education at San Diego Hospice, which offers a wide variety of support groups and grief counseling for members of the community, even if their loved one died without the benefit of hospice care. Visit our website or contact us today at (619) 688-1600.
Grief is part of the human experience and it doesn’t take a vacation when we return to work. Thus, it is important that we show our care and compassion for our grieving colleagues. Working in an environment that allows for this authenticity will go a long way toward helping one another, as well as maintaining productivity.