Coping with grief at work

Dealing with grief is incredibly difficult but how can we approach grief in the workplace?

Grief is a subject which I’ve been fortunate enough not to encounter for many years, that was up until recently when our family tragically lost someone we never imagined we would.

Those close to me are currently facing one of the most awful scenarios you could possibly imagine, their pain and loss is something that no one should have to face. I have been supporting the family a lot during this awful time and will continue to do so over the coming months and years. I wanted to take this opportunity to thank those who helped us publically search and those who sent messages of support.

Sadly my family are not alone, so many other families are going through hard times; losing loved ones to terminal illnesses, people who’s relatives are missing and whilst the age old saying “when you turn up at work you leave your personal life at the door” is used all too often the reality is very different.

The only way to describe grief without feeling it yourself is “raw”.

It begs many questions, why don’t we talk more about when a life ends in the same way that we would when a new life begins? Should we stop treading on egg shells and support people when they need it the most head on?

Grief is not easy to deal with as it is such a sensitive subject that has two distinct factors:

  1. People who have suffered loss may not want to talk about it
  2. Managers/employers are unsure on the best approach

It is all well and good enforcing a company policy on bereavement leave, but when the situation arises is the policy fit for purpose? is it flexible? does it provide adequate support and consideration to the on-going effects? are managers adequately equipped and understand it?

Grief can impact of every element of the affected employees life, anxiety and stress are common and this can impact significantly on their working environment. Therefore, employers need to assess the situation carefully upon the employees return to work, by being aware of the support offered, this can minimise the anxiety  and stress they may be experiencing.

It’s often asked if close team members should be made aware of the situation, I have read horror stories where colleagues have unknowingly asked a bereaved employee if they’d been on holiday. These situations can easily be avoided when holding open and empathetic conversations with the employee and being lead by them.

Long term effects of grief can escalate into mental health difficulties, anxiety or depression so it is important to be guided by the employee in terms of how much support they need. Understandably it is a difficult balance to get right as you want to support in everyway you can but you also don’t want to smother them either, so just simply letting them know that you’re there for them and maintaining a good level of communication will allow that support without intrusion.

In 2014 ACAS published their guidelines on how to deal with bereavement at work in a best practice format so that employers have an increased understanding around the long term effects so they can support the employee and workforce as part of their working practices. Their guide can be found here.

Grief is so much more than a policy. Moving on is the most difficult part.

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