December 4, 2019

Good Grief: Dealing with Loss in the Workplace

Grieving Female Employee Sits On Chair Feels Depressed, Offended

You will hear us talk a lot at CEDR about building a more “human” workplace. Where this phrase might seem synonymous with offering fun activities to increase employee engagement, the concept actually goes much deeper. 

Humans are complicated creatures and, in order to “walk the walk” when implementing more people-centered management techniques, you also have to be willing to put on your galoshes and wade in the depths of one of humankind’s most difficult emotions: grief. 

Death Happens and, One Day, It Will Affect Your Business

If you haven’t dealt with it yet, there will likely come a day when one of your employees loses a loved one. 

Be it a parent, spouse, partner, child, grandparent, friend, coworker, or even a pet, losing someone you love is crushing and difficult. And the grief that arises naturally from such situations will be uncomfortable, to say the least. 

It can be difficult to find the right words to say and methods to employ in order to support a grieving employee through such tough times. And, if we’re being honest, it can be hard on your business’ bottom line if the individual is a strong performer or producer and is absent (physically or mentally) more than you’re used to. 

The goal here is not to “solve” the issue of death (clearly, that’s not possible). Rather, it is to provide you with some food for thought so you can support your employees as they weather the storm of loss. 

We All Grieve in Our Own Unique Ways

When we lose someone we love, it can be difficult to endure for months, regardless of the time of year. And, as the holiday season or anniversary date of that loss approaches, it is not uncommon for past grief to circle back.  

I write this post from a very vulnerable place: I, myself, am a grieving employee, having recently lost one of my closest companions — my near and dear furry friend, Lebowski. 

Yes, Lebowski was a cat — my cat. And I personally have been clumsily walking through the many stages of grief following his passing. 

In the midst of my own confusion and heartbreak, I’ve had many moments at CEDR that have allowed small glimpses of light to break through the dark cloud around me. I am an advisor by nature, and I thought that the least I can do is share some of these insights as I work to come out on the other side, thanks, in part, to working for a very people-centered company. 

We care a lot about our fur babies at CEDR (check out our social media posts about our dog-friendly workplace), so that made the first hurdle of grieving as an employee more bearable. My supervisor and coworkers understood my pain and validated it. 

There Is No Standard Timetable on Grieving a Loss

Close up of Solution Center Advisor Tiana Starke and her gray cat Lebowski

Tiana and Lebowski

Grief due to pet loss is a newer Western concept. And, though people are building increasingly closer relationships with their pets (you’ve probably seen dog-friendly restaurants, cat cafes, and pet salons popping up, as well as refrigerated macrobiotic pet food at Target, etc.), we still have a hard time allowing ourselves and others to properly grieve the loss of what may be one of life’s most beautiful, loving, and uncomplicated relationships. 

It’s far more “acceptable” to grieve the death of an immediate family member and, even then, we often expect the process to be neat and clean: a couple days off per your Bereavement policy, and then all goes back to normal. 

If you have ever grieved a loved one yourself, you know that two days off of work does not equate to being “healed,” but you might have felt the pressure to “get your act together” — to sweep those feelings under the rug and show back up to work with a smile on your face because you’re expected to move on (repression is the American way, isn’t it?). 

You’ve probably heard of Elisabeth Kubler Ross’s Five Stages of Grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance). Friends and coworkers often come in strong in the initial stages—offering condolences, kind words, their permission for you to cry, and perhaps even some time off. 

But here’s the kicker: your employee has about four other stages to work through before their grieving reaches that point of acceptance, so they likely won’t be conveniently done with feeling deep emotions after they return from a couple days of tending to funeral arrangements. Or, when it comes to the loss of a pet, perhaps  a day or two of working from home, if they are even afforded the ability to do that. 

A Manager’s Role in the Grieving Process

This is where you come in as a manager. 

It will be easy to ask how they are doing in the beginning, but consider checking in with the employee a couple of  weeks, or even months, later to see if you can offer any support. The simple acknowledgement that someone sees your pain can be incredibly healing. 

