Grief in the Workplace

Courtesy of | By Kathleen Smith, PhD | Posted 08.10.2019

In most workplaces, there is nothing in the manual to address the death of a coworker. They might be like family to us, or we might have not known them well at all, so everyone is dealing with the loss differently. But there are ways to process the loss, grieve together, and also not disrupt functioning in the workplace.

There is no universal response to loss, and there’s no timetable for grief. There are also many types of loss that can happen in the workplace besides death, such as transitioning to a new location, personal injury, retirement, quitting, or being fired. If the loss is a death, however, many factors may influence the impact of the loss. These might include the age of the deceased, whether it was sudden, the number of years they worked there, and the relationships they established. Regardless, it’s important to address issues of grief in the workplace, because unprocessed grief can increase risk of anxiety or depression.

Signs of Coworkers Struggling With Grief

  • Signs of fatigue
  • Low morale
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Expressing anger
  • High turnover
  • Lack of motivation
  • Symptoms of depression

Coping With the Death of a Coworker

Let’s take a look at a few healthy practices for coping with the death of a coworker.

Respect  relationships. Other people may have not been as closed to the deceased as you were, and vice versa. Respecting that everyone will experience grief differently and may have had a different relationship with those lost will help the process along in the workplace. Telling someone they need to “move on” or “snap out of it” is never helpful.

Talk about it. Even if management doesn’t formally recognize the death, don’t be afraid to talk to coworkers about how you are feeling and listen to what they are experiencing as well. Remember the person you lost. What were their strengths and what funny things happened? How would they react to certain changes or new ideas? Laughing and crying are both a part of grief. You can even have your own memorial service in the workplace if you want.

Give back. Speak with your employer about ways to formally and informally grieve together. Consider how you can support the family as well and commemorate your coworker’s life. Have a fundraiser, plant a tree, or consider other ways of giving back to the community. Focusing on building something positive can help improve low morale and lift motivational levels in the workplace.

Encourage flexibility. Providing flexibility in work hours might be necessary during a time of loss, but don’t assume a grieving person wants to lighten their workload. Their daily routine may a welcome and necessary distraction or tool to help them through the difficult time.

Give yourself permission. Even if you didn’t know the coworker who died, it’s important to give yourself permission to grieve the loss and take care of yourself. Taking time to make sure you’re engaged in stress reducing activities, getting the support you need, and getting enough sleep. Talk to a counselor or your doctor so they can help evaluate your physical, mental, and emotional health.

Respect privacy. Respect your coworker’s privacy. It’s okay to ask how they are doing, but don’t assume they want to process the loss with your or share certain details unless they are offered up. They may not want you to share your own stories of loss either. You can listen and be there without trying to “fix” the grief. You can also recommend they speak with an employee assistance program that can provide grief counseling (with a group and/or with individuals) or connect each other to additional resources in the community.

If you’re not sure how to grieve in your workplace, first consider what you want to share and what you don’t want to share with fellow employees. Don’t be afraid to keep your boss or supervisor informed if you’re having difficulty adjusting to returning to work. And above all, never be frustrated if you seem distracted or get a little tired more easily at work. This is a normal reaction in the grief process.

With open communication and the right support, the workplace can be a comforting and encouraging place for those experiencing a loss. What steps can you take to turn your workplace into that kind of environment today?Last Updated: Apr 11, 2019

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