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Opinion: How to help employees who are grieving

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Grief doesn’t care about deadlines, meetings or networking mixers. Grief demands to be felt.

For employees who are grieving, this is the struggle. While they may care deeply about their work, they are unable to function at their typical capacity because of deep pains as they grieve the death of their loved one. Even a star employee can quickly lose all motivation and focus to do even the most mundane tasks of their job.

We know that in Missouri, 1 in 11 children will know the weight of grief before they graduate high school, according to data from the JAG Institute. This also means that each of their parents/caregivers are now navigating life without their loved one. So, if the employee who is grieving is also a parent or caregiver, an additional weight has been added to their grief experience. They are now learning how to parent a grieving child, while also grieving themselves, and trying to maintain their previous workplace responsibilities. This can be incredibly overwhelming and can greatly hinder an employee’s ability to work.

Unfortunately, this is then amplified by workplaces that lack the resources to adequately support their employees who are grieving. Because of this, in 2003 it was reported by the Grief Recovery Institute, in a study that hasn’t been repeated since, that businesses across the country experienced a collective $37.5 billion loss in annual productivity, directly related to grieving the death of loved ones.

A key part of the discussion with area human resources leaders is that as a death-denying society, we often don’t know what to say after a loss.  During a pandemic, these conversations are happening more frequently in the workplace. Equipping business leaders with grief language and tools to best support their team after a death, miscarriage/pregnancy loss or serious/terminal illness is critical. This is not only to support the bereaved employee, but also the manager/HR director that is doing the difficult work of balancing the heavy stories, staff shortages and evolving workplace challenges.

While it may feel like the problem is too great, at Lost & Found Grief Center we believe the impact of employers that compassionately address grief in the workplace can make all the difference.

We know that support at the time of a death or life-changing diagnosis plays an important role in an individual’s grief journey, and this includes the employer and other support systems.

So, as an employer, where does one start?

First, it’s important to know that those who are grieving often worry about job security or being perceived as not carrying their fair share of the workload. This can weigh on them heavily. A general understanding of the grief your employee or co-worker is experiencing can allow you to have empathy as you interact with them daily.

Here are normal difficulties employees experience upon returning to work following the death of a loved one: difficulty concentrating and feeling “in a fog;” lack of interest in the job; irritability and poor social skills; preoccupation with family problems; difficulty making decisions; and need for more time off than anticipated. Next are some tips of what does and does not help when you are trying to support a co-worker who is grieving.

What doesn’t help:

  • Comparing the grief experiences of employees.
  • Pushing those grieving to “move on,” “get over it” or “get back to normal.”
  • Imposing timelines on their grief.
  • Giving unsolicited advice and/or passing judgment.

What does help:

  • Compassionate understanding and patience.
  • Offering an understanding presence and practicing empathetic listening.
  • Allowing those who are grieving to talk about the events prior to the death, the memorial service and their grief experience.
  • Acknowledging their grief on special days, anniversary dates, holidays, etc.

If you are in leadership at your company here are just a few questions to ask as you prepare to better support your employees who are grieving:

  • What are your current policies for grieving employees?
  • How many days are allowed for bereavement leave (paid/unpaid)?
  • What is your protocol for attending the funeral or offering corporate support?

While we know the weight of grief is heavy, the power of hope is strong. Together we can ensure no one in our community grieves without support.

Mike Woody is executive director of the Lost & Found Grief Center. He can be reached at mwoody@lostandfoundozarks.com.

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