The loss of a loved one is an experience that can trigger a range of feelings. Of these, grief is probably the most natural reaction. Each person is likely to experience grief in a unique way, as the nature of the loss varies: for example, some losses are sudden, while others are anticipated. However, certain characteristics of grief are often present regardless of what caused the loss: confusion, suffering, yearning, physiological distress, separation anxiety, and apprehension about the future. Sometimes grief is also accompanied by feelings of guilt or remorse, characterised by thoughts such as “maybe I could have done more” or regret for not having spent enough time with the person we lost. Such thoughts and feelings can be overwhelming, making us feel numb or unable to carry out our daily life duties.
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Coping with grief
While there is a widespread belief that grief is made up of 5 stages (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally acceptance), dealing with the grieving process is not exactly linear. It is true that we are likely to experience all of these emotions at different times after losing someone we love, but also that certain stages may recur at specific times, such as anniversaries. So perhaps someone who seems to have already overcome their grief (and, indeed, has been able to go through stages of acceptance), may feel intense anger or sadness again as the loved one’s birthday or death anniversary approaches.
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The complexity of grief means that it can represent different things simultaneously. Some, for example, see it as partly the cost of love: the more and better memories we treasure with a person, the sadder the loss is likely to be. However, grief can also become a learning opportunity.
Dr. Mary-Frances O’Connor explains this in her book “The Grieving Brain: The Surprising Science of How We Learn from Love and Loss”. When we experience the death of a loved one, questions arise in front of us about how we should live now, what the world will be like without the person we love. And the process of answering such questions leads us to learn to be in a new way in the world, sometimes involving big changes, but sometimes it is about changing and learning new simple habits, such as organising household shopping or daily meals. These new learnings involve changes even at the brain level: our brain encodes the bonds we have in a certain way, and at the neuronal level there is a representation of those bonds. And when we lose someone, that representation is modified, and our brain also requires some time to assimilate and adapt to the new reality.
Grief in the workplace
All employees will deal with loss and bereavement at some point in their lives. Organizations must therefore be prepared for offering support to grieving employees and how they generally address grief at work. This requires a willingness to be flexible and open to change.
For example, understanding that grief does not have a fixed duration may involve not only the employee but also their family, and that different people may need different support. While some will appreciate that their organisation offers them space to communicate their feelings and be heard, others may need a temporary adjustment of their responsibilities instead. Here are some of the main actions we can take to support employees dealing with grief at work.
5 ways to address grief in the workplace
1. Express your condolences
All of us who have gone through the situation of consoling and offering support to someone who is grieving have had the same feeling: that there are no right words we can use that are enough to offer sufficient comfort. However, expressing our condolences, whatever words we can find to do so, is more important than it sometimes seems. Being present, conveying that we are there and offering hope can be a great way to support grieving employees.
Managers and co-workers can also accompany the condolences with open conversations: asking the person “How are you feeling today?” or conveying your understanding with phrases such as “Grief will take time and is understandable. You are a strong person and you have our support to get through it little by little”.
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2. Listen to them
Encouraging grieving employees to share or talk about their feelings might not always be the best way to offer support. Some people wish to share the circumstances surrounding their grief, but others do not, and that is normal. Accepting what each person wants to share is important, as is offering a space for them to open up with you if they wish to do so, and also making it clear that you respect them if they prefer to remain silent. If it happens to be the case that an employee is willing to share their grief with a manager or co workers, they will probably feel more comfortable with them listening rather than asking or giving advice.
Sometimes we underestimate how important it is for people to have an empathetic ear. While the temptation may be great, keep in mind that an employee who is grieving probably doesn’t need to be cheered up at a time like this. There are no “right words” that can magically ease their feelings. Losing someone can be difficult enough without trying to feel something other than what they are feeling. Our aim is not to cheer them up, but simply to acknowledge and be there for them, ever present.
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3. Suggest mental health resources
The resources that each person may need are different: some people manage to cope with grief over time on their own. Others find it more difficult and may need to talk to someone about their loss. Part of the responsibility of a company while addressing grief at work is to offer additional support, other than a period of bereavement leave.
Some employees may benefit from therapy, having a professional help them through the healing process of losing a loved one. Therapy can also help to address complications related to grief, such as depression. Another resource that can help support employees are mental health apps, such as Wysa, where people find anonymous support through self-help tools/exercises and/or coaching services. For example, Wysa’s app includes a specific tool pack for overcoming grief, with available evidence-based therapeutic techniques for healing, building a support network, practising self-compassion, and meditating. And there are also tools available to help deal with other feelings often associated with grief, such as anxiety, depression, lack of motivation, trauma, and pain.
4. Small gestures
As a manager or co-worker of someone grieving at work, you may be worried about saying the wrong thing or simply not know how to offer support. Sometimes small actions have big effects. A simple gesture can mean a lot to a grieving employee. Let’s look at some adjustments we can make in the workplace, which can support grieving employees and help them cope.
Give them space and time
Recognizing that the grieving process takes time and that the person may not wish to spend much time with others, can be helpful. Adjusting to life after a loss can take a long time, and employees often appreciate being allowed enough space in the workspace to process their emotions.
Adjust work expectations for the grieving employee
Trying to maintain high performance while grieving can be an additional source of anxiety. Bereavement may be accompanied by difficulties in concentrating and reduced motivation. So some employees may benefit from having their responsibilities somewhat reduced for a certain period of time, e.g. by delegating tasks to colleagues. However, it is important to discuss this decision with the employees, so that the adjustment corresponds to their needs and wishes, and so that they are reassured that they can gradually regain their place in the team.
Offer paid time off or bereavement leave
Some employees may need to take a period of bereavement leave, for example, to take care of the funeral arrangements of a family member, or simply to clear their minds or rest. However, it is important not only to offer bereavement leave, but also to be clear about how much time is offered and the conditions: when the benefit is ambiguous, some people may feel they are at fault during their time off, and this can become a source of frustration and guilt.
5. Plan the return to work
Returning to work after a loss can be difficult. The employee may feel ready, but that does not mean that their energy is at its peak, and that is normal. Some may benefit from flexible policies when they return after their bereavement leave, for example by shortening the working day by a few hours for a couple of months. While others may simply need someone from their team to check in regularly, to ask them from time to time how they are feeling, and what kind of support they need.
Taking care of employees’ mental health involves supporting them through life’s difficult moments. The loss of a loved one is an event that triggers difficult emotions, such as anguish, sadness and worry. Managers can help employees get through these emotions and restore their lives. It will surely be appreciated by them and will strengthen their trust and bond with the company.
Photo by Yan Krukau