Grief in the workplace

Introduction to the introduction

What follows below is not written for my usual blog audience but you may find it helpful for your own workplace discussions about grief in the workplace.  The purpose here is to address what grief is, why it matters in the workplace and how together we can manage its impact.

One thing I’m trying to do here is get across its long lasting and unpredictable nature and correct the myth about a limited shelf life of grief.  By showing this and pointing to small,  practical steps to have conversations the aim is to chip away at the stigma around this topic.  I have moved the focus away from the specific aspects of grief following baby loss to reach a wider audience by drawing on the more common features to avoid any accusations of grief olympics or well-meant but frustrating whataboutery.


Introduction

  • There is an inherent paradox in grief, it is by its nature a universal experience yet we will each have a unique experience. When we talk of our experiences with each other we may find common themes but they will vary in terms of timing, intensity or expression.
  • There is a great deal of good advice on how to handle grief in the workplace. Much of it is focused on the initial aftermath of the loss.
  • World Mental Health Day falls within Baby Loss Awareness Week and at first glance this may seem like an odd fit but there is much cross-over between the areas.
  • Both are marked by stigma and taboo, both have long lasting effects that can be wildly unpredictable.
  • While my main focus has been on baby loss and supporting anyone affected by this the aim of this post is to explain how a very personal and private experience can affect the workplace and how we as managers, as colleagues can help each other navigate the unpredictable and ambiguous experiences of grief whether it’s for the loss of a loved one, a friend or a relationship.

The business case for being human

  • Why is this a workplace matter? Surely these are private matters? To a certain extent this is true, work can become a refuge from the draining effects of grief.  A welcome return to some form of normalcy following catastrophe.
  • As managers, as colleagues we have a duty of care. We are not counsellors, nor should we be expected to be but we are the people that the bereaved will spend more time with than their own families.
  • Recent surveys from Sands and Co-Op have highlighted that there is a lack of workplace support for the bereaved returning following loss. Where there is a lack of support there is a greater chance of lost motivation, reduced productivity, absence and even leaving or not returning to work.
  • I know this in part because the experience I had on return from paternity leave after my sons’ stillbirth drove me to find a new job.  A loss can fundamentally alter your worldview, what you find important and how you spend your time.

Myth busting about the duration of grief and its lasting effects

  • For me one of the hardest parts of handling grief at work is that as in our personal lives, tolerance for grief has a very short shelf life. There is an unspoken (and sometimes spoken) assumption that people will grind their way through the stages of grief and reach acceptance and all will be rosy again.
  • This is false. The stages were never intended to be seen as a linear process and grief certainly isn’t a straight path.

    howgrief

  • There are a number of useful metaphors to illustrate this from Flaubert to Nick Cave.

    “You do come out of it, that’s true. After a year, after five. But you don’t come out of it like a train coming out of a tunnel, bursting through the downs into sunshine and that swift, rattling descent to the Channel; you come out of it as a gull comes out of an oil-slick.

    You are tarred and feathered for life.”

    “…there was something I was rattling on about time being elastic, and I think that’s what I meant, that we’re attached to this event, and that we move away, and we’re like on a rubber band, and life can go on and on and on, but eventually it just keeps coming back to that thing. And that’s… that’s some kind of trauma, I guess”

  • In my own case I had 7 weeks off work following my twin sons’ stillbirths before returning but it was 4 years later following the birth of my youngest daughter that a wave of delayed grief threatened to consume me and I thought I was going mad.

How it may manifest itself in the workplace

  • This took the form of a uncontrollable swirl of thoughts that I had to write down to get them out of my head to make sense of them.
  • My decision making capabilities were shot, my concentration was a butterfly flitting from one thing to another and just as fragile.
  • If handled badly these issues could become performance related matters or absence.

What can we do together to better manage grief in the workplace?

  • Again, it didn’t take much to make a difference. Being able to have an open conversation about mental health and its impact on my ability to work helped address some of the guilt about falling behind.  It allowed for contingency planning and crucially gave me the permission I felt I needed to take time away.
  • Being able to work at home, take short notice leave where possible and even take time away from the desk to access different support services helped me move through the worst of it and reclaim a sense of control.
  • This is my experience. It will not be the same as yours or your colleagues.  It may be that outwardly they appear fine, working hard, maybe coming in earlier, staying late and delivering.  It may be that they come in later, disappear or appear distant or prone to irritable outbursts.
  • You may have a sense of your colleague’s baseline and you may start to notice discrepancies between past behaviour / performance, the disconnect between what they are saying or how they say it.
  • Crucially you may see it before they recognise it in themselves. Again the role here is not to offer unsolicited counselling but have a conversation.  It may be helpful to identify available sources of help and support.
  • Again, there’s an irony here that my manager can often see the signs I’m not coping as well as I think I am before I do.  And because of an understanding of the issues we are able to work together to help manage it before it risks spiralling.

Guidance

  • Acas offers guidance and support on bereavement in the workplace.
  • For more specific types of loss there is also support from specialist charities.
  • I have made use of:
  • These are not conversations we may want to have but they are incredibly important and can make a lasting impact.  My hope is that this post along with the links to available materials you have a better understanding of the long lasting and unpredictable effects of grief and how we can better manage it in the workplace.

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