Grief impacts employees in many ways. This expert shares some tips on what employers can do to help.
As employers and colleagues, we are granted a window into one another’s milestones and take the first opportunity to celebrate each other’s successes over a team lunch or a glass of wine after work.
But are we as forthcoming when it comes to providing the same level of support during life’s challenging moments?
In recent years, there has been a rise in staff wellbeing programs that focus on healthy eating, work-life balance and ensuring leaders are trained in understanding, and being able to respond to, mental health concerns. However, grief seems to be one of those topics that is continuously left off the list.
Everyone, at some point in their life, will experience a form of grief.
A study conducted by The Grief Recovery Institute Educational Foundation shows that one in four employees may be grieving at any given time. Grief can be a response to the death of a family member, friend or pet, restructures in a workplace or departures of colleagues, relocation or relationship breakdowns.
One loss we can all relate to right now is the loss of freedom and movement – a result of living through the uncertainty and ever-changing environment of a global pandemic.
Grief is a natural response to loss and it has a significant impact on our physical, emotional, spiritual, physiological and mental health, which can adversely affect our work performance and ability to handle daily tasks.
Each individual experience of grief is different and that experience causes a ripple effect across our communities. Grief can significantly impact our relationships with colleagues and individuals may begin to reassess their priorities in life, in turn affecting the workplace.
“Grief is a whole person experience; people expect sadness but know that your employee may also experience cognitive impacts such as confusion or memory issues and physical complaints like sleeplessness which may also impact their ability to work,” says Specialist Grief and Loss counsellor, Hayley Russell who works for Ovarian Cancer Australia and Eastern Palliative Care Association Incorporated.
Returning to work
Some people will return to work quickly, by choice, as it provides a sense of normality among the chaos. Others may return because they have incurred large funeral expenses or experienced financial instability and they need the work in order to pay their bills.
In other cases, employees may need a longer period of time to process the intense emotions that arise immediately after a loss, in addition to navigating their new normal.
Irrespective of when an employee returns to work, there are sadly countless stories of employees who were met with insensitive comments from management and colleagues, which impacted their mental wellbeing and resulted in them leaving their position.
“We know that one of the important factors which can help people navigate significant grief is consistent support from their families, friends and communities which includes workplaces,” says Russel.
“When handled poorly, working whilst grieving can add additional pressure and stress which worsens the impact of grief. Grief changes a person so their efficiency may be altered.”
Grief support isn’t only important in those early days. It’s crucial to remember that grief is not linear and does not follow a timeline. Emotions can often resurface during significant dates or times of the year.
“I’ve had clients who were refused leave around the anniversary of their spouse’s death” says Russel, “a time when we know trauma and reminders of grief are particularly raw and people need to be gentle with themselves. Empathy is the most important thing to remember here.”
In contrast, there are also stories of employees who felt their workplace provided compassionate and proactive support during their hardest times.
“When handled well the work environment can be an amazing addition to a griever’s support network and sense of wellbeing,” says Russel.
“This also gives a great example to other workers, showing that when they are in this position (because we all will be at some stage) they will be respected and cared for, which is positive for culture and morale.”
Studies show that loyalty, retention, cohesiveness, productivity and organisational culture are improved when grief is given adequate attention. By actively engaging in grief education and developing a compassion-based grief policy, you are creating a positive work culture that is sustainable and supportive of your greatest asset – your people. .
“I often say to my clients that if they had badly broken their leg, we wouldn’t expect them to be up and running a marathon a few days later. The death of a loved one is an invisible but significant emotional and psychological injury. Understanding is needed in the same way we might assign lighter duties if someone has a physical injury or disability,” says Russel.
How workplaces can help
There are a few simple steps that workplaces can take to support their employees through difficult times:
- Listen to the needs of the individual – For example, do they want their colleagues to be aware of their experience or would they prefer to keep it private? Take their lead.
- Allow flexibility – Many people find comfort in returning to work, but they may sometimes need extra support or the option for a ‘time out’. Respect their choice.
- Remove expectations – Grief does not follow a five step process or disappear after a set amount of time. It can rear its head at any given time, from a simple reminder to a significant date. Grief is also individual and each person’s response can be completely different.
- Extend paid bereavement leave – In Australia, employers must provide two days compassionate leave for immediate family members. Many experts believe this should be extended to a minimum of 10 days.
- Participate in grief education as part of professional development – As leaders, it’s important to understand how we can create a safe space for our employees. And the added bonus is that knowledge learnt in a grief education workshop will be beneficial in our personal lives too.
While you do not have to be an expert in grief, it is advisable for leadership teams to be equipped with the knowledge, and feel comfortable and confident in providing appropriate support to best support employees’ wellbeing.
Katrina Preisler-Weller is a Grief and Loss Educator, Podcast Host and Keynote Speaker
Learn how to support your people through their mental health challenges with this short course from AHRI. Sign up for the next session on 20 September 2021.
Correction: an earlier version of this article incorrectly stated how many days compassionate leave employers provide. This has be corrected.