How to Deal with Loss in the Workplace
When we lose someone, grief takes on many characteristics that morph and change across weeks, months and even years. It can be by turns sad, frustrating, lonely, anger-inducing, confusing, and a whole host of other adjectives. But one thing often overlooked in the discussion of grief is that, in social situations, it is often just plain awkward.
This may be especially true with grief in the workplace setting where relationships are more hierarchical and distanced, and where productivity and clarity are required. We’re expected to “be our best” and “perform” and “manage,” none of which are easy while we are experiencing loss. That awkwardness is felt on both sides of the grief experience—by the worker who is grieving and by their colleagues who may want to be supportive but who may fear the discomfort or dread the idea of saying or doing the wrong thing in such an important and even intimate situation.
Since grief will likely touch us all at some point, and since work is such an important component in our lives, our resident Thanatologist (that’s a grief expert) and Farewelling co-founder Elizabeth Meyer Karansky is sharing some of her tips for dealing with grief in the workplace, whether you’ve lost someone dear, or if you’re looking to support a colleague who is grieving.
If You’ve Lost Someone and You Need to Return to Work While Grieving
- Remember that your team members and others may not know how you feel. When you’re deeply emotional inside, it can be easy to think that everyone can read your mind, but that may not be the case at all when you are navigating loss at work. Although it can be really tough to speak up when you're not at your best, try to be honest. If you find you need some support (or even just a bit more space or more time on a project), don't be ashamed to say so. Tell at least one person on your team and let them help you get the message out.
- Some workplaces offer resources for grieving employees, including counseling or other types of support. Ask your supervisor or your human resources team to see what's available to you.
- Be kind to yourself, in the office and at home. The grief process cannot be rushed, even when you’re on a work deadline, and it doesn’t flow in a linear way. Experiencing foggy brain symptoms or an inability to concentrate on work while you’re grieving is totally normal. Try to rest well at home, drink water, take short breaks during work hours and get some fresh air, and eat healthy whenever you can.
If You Want to Support a Grieving Coworker
- First and foremost, share your sympathy. A simple, hand-written card left on their desk can be a meaningful and much-appreciated way to express your solidarity and support in a time of loss. If your relationship is closer, share your condolences with them personally.
- Avoid making statements like, “He's in a better place now,” which can fall flat or feel tone-deaf when a person is grieving in the workplace. It’s best to focus on the fact that you’re sorry they’ve lost someone they loved. “I’m really sorry for your loss,” is just fine.
- Invite them out for a coffee or a walk around the block. Keep it easy. “I’m getting some fresh air/coffee/lunch—care to join me?” leaves the door open. If they refuse, don't pressure them. If they accept, keep things light unless they bring up the subject of their loss. It may be just the moment of calm they need right now.
- Help pick up the slack. Grief can cause physical pain and also can result in lack of focus, reduced organizational skills and all kinds of other temporary impairments. If you see a colleague struggling with grief, offer to help write reports, answer emails, or anything else. You’ll be a real-life hero, and they won’t soon forget your kindness.
- Remember that grief doesn't follow a project timeline. It can be easy to become frustrated when a coworker doesn't seem to be "getting over it," or "moving on." Be patient and offer support wherever possible.
If You're an Employer Dealing with Employee Grief
- Create a thoughtful grief policy and make it a part of your business. Consider granting extra time off, and craft caring messaging and communication around loss at work.
- Send something to the family. A well-chosen sympathy gift from work will be truly appreciated and shows that you value your team not just as employees, but as people, too.
- Schedule a support meeting for your grieving staff member. Make it a small group or a one-on-one. Share your sympathy and don't be afraid to ask what they might need or suggest what you can offer to help as they deal with work and grief.
- Put together a toolkit of resources for grieving employees. Make a list of websites, podcasts, books or other helpful services and offer it with a handwritten card or note.
- Be patient. As mentioned above, grief ignores calendars and deadlines and can be stubbornly disruptive in terms of performance and "optimization." Consider lowering goals temporarily or reassigning tasks. This type of support can build loyalty and may have a positive effect on the overall morale and well being of your teams..