By Patrick T. Malone —
Jack Gordon, former president of the Hospice Foundation of America, once said: “In a very real sense in our society, the workplace has become a kind of extended family. Businesses have responded to the changing needs of American families by adding programs that reflect this connection between work and life. Flexible work schedules, onsite childcare, and support for employees caring for aged parents or other loved ones are just a few of the initiatives reflecting those changes. It follows then that grief and bereavement affect the workplace as well.”
I am the father of four sons. One died shortly after birth in 1971 and another was killed in a motorcycle accident in 1995. I tell you that only to establish that I have experienced and continue to experience grief. My second qualification is that I work. As the senior partner in a consulting and training firm, I am privileged to work with many companies from the Fortune 500 to small businesses. So I have felt the effects of grief first-hand and have observed many others struggle with the implications of grief in our workplaces.
Grief in its broadest sense is deep sorrow associated with a loss. That loss can range from the loss of a relationship, a job, a pet or a loved one. The intensity of that grief is relative to the experience of the grieved. For purposes of this article, I want to focus on grief associated with the loss of a loved one and in particular the loss of a child. The observations and strategies discussed can be applied to all levels of grief.
Sometime after the death, the parent, sibling or relative returns to work. They have grieved the loss and to some varying degree continue to grieve. Time or place does not contain grief. It cannot be restricted to home; it goes to work, to school, to worship, to the store. It goes where you go.
How well organizations respond to the grieving people in their midst will either complicate or facilitate that grief. The sensitivity of people within these environments, especially those in leadership roles, plus the flexibility and support of organizational policies, can have profound effects on the course of the grieving experience. The better the organization responds, the more rapidly the employee is able to manage the grief and the organization is able to return its complete focus to its mission.
So let’s first explore some observations about our workplaces that have an impact of the grieving process. Over the last few years, the cartoon strip Dilbert has taken a light-hearted look at our workplaces. And if we are really honest with ourselves, during that time we have seen many similarities to our own workplaces. Sometimes our organizations function as something less than a well-oiled machine. Why?
Simply because our workplaces are not machines; they are a collection of people and sometimes people are silly, stupid, insensitive, uncaring, or worse.
Consider the human characteristic we call empathy. If you were to plot empathy in most organizations, the result would probably mirror a bell or normal distribution curve. The naturally empathetic and those who haven’t got a clue would be placed at either end of the curve with the majority of your associates falling somewhere in the middle.
Granted, there are some organizations that are skewed to the high empathy end. MBNA of Delaware, The Staubach Company of Dallas, and Controlled Engineering in Michigan have all received Compassionate Employer recognition from The Compassionate Friends.
Unfortunately, these are the exceptions rather than the rule. Regardless of what your organization looks like on the empathy scale, there is an opportunity to improve the environment and it lies with the people in the middle. These are the ones who can make a difference in how grief is handled in your workplace.
There are at least two ways that our workplaces are significantly different from our society. The first is structure. There is a formal structure in most of our workplaces and it represents to a large degree the amount of power each associate possesses. When we agreed to work within our organization we assumed the power of our position and accepted the fact that others may have more power or power over us. This makes these organizational relationships more formal and somewhat different than our societal relationships.
The second difference is choice. In our society, we freely choose people with whom we develop a relationship. In the workplace, we are thrust into relationships with little or no choice. Granted, we do have the ultimate choice whether or not to continue working for an organization, but I doubt many of us would quit a job we like with a company we like just because we don’t like a single co-worker. In reality, we figure out a way to at least tolerate that person.
So now the workplace issues of people, power and choice impact the grief issues. To understand this interplay, let me relate a little about my own experience.
When Scott died in 1971, I was employed by a Fortune 500 firm with a reputation of being a progressive company when it came to employee relations and policies. Progressive in this situation was defined as three days of funeral leave. So after three days, I returned to work. I was a department manager at the time and I remember feeling as if every employee in the department was watching and waiting for me to lose it.
I also clearly remember my peers and my managers asking me how my wife was handling it. Everyone was careful not to use Scott’s name and no one asked me how I was handling the loss. Not the best of experiences, but it was 1971 and the expectations at that time were to keep your business and personal life separate. So we stuffed it away and moved on.
Now let’s fast forward to 1995 and Lance’s death. Now I’m in an entrepreneurial environment with partners. It was two weeks before I was able to return to work and my partners covered my client engagements during that time. When I did finally return my assignments kept me in town. I functioned but it was as if I was on autopilot.
When I was in my office, my partners and associates were very helpful. They asked about my wife. They talked about the accident. They asked how my other two sons were handling the situation. They spoke Lance’s name. After being back about two months, one of my partners came into my office, closed the door and said, “We are all very sad that Lance was killed and we expect it is devastating for you and your family. However, we did not cause his death. You are very angry and you are taking it out on us. We would like for that to stop.”
I was speechless. Sure, I knew I was angry, but I didn’t think it was showing. For me, it was a wakeup call. As I examined what he said and how I had acted over the last two months, I realized he was right. I was angry, and I was angry with them and I knew the reason why. The next morning, I called a meeting with everyone in the firm. I apologized for my anger and then told them why I was angry.
In all of their concern, caring and compassion, they never asked me how I was doing. All of the experiences from 1971 got loose and teamed up with the fresh emotions of 1995 and it was impossible to keep it all stuffed away. I told them how I felt, and it was emotional. Then I truly surprised myself. I told them what I needed from them.
This may not seem like a big deal to you, but throughout my entire adult life up to that moment, I was the one who people came to when they needed help. I was the problem solver, the fixer, and the cool head under fire. Clearly, the entire world was about to end. I had already attended two support group (The Compassionate Friends) meetings and admitted to a group of perfect strangers that I needed their help on this grief journey. That was bad enough, but now here I was telling my peers and colleagues that I also needed their help.
Well, as you might suspect, the world did not end, and in fact it actually got better. I will save that part of the story for the second installment of this article, which will be posted in June 2009.
Patrick Malone is a senior partner with the PAR Group www.thepargroup.com , an international consulting and training firm based in Atlanta, Georgia. He has served as a board member and the board president of The Compassionate Friends, a national self-help support organization with nearly 600 chapters for families that have experienced the death of a child. Patrick is a frequent grief workshop presenter and a speaker at industry and management conferences across the country. He is the co-author of the new book Cracking the Code to Leadership, a guest columnist for the Gwinnett Daily Post and the Atlanta Journal Constitution and a variety of industry publications. Patrick may be reached at [email protected]