Managing Grief in the Workplace
Grief bombarded into my home this weekend when my daughter learned that her friend had taken her own life. Accompanying the sadness, confusion and torment that my daughter felt was a flood of my own memories, equally as torturous and dismal.
Carolyn and I worked through the weekend much like my own mother and I did many years ago; we gathered with friends, we wept alone, we sat numb, we spoke of confusion, anger and guilt, and we prayed for comfort…for our friend’s family as well as ourselves.
The Federal holiday today gives Carolyn one more day to process this tragedy before she returns to school, but she remains anxious about facing the questions of her peers, the missed work from Friday, the test she’s not prepared for, etc.
Carolyn’s stress reminds me of one of my first challenges as an HR Manager many years ago.
He was also a bit of an introvert and while his colleagues knew him, they didn’t really “know him.”
I had just promoted to my position as HR Manager and received a call on Monday morning telling me that this man was scaring his colleagues, that many in the workplace were weeping and/or overly anxious and that I needed to fly to Fairbanks immediately to “deal” with it.
I won’t bore you with the details but this poor man was having an emotional breakdown in the workplace; he was disoriented, angry, violent, and manic.
He had come to work three days after his son died because he had no personal leave and even if he did, he hadn’t worked long enough to use it. He had come to work three days after this son died because he didn’t believe his boss would appreciate his project falling behind. He had come to work three days after his son died because he didn’t want to disappoint his new colleagues.
This poor man was in the depth of grief and yet he came to work. It’s no wonder he broke down.
When his coworkers learned that he had lost his son, many of them fell into what happened to me this weekend…a strong recollection of my past – a “reliving” of my own grief. Some of our employees had what I can only describe as an awakening of grief that had been suppressed.
By the time I arrived in Fairbanks, the tormented father had been taken home but we still had five employees extremely upset and overwhelmed. Most of the remaining staff in the Fairbanks office were so pre-occupied with everything else they were unable to focus on their work.
I quickly realized I was ill equipped to manage grief in the workplace.
I had no processes, no back up plan, no resources, etc. I had an Employee Assistance program but I had no easy way to “initiate” that resource and put things into place to get my employees help.
The employees who weren’t overwhelmed with their own emotions wanted to “help” but most didn’t know how. They weren’t counsellors, they weren’t clinicians, they weren’t family members, they weren’t friends. They didn’t know what to say, they didn’t know what to do.
I wish I could say I saved the day but alas, I didn’t. I believe I failed this grieving father and his wife and, while doing so, had one of the toughest, most emotionally draining weeks I have ever had.
The only good that came out of the week is this:
I made a plan just in case it ever happened again.
My challenge to you, as an HR professional, Administrator, Office Manager, etc., is to create your plan for managing grief in the workplace.
If you put this work off for a rainy day, you will be as ill equipped as I was, and you will realize that you, too, failed an employee at a time he/she needed you most.
Your plan doesn’t have to be fancy…it can be as simple as a checklist, a list of phone numbers, a few names of some volunteers who are willing to step up and coordinate things, etc. I recommend you reach out right now to a few people who have dealt with this type of thing before. Form a small committee and put your plan on paper.
Start with these things…and see where the conversation leads you.
Designated Contact Person
Can the employer identify one or two people who will be the designated contact person(s) for the grieving employee? It’s less overwhelming for the grieving employee when he/she knows there is only one or two people to call.
Paid Time Off
Does your employer offer bereavement leave or any other type of paid administrative leave that can be utilized for the death of a family member? If not, does your employer allow for donated leave? Are employees able to use these types of benefits regardless of their tenure?
(If you do have these benefits, please take a moment to remind your employees of them!)
Current Work Interview
Is it possible to contact the grieving employee to get a very quick “status” check regarding current workload? The intent of this interview is not to make the employee worry about the work but instead, to ascertain what can immediately be handed off to a colleague, the boss, etc. Perhaps you can gather enough information to simply let the customer/client know that a deadline may need to be changed, that he/she will be working with a different employee temporarily, etc. The result of these interviews is a “release” for the grieving employee – he/she can “let the work go” and focus on the personal things.
Does the employee have a support network? Is he/she a member of a church? Is he/she a member of another group – bowling, gardening, Lion’s Club, Elk’s Club, etc. If so, can you or should you notify someone? Can you remain in contact with that person so the grieving employee doesn’t have to for the near future?
While this may seem like you are “crossing” a boundary, know this…a grieving person is overwhelmed with making/receiving phone calls. If someone from work can relieve some of this burden and maintain the interaction/engagement with others, so be it.
Can your employer create a “support” network from your workforce? Oftentimes, someone who has dealt with the death of a loved one volunteers to be a resource for others.
Utilize these employees – it’s good for everyone!
Meals, Errands and “Taxis”
Does the affected employee need some help with meals, running errands, getting kids or family members to/from school, sports, airport, etc.? Often, these types of things are overwhelming. Keep in mind that many of your employees want to help but don’t feel they know the person “personally” enough to do the more “intimate” work that needs to be done during these times. Buying a pizza, making some meals, picking up a relative at the airport, etc. is a great solution.
Does the grieving employee have access to counseling? Does he/she understand how his/her benefits works for this type of care?
Do the other employees have access to counseling? Do they need to be reminded about their benefits?
Would the company benefit from having someone come in and facilitate group sessions?
Do you have a list of local phone numbers that would naturally be called upon in these types of instances: funeral homes, hospice, florists, newspaper, churches, clinicians, state sponsored/subsidized programs, etc.
I know what you’re thinking…this isn’t your job…but trust me on this one. Your employees can spend time tracking down this information or you can create a one-page resource document that has much of it at their fingertips.
Can you create a “packet” for someone the moment you learn of their situation? Pamphlets, books, phone numbers, websites, and other resources could be in this packet. Names of employees who have offered to help others could be included. Gift cards for local restaurants, dry cleaners/alterations, florists, etc. could be included.
You’re only limited by your imagination and compassion when it comes to a packet that is intended to comfort and help.
I know this is a long post, and I thank you for reading it. If you don’t already have something in place, I hope this has inspired you to put a plan together.
We can’t plan for death and grief…but we can plan for managing the effect it has on our workforce.
Thank you for caring enough to do so.