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Wellbeing

Managing grief in the workplace

By Kace O'Neill | |7 minute read

Grief can emerge from a number of circumstances, and it often engulfs us in sorrow. Here are some tips for dealing with these difficult themes in the workplace.

The thing about grief is that it is a universal experience, and a painful one. Grief affects different people in different ways, yet often, a common response is to want to neglect the world and take our time mourning, but eventually, and usually sooner than we would like, we have to get back to work.

The difficulty of grieving at the workplace

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Returning to one’s normal routine after the passing of family, friends, work colleagues, or even pets can be extremely challenging. Grief in itself can feel like a full-time job, and once paid leave or bereavement leave has concluded, it can feel like you’re being thrust back into the workforce before you’ve managed to employ strategies to help deal with your current emotions. For some, work is a welcome distraction, but for others, the full-time work of grief can leave you feeling sad and unproductive.

A number of things are impacted while we are mourning. Even the most minor things can remind us of our loss, which can spring feelings of sadness and create tears throughout the day. It takes a toll on our motivation levels; we can become easily distracted, and things that used to seem important no longer have that same urgency that they used to.

When grieving affects our productivity, it can become a double-up of issues. On the one hand, we’re mourning, then on the other, we’re feeling bad about ourselves because we aren’t producing in the workplace to the level we’re accustomed to. This can lead to spiralling out of control or having a full-on breakdown.

Keys to dealing with grief at the workplace

When returning to the workplace, one must prepare themselves for the challenges that await in terms of grieving at work. Experiencing grief in the workplace isn’t easy – but you can take steps to make the process more manageable, as listed by Pathways:

  • Adjust expectations: Adjust expectations of yourself at work to reduce stress while you come to terms with your loss. You may not be as productive or focused on the job, and that’s alright.
  • Make time for yourself and your grief at work: When you first return to work, you may need to be intentional about taking breaks to feel your emotions fully. Setting aside time in your workday to grieve and process your feelings can help manage grief at work.
  • Be honest and honour your feelings: As you move through the stages of grief, you will feel a range of emotions, like sorrow and anger. Try not to place judgement on these feelings, and simply let yourself process the emotion.
  • Determine your needs for support and privacy: Determine your comfort level with team members knowing about your grief and communicate that to your manager. Learn about employee mental health benefits and grief support resources if you want to receive support privately.

Managing employees who are experiencing grief

For managers and employers, knowing how to approach an employee who’s grieving or knowing what to say can often be the hardest part. Instead of becoming fixated on saying the right words, managers should work to be as flexible as possible for their employees during this trying time. Here are some of the keys to supporting colleagues who are experiencing grief:

  • Listen actively: Sometimes, the most significant support is simply being there to listen. Allow the time and space to express their feelings without judgement or the urge to offer immediate solutions. It’s not about fixing their pain but providing a safe space to share it.
  • Offer flexibility: Consider offering flexible working hours, additional breaks, or time off as needed. Little adjustments can make a big difference to someone grappling with grief.
  • Check in regularly: Grief doesn’t have a set timeline. Regularly check in with your colleague, not just immediately after their loss. This continued support demonstrates that you genuinely care about their wellbeing beyond the initial aftermath of their loss.

Dealing with the passing of a co-worker

Co-workers often become very much like an extended family; we tend to spend a lot of hours together on a weekly basis, thus forming strong bonds and a connection to each other over time. The result is that if a co-worker’s passing does arise, it can be extremely difficult to process and deal with.

If you worked closely with the person, perhaps sat near them or got along well with them, death, especially an unexpected one, can hit like a ton of bricks because it will affect how you interact with your working day for the foreseeable future. You may feel anxiety and guilt if the death occurred in the workplace or your last interaction with the person was unpleasant.

Even if the co-worker’s death came after a prolonged illness, you may still experience shock and depression when you hear the news. Grief is a natural process that requires time. According to the American Psychological Association, you may find these suggestions helpful:

  • Share your feelings: Your other co-workers may be experiencing the same emotions you are. Mutual support can help everyone get through the grieving process.
  • Take advantage of employee assistance programs: Experienced counsellors can offer support and structure to help individuals and groups come to terms with a loss and make appropriate plans for memorials and gestures of condolences to family members.
  • Plan ahead: If you are a manager, work with your human resources specialists to establish protocols for responding to a worker’s death. Issues to consider include sharing information, handling personal effects, allowing time off for funerals and reassigning space or equipment.

The journey of dealing with one’s grief shouldn’t be an isolated task; working in team environments requires constant team efforts. When a colleague is going through grief, small team efforts and assistance can make these common difficulties a little bit more manageable. Those efforts should, in turn, create a connection throughout the workplace and bring everyone closer together.

If you or someone you know is struggling with grief, reach out for support at https://www.lifeline.org.au/ or call 13 11 14.

Kace O'Neill

Kace O'Neill

Kace O'Neill is a Graduate Journalist for HR Leader. Kace studied Media Communications and Maori studies at the University of Otago, he has a passion for sports and storytelling.