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How to deal with grief in the workplace

Celéste Olivier

Dealing with the emotional impact of loss can be overwhelming at the best of times. Loss is often linked to death or dying but it is also important to remember that loss is often more than facing the death of a loved one. The experience of loss could also be linked to, e.g. divorce or relationship break-ups. Grief is a normal, natural response to loss. The grieving process takes time – healing happens gradually. This being said, there may be people in your organisation who are suffering from grief. How can you sensitively and effectively treat these employees?

It is estimated that millions of people will be directly affected by death or other forms of loss every year, and most of these individuals will be in the workplace during the grieving period. As a result every employer will have to deal with complex emotional issues such as grief in the workplace. At work, a grieving employee may display some of the following symptoms:

  • Reduced productivity,
  • Inability to concentrate,
  • Irritability,
  • Not being organised,
  • Decreased ability to handle stress,
  • Lack of emotion, and
  • Overworking.

The grieving process often involves - what Kübler-Ross calls - the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. The bereaved employee may not move through the stages in a linear path or immediately show signs of grieving. They may also experience anger, sorrow, fear, confusion or frustration.

To support employees through the grieving process, it's important for HR – and line managers - to have some understanding of the complexities surrounding the grieving process. The management team's timely and sensitive support can result in reduced absenteeism and a faster return to normal productivity.

Understand your role as manager

As human emotion is often an uncomfortable thing to deal with, many managers struggle to show their support when employees go through challenging emotional times. When it comes to the grieving process, it is important for the manager to know the company's valid policies and programmes to offer appropriate support.

To provide sustainable support, the manager could also remember that:

  • To grieve is necessary and it is not something someone has to 'snap out of'.
  • An environment where grief work can progress is important.
  • If your company has an employee assistance programme (EAP), it could be valuable to refer the employee for support and assistance.
  • Setting an example is important. Your caring support and professionalism will let others know that the company supports the employee.

Not knowing what to say and to feel awkward when dealing with a grieving employee is normal. However, the manager should acknowledge the grieving employee's loss so that he or she can better deal with grief in the workplace. As a result, it is important that the manager establishes contact with the grieving employee as soon as possible to acknowledge the loss but also to ask about specific things that could be done for the employee. From a practical perspective, the manager needs to remember, among others, that:

  • Time off for the bereaved employee to attend the funeral is important.
  • Intermittent tears and sadness are normal.
  • Expect that the employee might at times not be able to give their best at work.

When the bereaved employee returns to work, managers and co-workers are not expected to take on the role of a grief counsellor. However, there are ways to be supportive about grief in the workplace:

1. Learn to identify that some employees may return to work too soon.

2. Recognise that some employees will find comfort in getting back into a work routine. Don't discourage them from returning to work.

3. Be watchful and do what you can to ensure that grieving employees are looking after themselves.

4. Briefly, but frequently, show concerns and ask what you can do to help.

5. Ensure the employee has someone at work they can talk to about their loss if they wish to.

6. Treat the employee as normally as possible.

7. Understand that it is not unusual for someone to experience significant grief for an extensive period.

8. Refer the employee to the EAP.

Although it is important to create a caring environment, the reality is also that employees are required to be productive. The most common physical response to grief is low energy, muscle aches, pain and tension. This may result in employees not being able to cope with work tasks. Research has confirmed that the following approaches could assist employees to remain productive as they go through the natural process of grief:

  • Develop a workplace plan to discuss with the employee any modifications that can help them do their work.
  • Offer specific help such as information about family responsibility leave, benefit entitlements, etc. Offer to help with paperwork associated with medical claims or life insurance policies.
  • If possible, be flexible about time off.
  • Reduce or eliminate pressure by prioritising a grieving employee's responsibilities with their input, where possible, reducing their workload for a time.
  • Avoid assigning new tasks or additional responsibilities when the employee is still struggling with grief.

Celéste Olivier is the EAP manager at Kaelo Consulting. She has a BA in social work from the Rand Afrikaans University (now the University of Johannesburg) and an MA in occupational social work from the University of the Witwatersrand.