Dealing with grief in the workplace: helping you and your people cope with the ultimate taboo
September 7, 2022
A global pandemic, the war in Ukraine and serious economic crises have placed enormous strain on employers and employees in recent times. Yet, despite the nature of such stressful matters, the loss of a loved one, a devoted colleague or a close friend is still the ultimate trial. Here, John Devitt (pictured, below, left), of leading occupational health expert Recovery4Life, talks to North East Times Magazine about the ways managers can support their people – and themselves – through the deepest emotional trauma of all.
As a business providing occupational health support to organisations across the board, our team is often called in to deal with the most delicate of matters – from drug and alcohol problems to mental health issues.
However, while many firms appreciate the need to support people in these areas, many are less aware of the importance of dealing with the issue that is rarely talked about and, consequently, left to fester with potentially difficult and unsatisfactory results – grief.
The support individuals may need is far more complex, and much more tailored, than what people might imagine.
The standard HR policy, which allows the bereaved some immediate leave for their loss, is, at times, a very blunt instrument.
We are all different, and death affects individuals in a myriad of ways.
Some will seek to ignore the situation and keep on working, as if nothing has happened.
Others may break down completely, to a point where attendance at work becomes impossible.
There is no way of telling what will happen and, most importantly, there is no right or wrong answer.
This means organisations must develop a flexible approach, based very much around talking to the affected person or people.
We have found some people may actually need time away from a particular business many months after the sad event has happened, rather than in the immediate aftermath.
This is because grief has numerous stages, which do not have a set timeframe.
The stages are worth knowing, so you can understand how someone may be feeling.
• Denial – After the death of a loved one, it’s not uncommon to be in denial about what has happened. This can help temporarily protect you from the overwhelming emotions that come with grieving
• Anger – You may find you are angrier than normal, and direct your emotions at other people, including the person who died. It’s also possible to direct the anger toward yourself, other family members or the workplace
• Bargaining – When you move out of denial and anger, you may find a period where you create a lot of ‘if only’ and ‘what if’ statements
• Depression – This is often called the ‘quiet’ stage of the grieving process. You may experience overwhelming feelings of sadness or confusion. It’s common for your emotions to feel heavy during the depression stage, and you may want to isolate yourself from others
• Acceptance – When you get to a point where you accept what has happened, and understand what it means in your life, you’ve reached the acceptance stage
This very difficult process for the bereaved needs to be understood and, quite frankly, can only be done by understanding their nature, their drivers and their attitude to the situation.
And this level of knowledge will usually mean outside advice is worth seeking.
At Recovery4Life, we have access to a team of qualified clinicians and counsellors, with long-standing and wide-ranging experience.
The support we provide makes a difference to the bereaved and to managers too, who find helping a colleague an anxious and stressful process.
The discussion of death is often avoided, especially in Western cultures, and colleagues may struggle with knowing ‘what to say’ or rely on platitudes – neither helps the bereaved.
Indeed, avoidance can lead to a deeper level of grief, which makes working almost impossible.
If in doubt, simply recognise the situation – ‘I’m sorry for your loss’ – and, if appropriate, offer practical help or a ‘listening ear’ if the bereaved wants to talk.
When grief is long lasting and interferes with daily life, it may be a condition known as prolonged grief disorder.
According to the American Psychological Association, prolonged grief is marked by the following symptoms:
• pervasive yearning for the deceased
• difficulty accepting their death
• intense emotional pain
• emotional numbness
• feeling like you’ve lost a part of yourself
• persistent depression
• withdrawal from typical social activities
In general, this type of grief often involves the loss of a child or partner, but it can also be the result of a sudden or violent death. According to 2017 meta-analysis, prolonged grief disorder may affect as many as ten per cent of people who have lost a loved one.
The Swiss–American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, a pioneer in dealing with death and the first person to transfigure the way the world looks at the terminally ill, wrote elegantly about loss, and I think these words suggest a positive way to cope.
She said: “The reality is that you will grieve forever.
“You will not ‘get over’ the loss of a loved one; you’ll learn to live with it.
“You will heal, and you will rebuild yourself around the loss you have suffered.
“You will be the whole again, but you will never be the same.
“Nor should you want to.”