How to Deal with Grief at Work
Grief is no respecter of people’s fiscal need to earn an income. It can creep up on you, overwhelm you and leave you feeling like you are wading though wet cement with a 30-kilo pack on your back. It’s hard enough to try and process your feelings after the passing of a loved one, let alone front up to work and put in a solid 7.6-hour day.
Grief is also no respecter of workplace policies and procedures. The Fair Work Act, and the National Employment Standards, tell us that all employees (including casuals) are entitled to compassionate leave (also known as bereavement leave): 2 days compassionate leave each time an immediate family or household member dies or suffers a life threatening illness or injury. Nice and simple really, and many thanks to the politicians for regulating our grief so neatly in a piece of legislation.
But what happens when your grief isn’t completed within the allotted 2 days, or when the person you are grieving for isn’t immediate family or a household member? What happens when your sadness can’t be neatly slotted away into the back of your mind when it’s time for you to resume your responsibilities and go back to work? No matter how generous your organisations compassionate leave policy, you can’t encapsulate the grief of one individual, let alone a whole organisation of individuals within a single document. We are, after all, all individuals and grief is no respecter of regularity or conformity.
So how do you handle grief as an employee, or as the manager of a grieving employee?
Be honest with yourself about your grief and how you are coping.
Tell people around you what is happening and how it is making you feel.
Keep those tissues handy, and try not to be embarrassed if you cry.
Understand that you may not be able to concentrate as well initially, or even for an extended period of time. Talk to your manager about this and how to manage your workload during the period of fragmented concentration.
If your organisation has an EAP (Employee Assistant Program), use it. It will be confidential and the simple act of talking to someone can be very helpful.
Seek advice from your doctor who may have suggestions on how you can manage your grief and work.
Get up from your desk and go for a walk if you feel the grief is overwhelming. While it might seem like the last thing you want to do, there are lots of studies that show even mild exercise helps the grieving process.
Try and brush off any unhelpful remarks or suggestions like “you should be over it by now’, ‘why are you so upset, they weren’t even a relative’ or ‘I think you need to toughen up, people die all the time’*. Remember, sometimes people are just arses.
If you need time off ask for it. If your Manager is reluctant to give you any/more time off, talk to your HR manager about options available to you.
If you can’t get any/more time off, ask if you can work from home for a bit while you’re feeling very fragile, then begin to transition to more time in the office & less time working remotely until you’re coping mechanisms are stronger.
Try and keep an open mind when talking to HR or your Manager: organisations often think 1st about payroll costs while also thinking about how they can help you. It’s a tricky balancing act trying to support someone while also working out what to do with your employee’s workload if the time off is approved.
Don’t make rash decisions that have a long-term impact - like resigning - if you don’t get what you’re asking for or if someone is insensitive to your grief. It won’t help in the long run and your grief will compound your guilt that you’ve acted rashly.
Managers of grieving employees:
Be sympathetic with your employee about their grief and how they are coping. If you can’t understand their grief, fake it. Don’t be an arse about your lack of sympathy. It will do nothing for your relationship with each other long term.
Ask your employee if it’s ok for you to tell the rest of the team what is going on, so they the team can offer support. If they say no, you have to respect their wishes until it is not feasible to do so (i.e. the employee is crying all the time at work or not able to perform their job and people are asking questions). If that happens, explain your reasoning to your employee before making any team announcements.
Keep those tissues handy, and try not to be embarrassed if your employee cries.
Don’t make unhelpful remarks or suggestions, like ‘when can I expect you to be over this’. If you wouldn’t want someone to say it to you then don’t say it at all.
If you employee asks for any/more time off – try and give it to them. Even if it’s only a day. Talk to your HR Manager about how you can get through this period in terms of your employees workload. Consider your team’s workload priorities and what can go on the backburner. Talk to your Manager about this and how it will affect the objectives you’re being managed against.
Don’t make rash decisions that have a long-term impact - like telling them if they don’t come good soon they’ll have to consider their “options”. It won’t help in the long run and you’ll look like an arse. It is really important to have a flexible approach, as no two situations will be the same.
Tips to help get through it
Be open minded
*Employers really have made these comments to me during my working life!