Grief in the Workplace

by Patrick Malone

The Situation
$37,500,000,000: Businesses are accustomed to putting a price tag on lost productivity and increased insurance costs associated with conditions from diabetes to those from life problems including substance abuse and depression. For the first time there is data available on the impact of grief in the workplace and the annual cost of grief from the death of a loved one is more than $37.5 billion.

The grief following the death of a child is intense, long-lasting and complex. It is perhaps the most devastating loss a parent may experience and poses unique challenges for you, the employer, who is concerned about assisting your grieving employee and helping then adjust to the demands of the work place when they are able to return to work. There is help available. Let me introduce The Compassionate Friends and some guidelines and suggestions that are based on years of assisting bereaved parents to findĀ  compassion, understanding and hope following the death of their child.

Introducing The Compassionate Friends (TCF)
TCF is a mutual assistance, self-help support organization whose mission is to assist families in the positive resolution of grief following the death of a child and to provide information to help others be supportive. There are almost 600 local chapters throughout the United States including more than 20 in Georgia. TCF is open to all families who have experienced the death of a child from any cause and at any age. There are no dues or fees. There is no religious affiliation although chapters occasionally meet in donated local church facilities. TCF is totally funded by voluntary gifts by individuals, businesses and philanthropic communities.

Understanding the Grief Experience
Grief is a natural and normal human response to a loss of any type. It is a physical, emotional, spiritual and psychological response. Grief associated with the death of a loved one is a complex process, guided by our past experience, religious beliefs, socio-economic situation, physical health and cause of death. Love, anger, sadness, fear, frustration, loneliness, guilt and even denial are all part of grief.

It is important to understand that grief is not a sign of weakness or a lack of faith. Living with and through grief is never easy. Those who are actively grieving are caught in a web of pain, confusion and isolation. Those around the griever often express a sense of helplessness because they cannot fix it and frustration or annoyance if grieving takes too long. And yet grief, especially parental grief, lasts far longer than our society recognizes.

The same research that established the $37.5 billion productivity/accident costs also identified the following on-the-job experiences:

  • Difficulty in making decisions
  • Loss of concentration
  • Disinterest in work related details
  • Frustration and Irritability
  • Depression and/or mood swings

Grief is not contained by time or place. Grief cannot be restricted to home. It goes to work, to school, to worship. So it follows that how well these organizations respond to the grieving people in their midst will either complicate or facilitate that grief. The sensitivity of people within the work environment, especially those in leadership, management or supervisory roles, has a profound effect on the recovery process. Flexibility and support through organizational policies and procedures will help but you must walk the talk. The better you and you people respond, the more rapidly the bereaved parent will be able to manage their grief and the quicker the organization is able to return its complete focus to its mission. So we offer these suggestions and guidelines.

How an Employer can Help at the Time of Death

  • Make co-workers aware of the situation as soon as possible
  • Attend the funeral yourself and encourage others to do the same
  • Offer to help by doing something specific such as providing food, running errands, making phone calls etc.
  • There are no magic words that take away the pain or make it better. A simple “i’m so sorry,” offers real comfort and support.
  • Don’t be afraid of your own tears.

How an Employer can Help when Returning to Work

  • Be interested, listen and communicate.
  • Be flexible and work with employee on assignments. Don’t over task; do allow employee to indicate readiness for more responsibilities.
  • There is no precise timetable for recovery but compassion and understanding will hasten the process.
  • Make sure employee has information on EAP if there is one.
  • Avoid saying “I know how you feel”. To most bereaved parents it sounds presumptive.
  • Don’t use cliches like”It was God’s will” in an attempt to explain the death.
  • Judgments of any kind are inappropriate and cause more pain.
  • Avoid sentences that start with “You should”. Or “you shouldn’t.”
  • Mention the name of the child who died. That may bring tears but they are good tears because someone cared enough to remember their child’s name.
  • Don’t stifle your own emotions. Although you are in a position of authority, share your feelings and you and the company you represent will be perceived as caring.

Going the Extra Mile: The Lessons from Compassionate Employers
The last few years, TCF has recognized hundreds of employers with the Compassionate Employer Recognition Award. Recipients have come from the Fortune 500, mid-size and small businesses across the USA Non-Profits, Public and Private companies across the full spectrum of industries have been recognized. They were nominated by their own employees and meet and/or exceeded the following criteria:

  • Companies that supported your bereavement needs.
  • Companies that arranged for additional time off, beyond the familiar three days.
  • Companies that provided support services and/or time off, e.g., to obtain counseling or seek a support group like The Compassionate Friends.
  • Companies that demonstrated a general caring attitude.
  • Companies that showed flexibility in work assignments and evaluating job performance.
  • Other acts of compassion.

A quick audit of your company’s potential performance against these criteria will give you a scorecard on your readiness to deal with tragedy. What you do with the results is up to you. We know that helping a grieving parent is well worth the effort. Company morale will be enhanced as other employees observe the way you handle this difficult situation. In addition, your support will create a special bond that will result in a more loyal, dedicated and productive employee.

Patrick Malone CSE is a Senior Partner at The PAR Group an Atlanta based international training and development firm. Mr. Malone is a bereaved parent, past President of The Compassionate Friends National Board of Directors and a former trustee of the TCF Foundation. He may be contacted at ptm4936@aol.com or 770 493 7188. For more information on The Compassionate Friends visit www.compassionatefriends.com

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