A powerful memory that will stick with me forever was CEDR CEO Paul Edwards coming up to share his own grief experience. An employee will not expect the CEO to offer kind words, so if you are an owner of your company, know that just a simple “thinking of you” goes a really long way. That is an example of showing humanity from the top-down, and that is what breeds a more human workplace. 

It can sound daunting as a manager or owner to know it’s on you to find the right way to offer such support, but something as simple as making a calendar reminder to check back in can be a great way to ensure that the support you are offering is continuous. My supervisors, coworkers, and HR Director have been immensely kind and patient during my grieving period and it has helped me more than they know. 

Here’s How You Can Help Support Your Grieving Employee:

  • Ask if there is anything you can do to help.
  • Remind your employee about your bereavement policy up front, and consider being flexible by allowing for additional unpaid time off or an option to work from home, if possible. 
  • Recognize the stages of grief and try not to label your employee’s emotions as positive or negative. They are just emotions. 
  • Allow the employee to process in their own way to the best of your ability so long as it is within the confines of what is possible in your workplace. Some will not want any time off and will see work as a welcome distraction. Some will easily break into tears. Both are okay. If you are worried about the crying employee freaking out your customers, help them identify a safe space to let it out. 
  • Be a source of support for the rest of your team. Their coworker’s grief might affect them, too. 
  • Try to avoid phrases like, “It’s okay to take a few days to get back to normal.” My friend shared a quote with me that said, “Grief is a monster you learn to live with.” Loss is permanent, and your employee is going to have to find a “new normal.” 
  • Be prepared for some difficult changes in the employee. Fatalistic thinking can creep up on someone who has faced tragedy, and the employee might have expressed to you or others that they don’t know if they can continue working and might have to quit. Some words that helped me through this emotion that you can share with your employee: “Don’t make permanent decisions based on temporary situations.” They will find a new brand of happiness, and though what they are currently feeling seems insurmountable, let them know you understand and will be around to see them through. 

As a company that focuses a lot of our attention on HR compliance, we would be remiss to not mention considerations that affect your compliance when it comes to employment laws as you navigate accommodating bereavement for your employees, as well. Remember to:

  • Review your state sick leave policy and offer the employee the opportunity to use their sick leave to grieve if they have some time available.
  • Check the policies in your employee handbook for other ways you could offer leave, such as looking into a personal leave of absence as an option. Bereavement leave does not have to be the only avenue and flexible policy administration goes a long way. 
  • Pay attention to what your employee is saying about their own condition, especially if a recognized medical condition such as depression is mentioned. Offering a medical leave of absence or starting the interactive process to remain compliant with the Americans With Disabilities Act might be necessary in these circumstances. 

Conclusion

The loss of a loved one does not have to equate to the loss of a good performer. Consider whether pushing through some uncomfortable moments or offering some time off is the appropriate response and your compassion will increase the engagement of your employee and fortify their commitment to your organization. 

Rigidity of policies, or the inability to recognize that there will be ebbs and flows to performance by terminating someone for their temporary state of mind, could cost you not only time and money to hire a new employee, but the respect of your direct reports. 

We so frequently advise managers directly, but sometimes we can learn the greatest lessons in heroic leadership by walking in the shoes of our employees. From where I sit, the compassion that management and my team has shown me in this difficult time has made me more devoted than ever to fulfill my purpose and support my fellow coworkers. 

This blog post authored by Solution Center Advisor Tiana Starke.

Friendly Disclaimer: This information is general in nature and is not intended to provide legal advice or replace individual guidance about a specific issue with an attorney or HR expert. The information on this page is general human resources guidance that is believed to be current as of the date of publication. Note that CEDR is not a law firm, and as the law is always changing, you should consult with a qualified attorney or HR expert who is familiar with all of the facts of your situation before making a decision about any human resources or employment law matter.

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Please note: CEDR Solutions specializes in providing expert HR support to owners and operators of independently owned medical and dental practices.