Courtesy of HarvardBusinessReview.org | By Jennifer Moss | Originally Published 06.07.2017 | Posted 01.03.201
Attempting to get her new business off the ground, Anna worked in public services by day and as a startup founder during every other minute she could spare. She was feeling isolated by the extreme schedule and neglectful of her friends and family — typical of startup life — when she learned of her sister’s suicide. It would be the Twitter message, accidentally ignored for a month, that would send Anna reeling. The note asked that they get together. “I miss you,” it read. Anna finally saw it just days after her sister’s death.
Grief doesn’t just come with sadness and loss. Grief can also come fully-loaded with guilt, anger, uncertainty, denial, regret, and so much more.
Yet many companies lack norms or policies for dealing with grief — or “bereavement,” in HR-speak. Those that do have policies often find they’re insufficient. There are strict rules around what type of grief makes one eligible for leave. In most countries, a stillbirth doesn’t warrant bereavement leave, nor does the loss of a best friend, a favorite aunt, or a beloved nephew. In the U.S., Oregon is the only state to guarantee paid bereavement leave. Most current bereavement policies suggest that an employee should absorb their shock, plan and execute a funeral, cope in a healthy way with their loss, and then return to work within three days at full engagement.
Regardless of official policies, a common reaction is the kind of support Anna got from her boss — “Whatever you need, take your time.” Although well-intentioned, that’s also not sufficient. In the workplace, the unstructured, “whatever you need” approach can leave an uncomfortable void. The grieving person isn’t sure how much time they really can take, and may push themselves back to work too soon. Colleagues, without guidelines or support, may fumble to figure out how to behave sensitively around their grieving workmate. Bosses can also struggle; grief can cause people to be more disorganized, withdrawn, or anxious, and bosses can misguidedly treat these issues as performance problems.
Some bosses even proceed with a misguided “tough love” approach — one man told me how he was written up for “low performance” after he missed a meeting, even though he’d explained to his manager that he’d been in the bathroom crying about the recent death of a staff member. His manager was unaware that the pair were that close. (The man who died was going to be the best man at his colleague’s wedding.) The lesson here is that leaders need to remember that work and life intersect. Coworkers can become some of our closest friends, making work a trigger for pain, versus a welcome distraction from grief.
And sometimes bosses just show poor judgment; one woman I spoke with was asked to clean out her coworkers’ desk after he’d passed away and deliver the contents to his father. (That’s a task the manager should have taken on.) At a call center who lost an employee, the team leader declared that only those who were arbitrarily deemed to be “close friends” could take time off to attend the funeral.
But not every organization handles grief badly. I also heard the story of Rick, who died after 20 years as a senior staff member at his company. When he passed away, leaders at the company decided to share “Remembering Rick” stories for 21 days. At the end of those 21 days, they gathered all the images and text that had been shared and published a memory book for Rick’s widow.
Stories like that one don’t have to be the outliers. There are ways to handle grief with humanity, rather than either through restrictive policies or an anxiety-producing lack of structure. Here are some things that can help.
Remember that grief isn’t linear. The grieving process ebbs and flows. Some days are easier than others and emotional triggers can strike at the most unexpected times. Anna described a day when she was feeling strong and coping, when suddenly a Facebook memory of her and her sister popped up on her laptop screen. It derailed her entire day.
Whether it’s you, a colleague, or an employee who’s grieving, don’t expect “time to heal all wounds,” as the cliché goes. One person shared that although her mother has been gone for fifteen years, she still feels unexpectedly sad in those milestone moments that are normally filled with happiness. “Like finding out you’re pregnant and realizing your mom won’t ever know what it’s like to be a grandmother. You feel ashamed for crying at your desk, but grief doesn’t care.”
Train emotional intelligence. Lisa described how the toughest part to returning to work after her brother died was the inability to talk openly about his passing. Her boss and coworkers were visibly uncomfortable, unsure of how to behave around her. This isn’t uncommon — with grief training lacking in most organizations, how would they know how to act? Even though she had a very positive relationship with her boss and other colleagues she felt alone in the grieving process at work. It’s critical for business leaders to make understanding grief part of other trainings that employees get on emotional intelligence, mindfulness, and so on. “People mean well, they just don’t know what to say,” Lisa told me. “We really need more sensitivity training in the workplace, so everyone feels better in these situations.”
Don’t ignore the elephant. Remember to ask specifically about the loss and name the person in the conversation. In her book, Option B, Sheryl Sandberg describes grief as the elephant in the room. She couldn’t understand when friends didn’t ask her how she was — and described feeling invisible and isolated because of it. Leaders need to do a better job at confronting those tough discussions by asking pointedly and more regularly. Also, give the person grieving room to be authentic and honest about how they feel. When a person can be their true selves, they are more likely to manage their stress better and remain loyal to their organization.
At the same time, it’s important to be respectful. When someone says, “I know how you feel” it may not be interpreted as helpful. Grief counselors suggest using phrases like “I don’t know what to say, just know I care and I’m here if you want to talk.”
Create checkpoints. Block off a reminder on your calendar to ask how a grieving employee is doing. One woman told me that her boss still asked about her husband, even years after she became a widow. He would mark down the days of her wedding anniversary and the day he passed away, and on those days put some chocolate on her desk or bring her a special coffee. It was nothing extravagant, she said, but it meant a lot. “These gestures,” she said, “warrants him my loyalty for a lifetime.”
Have policies, but don’t only have policies. The “Remembering Rick” story has stuck with me as a reminder that policies alone aren’t enough. Toyota Motor Manufacturing Inc. in Canada, for example, will put out a donation bin for employees who suffered a loss; coworkers can donate to the family’s charity of choice. Both of these examples were born out an employee’s idea — in a way that felt authentic.
Be encouraged by the belief that happiness isn’t the absence of negative feelings. Grief is a natural process that all of us will go through at some point in our lifetime. Fortunately, humans are resilient, full of grit, and can overcome almost anything. Just make sure to listen to your employees and help them feel proactive. It will help both the person grieving and those who make up their support system to heal, recover, and feel healthy again.