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In the midst of a global pandemic that has cost 2.16 million deaths globally, grief is top of mind for many of us.
My father recently lost his 17-year health battle, and while I knew this moment would eventually come, I couldn’t have predicted how I would respond to the news and the grieving process that has followed. Everyone experiences and digests a significant loss differently, and my writing has become a form of comfort, away from the heavy cloud that lingers over me.
However, some people struggle to return to work, or have a hard time communicating their bereavement needs or asking for the right type of boundaries during this period. In many cases, managers feel uneasy about how to navigate an employee’s grief. In general, death is a challenging topic for nearly everyone and one that should be handled delicately, but not ignored.
Since it’s been top of mind for me — and sadly, for so many — I spoke with experts on how to deal with grief in the workplace thoughtfully.
If you’re managing someone who is navigating grief
Being an empathetic leader is more than being considerate when a direct report needs an extra day on an assignment. It also means being supportive when your employees have extenuating circumstances in their personal life that brings their attention and focus away from the office.
Here is how you can best approach this situation.
1. Ask them what they need
Grief is unpredictable by nature and affects different people in different ways, making it extremely difficult to gauge, manage, or balance it with professional demands, explains Evans St. Fort, founder of St. Fort’s Funeral Home. What’s tricky about measuring how your employee feels without asking them is that someone can seem physically present and responsive, but emotionally, they could be disassociating, with their mind worlds away, says St. Fort. That’s why it’s best to have an open, candid conversation with your employee where you can ask them how you and the company can best support them.
They may ask for extended time off, beyond what’s offered in the benefits package, or they may want to dive back into work quickly, to have something else to focus on. No matter what they express, try to utilize the resources you have to meet their needs. And, remember, they may be unresponsive, so have patience.
“Speak with them, and try to offer them as much time off as you can afford, or that seems reasonable, to give them time to regroup,” says St. Fort.
2. Understand work isn’t — and can’t be — a priority right now
Author and grief expert Breeshia Wade says that normally, metrics like external growth and profit often drive professional demands. But when grief is at the forefront of our minds, it shifts our priority and focus away from any KPIs or deliverables. Employers have to give their employees grace, since it’s part of the healing process, says Wade.
“Grief calls us to be more authentic and present, because grief in its rawest form is demanding. Often what it demands of us is our honesty, our attention, and a re-evaluation of values, all of which distract from the professional goal.”
In many ways, employers can think of this situation as an engagement moment, says David Kessler, a grief specialist for Grief.com. “We are always trying to improve employee engagement, and employees will remember for years how well or poorly you handled their challenging life events,” he explains.
3. Be a human
This may seem obvious, but there are times when you need to be a boss giving critical feedback and others when you need to be a human. This means letting the employee know you’re there for them. “Be warm and inviting to that individual, and it should help them in their recovery,” says St. Fort. “Support is key when a person is grieving, and comfort is often the thing they will search for the most.”
If your organization has the means to do so, St. Fort says to contribute to the employee and their family somehow. This may mean chipping in to cover a portion of the funeral or memorial service, sending a floral arrangement, meal gift certificates, or anything else that feels appropriate. “At the end of the day, expenses like that, or counseling, can always be a tax write off, but any gesture is great because it will show the employee or their family that you’re there for them and reinforce a good and healthy working relationship.”
If you are experiencing grief and continuing to work
Two days after my father passed, my fiancé, my best friend, and my dog took a last-minute flight to my hometown. I needed to be there for my mom, and I needed the comfort of being around family. As a freelancer and business owner, I could be flexible with my work, and I was ready to get back to my routine after a week of decompressing. However, if the mere thought of opening your email seems completely unimportant when you’re freshly grieving, that’s normal, too. Anything you feel is okay, but you do need to talk with your employer to set a schedule and expectations. Here’s how.
1. Be upfront with your employer
Depending on whether you receive the news unexpectedly in the middle of the workday or if the passing was something you anticipated, it can impact when you inform your employer. As quickly as you feel comfortable, Kessler encourages professionals to let your boss know what you’re experiencing. If you don’t have the emotional bandwidth for a phone call, an email is okay. You can also ask a close coworker to inform your manager if you need to.
The bottom line, Kessler says, is to remember they can’t support you if they don’t know what’s going on. And, you remove the possibility of a potentially awkward or inappropriate conversation if you’re checked out of work. “No employer likes to be counseling an employee on productivity, only to discover they are dealing with loss,” he says.
2. Be patient with yourself — and ask others to be, too
For ambitious professionals who put much value and joy into their work, grief can feel like a tremendous hiccup, disrupting your routine and your progress. Rather than pressuring yourself to perform at your top level, it’s vital to be patient with your feelings, says Dr. Caroline Leaf, a neuroscientist, mental health expert, and author.
If you feel overwhelmed by the sadness, you should allow yourself to feel it, cry, scream, and do anything that helps you release it. If this means setting boundaries at work for a mid-day sob, do that. And if there are days where you feel energized and motivated at work, don’t guilt yourself about that either.
“Think in cycles, not lines. If you reach a point where you’re feeling good, only to feel bad again, it’s not a sign that you’ve relapsed or gotten worse. It’s how grief works, and it’s actually a sign of forward movement,” says Dr. Leaf. “Grief is a series of loops. It won’t feel like this forever. There’s no getting over the loss of a loved one, but you can find ways to incorporate the loss into your life as you move forward. Grief is a natural response to loving someone.”
3. Build your professional and personal support network
Find professional support via a grief or mental health counselor who can be your guide through the process, says St. Fort. Or, if you aren’t ready for one-on-one discussion yet, there are many grief groups available, often for free, via Zoom.
“It is never good to internalize or bottle up your feelings and emotions,” he stresses. “If left unchecked, it can grow like cancer and only develop into deeper problems in the long run.”
In addition to this type of support, don’t be afraid to lean on your people, from close friends to family members. “Having a sense of normalcy or a routine can help distract from the pain you experience when grieving, and knowing you always have someone in your corner who you can trust and rely on is instrumental in getting over that hump,” he says.
4. Take more breaks
When you return to work, add breaks in your calendar where you can go for walks, take a nap, do some journaling, or do anything else that is comforting. As Kessler reminds, grief needs dedicated time, and for busy professionals, this may mean allocating time for your feelings.
You may also notice that your creativity and cognitive abilities are hindered for a while since your mind may wander elsewhere. Or, tasks that once took five minutes now take an hour. “There is an actual experience called ‘Grief Brain.’ Loss makes it hard to concentrate. Our usual ability to multitask and to be productive may be hindered, so you should allow extra time for familiar tasks,” Kessler says.
“Giving your grief a time and place allows you to keep up with work while honoring your loss.”