Grief in the workplace is inevitable. Wouldn't life be great if no one died? Or no one grieved? The fact is that at some point, both of these situations will occur in one's personal and workplace life, and while we cannot prevent it from occurring, we can help ease the impact on the workplace. We can educate the workforce on how to deal with the death of a co-worker or how to support an employee who is returning to work following a bereavement leave. No matter what the situation is around the death, whether it was an illness, a sudden death, homicide or suicide, the impact on business will be similar.
Grief has no time limits, and the journey toward acceptance will vary depending on the situation and who is grieving. No two people will react in the same way. We must really understand what grief is in order to understand its impact on people. And, most importantly, we need to understand grieving people in order to support their needs.
Death and grief have a powerful impact on people and their abilities to balance logical and emotional thoughts and actions. Unfortunately, when grief enters the workplace, business must continue as usual but with a saddened morale. As we struggle toward balance, the needs of both employees and clients enter the fine line of what really matters on any given day. This equates not to who is more important, but to how we can be available to both of them. The answer is, "carefully."
The first step is to recognize the reality of the death. Whether the death was that of an employee or an employee's loved one, it is important for the employer and co-workers to acknowledge it. A few examples would be to send the family a bereavement gift, card or meal, offer a friendly gesture, attend the funeral, or make a donation to a worthwhile cause—this can be a college fund for a family or a donation to your favorite charity. By starting there, you are showing the family you care, and you are recognizing that the death has occurred.
Having a counselor who specializes in grief speak with the work group also can help with the recovery process. Educating people on how to handle grief is extremely important as many people who have never experience grief will not know what they are feeling is normal. The first few days are centered on numbness but as that wears off, the remaining phases can be intense if you don’t know what to expect. A grief counselor can educate the group so they are aware of what to expect.
The second major step is to assess the impact on the business and how the disruption can be minimized without appearing to be "cold." If the death was of an employee's loved one, the employee may be absent from work for a period of time. Because we live in a mobile society and many times people need to travel some distance to the funeral, the leave is often extended. The tasks after a death can be numerous and may need to be accomplished over an extended time period. For example, an employee may need to return to the home of the deceased to prepare it for sale. This takes time and usually does not occur during the traditional bereavement leave.
Once the work group has been assessed, another major step would be to develop a plan to maintain "business as usual." In some cases, the work group will be able to divide the tasks that need to be accomplished until the grieving employee returns to work. This would be a short-term fix and would not support all types of businesses. In addition, the ability to cover for the grieving employee will also depend on the length of the leave. When an employee has died, in most cases, the position will need to be filled eventually.
Another possibility would be to hire temporary support to fill the void. While this is a "quick fix" from a physical perspective, the emotional side is very difficult and may require the shifting of important work. The work group might perceive the temporary person as a "replacement," which could be emotional at first but may level off over time. As for the new help entering the work group, the morale of the work group is likely to be low, and that can create a difficult work environment for them. While some people will be able to provide support and help to get the work group back on track, others may resist the change as they will perceive it as a replacement. With the right temporary person, the work group can truly be helped to return to some type of normalcy and be able to support clients and customers immediately.
If a co-worker has died and the impact on the work group is so substantial that replacing the employee creates hardship, rearranging how the work group performs specific tasks can be a solution. This will reduce the void created by the death. The new process can be a simple as rearranging the workspace to alleviate the feeling of emptiness, or changing the process of how the work is accomplished by rearranging steps or having people perform different jobs. Although these might be perceived at first as extreme, the goal is to get the work group productive again without minimizing the need to grieve the loss.
It may appear at times that the work group has emotional setbacks resulting in low morale, this is normal as the employees are experiencing issues that are difficult to handle while they are trying to maintain a professional image. Death often changes relationships in a work setting because the co-workers are often experiencing emotional swings that were once unacceptable in public view. Allowing employees to "work through" the emotional swings will truly help in the recovery process.
The majority of people spend more waking hours at the workplace than they do at home. Asking people to pretend for 8+ hours a day will add stress to the workplace. Allowing them to be sad, not perform at their greatest ability and ask for help of their co-workers is important. It will take the entire team to help keep the customers happy and maintain “business as usual”.
If handled correctly by the employer, manager and co-workers, over time, grief can produce a positive impact on the work group and its ability to both work and grieve together. They will be able to form a tremendous bond, thus creating a positive experience from a horrible situation.
Thank you to Rachel Kodanez for contributing the content of this page.