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Grief in the workplace — how to help your employees and teammates

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What is grief?

How can companies support employees through grief?

6 tips for helping a team member who is grieving

Living with loss

It’s sometimes called the “the second pandemic,” – the mental health implications of COVID, financial stresses and job losses, racial tensions, geo-political uncertainty, educational interruptions, social isolation. Most businesses are ill-prepared for the kind of impact such chronic stress has on employees, leaders or their bottom-line. 

Even before the pandemic, the cost of lost productivity from employee burnout and stress was estimated at $265 - $300 billion a year in health care costs, of which, according to Fortune Magazine, nearly a third is attributed to grief. 

Grief does not need to be the loss of a loved one. It can be triggered by an emotionally traumatic event.

“Grief is not anything we’ve ever tackled well in the workplace. Businesses don’t usually recognize it, but it actually has a huge financial impact,” says David Kessler of Grief.com.  “Employee productivity is so impacted by loss and loss is everywhere right now.”

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What is grief?

Grief is a natural reaction to loss. According to the Mayo Clinic, grief is a strong, sometimes overwhelming emotion for people. It can come from the loss of a loved one, from a terminal diagnosis, or the loss of a way of life, perhaps because of disability or change of fortune, from the loss of a house or a job. Our grief can be complicated, missing a specific individual while also mourning a dream or vision we had for ourselves. 

Although grief is often associated with death or traumatic events, there are other types of grief. We all experience lesser griefs. Right now, in our workplaces and among friends, many are experiencing such grief as the reality of a full year of pandemic lands: the many plans that won’t come to fruition, events, trips, rites of passage that won’t happen. It can feel superficial. People may not talk about it. They may feel a little ashamed or guilty to even be feeling grief when they simultaneously know how fortunate they are.  

Grief is often experienced as a deep sorrow that endures and transforms over time. It often manifests through physical symptoms. And while much has been written about the stages of grief, everyone experiences it differently, at different speeds, and not necessarily in a straight line — there’s no right way to grieve.  That can make it harder to know how to support someone who is grieving.

How can companies support employees through grief?

To support evolving needs, especially in our post-pandemic world, it can help to recognize how much grief has permeated our lives this year. Many people are experiencing some form of grief and companies are becoming more aware of that. 

During times of widespread grief, the people in your organization need what psychologists have termed “grief leadership.” In times of sorrow, fear, and challenge, good leaders can help the people in an organization, a community, or a family meet the reality of the moment while also modeling optimism for a way through to a better future. They don’t do this with false bravado or assurances but by showing strong emotion without being undone by it. The only path forward is through.

Too often, we want to fix, minimize, and soothe  because we are so uncomfortable with someone else’s grief. Leaders who have the courage to share their own story and who are willing to listen when someone else shares theirs create a place for employees to put the burden that they carry with them through the workday. This acknowledgement can be a relief. 

Many experiencing specific grief will also need more support.  Some companies are exploring the idea of extended paid time off that gives employees the space to attend to life’s urgent calls. I experienced this firsthand when I worked at Cisco Systems. During my daughter’s long illness and after her death, I took advantage of Emergency Time Off which gave me much needed space and peace to attend to her needs and the needs of my family.  

This kind of support is a piece of the puzzle but it’s not complete. The real hard work needs to begin by training leaders on how to support grieving employees. Creating structural change in benefits and leadership development programs can take some time though. 

In the meantime, these simple tips can help managers make a difference right now. It’s important to note that I am not advocating for managers to become grief counselors. Rather, the intent is to arm them with skills to enhance their interactions with their employees every day, and especially during times of grief and great stress.

6 tips for helping a team member who is grieving

Here are some things you can try right now:

  1. Keep checking in. You probably checked in with your employees often during the early days of the pandemic; keep doing it. Having a safe space for your employees to feel they can authentically share their challenges and concerns and lean on one another for support in this marathon is crucial. 
  2. Take small steps. It can feel daunting to talk about mental health with your employees. Don’t feel like you have to be an expert and don’t be afraid to show your human-ness. Consider sharing your own struggles and ask how they are doing. In this way, you open up space where they can feel safe to share as well.  
  3. Listen with your whole body. You may notice people are hesitant to open up at first. That’s okay and it’s important the team does not feel pressured to share.  Watch body language and other nonverbal cues and take that as feedback to adjust your approach to engage the team and meet their needs more fully. They may be hesitant to give you direct feedback so it’s important you be present and listen with all you have. Just creating a space to hold another’s grief is an act of service and leadership.
  4. Be willing to adjust and experiment. As you take your small steps and listen with your whole body, you may notice certain approaches work better than others. Be agile and go with the flow based on the team’s evolving needs. Avoid feeling like you need to schedule an hour-long session; sometimes a simple 10 or 15-minute checkin or one on one outreach can work wonders.  
  5. Don’t try to “fix” them.  You are not there to “fix” their problems or be a grief counselor. Rather think of yourself first as someone who authentically cares about them as a person, and second, as a resource connector, ensuring they are aware of company offerings. In addition, don’t try to talk them out of their grief, minimize their loss in reference to bigger losses, or even cheer them up — even though that is the most natural reaction in the world. We don’t like to see others suffer.

    Here are a few things you can try:
    • “What’s most important to you right now?” Then be quiet and listen with your whole body. 
    • “Let’s talk about what’s most important right now in the business and consider what we can deprioritize or push out just a bit.”
    • “I’m so sorry you are going through this right now. Please know that I care and my intention is to listen and help.  What would help you the most right now?”
    • “Let’s talk about what needs to get done and see if there are ways we can leverage the team vs. YOU needing to do all of this.”
    • “As you and I continue to talk about what you need right now and how I can help, I want to make sure you are aware of the company resources available. How can I help to connect you to those?”
    • “That sounds really hard. I’m sorry.” Sometimes it helps just to know that someone else recognizes your pain.
  6. Block time in your calendar for you. As you support your team, it’s even more important to make sure you are filling your own cup of resilience. It does not have to be complicated or take a lot of time; try a quick 5-minute breather outside in the middle of the day-+. The key is consistency, prioritization, and commitment to practicing gentle kindness to yourself every day.

Living with loss

Grief never goes away; it gets incorporated into who we are and how we show up in the world. Grief changes us forever and its impact on our performance can morph over time. It may take longer for certain kinds of grief to normalize especially after the death of a close loved one or in the case of complicated grief. 

As companies grapple with how to evolve in our new normal and adopt structural and benefits changes, by choosing to notice and being willing to engage managers can make a difference today!  

Equip your people with personalized support, for whatever the day brings