Grief entered our lives in a whole new way when COVID-19 hit in 2020 and the workplace was no exception. We often form close bonds and friendships with our colleagues and that makes perfect sense when you consider we spend roughly ⅓ of our lives at work.
What happens when a colleague dies?
The answer to that question depends a lot on the culture of your workplace. And it’s not uncommon for many companies to reinforce the myths of grief.
Myths such as “be strong” because we’re often expected to push our feelings aside and remain professional at work. Or myths like “grieve alone” even when we know that coming together as a community can provide much-needed comfort and an opportunity to heal. Or the myth of “just keep busy and you’ll be fine” which assumes that we can somehow outrun grief if we bury ourselves in work (pun intended).
Except unresolved grief will leak out in other ways. Irritability, low morale, lack of focus, lower productivity, higher turnover, and disengaged employees are just some of the ways it can show up.
Employees need to feel supported.
A recent study by the American Psychiatric Association (APA) found that 93% of employees who felt valued and supported at work said they felt motivated to do their best work and 88% said they felt engaged at work. And in times of grief, employees need to feel that support more than ever.
While there’s no official handbook for navigating grief in the workplace there are some things companies can do to acknowledge the loss and support employees. Moments like the death of a colleague and whether or not we felt supported through our grief at work are moments that stay with us for years (or decades!). And they impact everything from engagement and productivity to retention.
How can your organization support grieving employees?
Don’t let this become an elephant in the room. Talk about your grief. Share stories about your colleague. Keep everyone informed and involved with any plans to remember the individual. When managers take the lead it gives everyone permission to acknowledge the loss and heal together. Be a human – warm and inviting. It’s okay to show your emotion and clearly communicate your grief.
Especially for those who worked closely with the deceased or who formed a close-knit friendship with them. It’s normal to feel less focused and productive when you’re grieving. Managers should ask how they can support employees and if possible adjust workloads or timelines for a while.
Each person has a unique relationship with the deceased and will process grief in their own way. There is no “right” way to grieve and no timeline. Some will find it helpful to focus on work while others will find it a challenge.
Be sensitive to anniversaries and milestones which can also bring grief to the forefront again.
Different cultures will also have different expectations around death and grief – what is appropriate and how the person should be remembered. Open minds and honest conversations go a long way toward bridging any cultural gaps.
If we look at funeral practices from around the world they all have one thing in common – community. We are meant to grieve together and support one another.
Find a way to remember and honour your colleague as a group. You may want to…
- donate to a charity in their name
- plant a tree on company grounds to keep their memory alive (this is what we did for Tracey)
- pool money together to help the family pay for the funeral or, if the team member had young children, to go towards their education
- even something small like gift cards for restaurants or UberEats so the family doesn’t have to worry about cooking can be really meaningful
Managers and team leaders should check in regularly with employees after the loss of a colleague. Ask what support they need and look out for any red flags like signs of depression, fatigue, irritability, and low morale. And perhaps offer resources on grief. Which is the perfect segue to my final suggestion…
Grief can feel isolating especially if everyone else seems to have moved on and you’re still struggling. There are often local support groups for grieving individuals that offer a safe space to share their feelings and remember they’re not alone.
There are also websites such as https://grief.com/ or https://www.chpca.ca/resource/grief-and-bereavement-resource-repository/ that are packed with resources.
Or you could bring in a grief specialist (like me) to speak to the whole team or coach leaders around recognizing, talking about, and supporting employees through grief.
My approach is informed by The Grief Recovery Method® (GRM) an evidence-informed, action-based program that’s been proven to positively affect the healing and recovery of those impacted by loss. The GRM is written by grievers for grievers and gives us a step-by-step method to complete the pain, isolation, and loneliness caused by loss because time doesn’t heal all wounds. Healing takes action.
I also bring with me a host of other tools as an Advanced Grief Recovery Method® Specialist, a Brené Brown Certified Daring Way™ Facilitator, Certified Grief Educator, Death Doula, Heart-Centered Facilitator, 500hr Registered Yoga and Meditation Teacher, and an ICF Certified Life Coach (PCC).
I’m happy to work with your organization to design a training/presentation to support your employees in a time of loss. And you don’t need to wait for the death of an employee to bring in this compassionate and engaging training. Leaders can benefit from having these tools before they need them.
As we all know death can happen unexpectedly and grief can touch every area of our lives. Employees will remember for years how well (or poorly) their organization handled their challenging life events. This is an opportunity for your company to show employees how much you care and how truly valued each team member is.