Grief can affect any of us at any time. Trying to do your job while grieving and dealing with all the emotions and tasks associated with a loss can be incredibly difficult. That is why it’s crucial for workplaces to offer the right support for anyone going through a difficult life period.
Let’s start by looking at what grief is, how you can spot the signs and, most importantly, how you can help employees who are experiencing it…
Grief is the emotional response to loss, not limited to the death of a loved one but encompassing a range of significant life changes. It can include infertility or the ending of a pregnancy, as well as the loss of health, significant relationships or even a role, for example when a child leaves home and no longer needs parenting in the same way.
These endings can happen quickly and unexpectedly, or happen over a course of time. The nature of the loss will impact people in different ways. Grief generally manifests in diverse ways, and recognising these signs is crucial in offering appropriate support
Signs of grief
- Emotional Symptoms: Beyond sadness, individuals may experience anger, guilt, anxiety, or even relief. Mood swings, irritability, or emotional numbness can also be observed. When there are complex relationships with mixed feelings, this can be particularly difficult to manage.
- Physical Symptoms: Changes in appetite and sleep, fatigue, and somatic complaints are common.
- Cognitive Impairments: Concentration difficulties, forgetfulness, and indecisiveness may make life more difficult and hinder work performance.
- Behavioural Shifts: These may include a withdrawal from social interactions, decreased productivity and increased absenteeism.
Stages of grief
The stages of grief, conceptualised by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, include denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance and eventually finding meaning. It's important to note that these stages are not sequential and can vary greatly among individuals.
- Denial: This stage involves shock or disbelief and is often one of the initial reactions. Signs include avoidance, confusion, elation, or shock. It's a defense mechanism that buffers the immediate shock, allowing one to process the loss at their own pace.
- Anger: As the masking effects of denial begin to wear off, pain re-emerges. The individual might direct this anger at other people, objects, or themselves. It's important to understand that this anger is a natural part of the healing process.
- Bargaining: During this stage, individuals dwell on what could have been done to prevent the loss. Common thoughts include "If only..." or "What if..." scenarios. This stage often involves a strong sense of guilt.
- Depression: This stage encompasses overwhelming feelings of sadness, regret, fear, and uncertainty. It's important to differentiate this from clinical depression. It might involve withdrawing from life, feelings of numbness, and a sense of hopelessness.
- Acceptance: This is not necessarily a stage of happiness or resolution but rather a gradual acceptance of the new way of life. It doesn't mean the individual is okay with the loss but that they have come to accept that it’s happened and learn to live with it.
- Finding meaning: This stage involves finding away to stay connected to the person who’s gone and potentially find opportunities for growth and transformation.
Recognising these stages in oneself or others is vital. They provide a framework to understand and articulate feelings, though it's essential to remember that everyone's journey through grief is unique. Some people might cope by burying their feelings initially and not feel the impact of what’s happened until much later. It can be difficult to witness people in pain or experiencing these difficult emotions, but these stages can’t be rushed – everyone moves through at their own pace. It can be tempting to try to find ways to make people feel better but watch out for any urges to say “at least… they didn’t suffer etc” – it’s not helpful to try and find a silver lining.
Creating a supportive workplace
People may find it helpful to continue with the routine of work and connection with colleagues whilst they’re grieving – it can provide a distraction and some respite from the reality they’re trying to process. However, they are unlikely to be able to function exactly as they did before and some adjustments may be needed. These general principles may help:
- Promote an empathic culture: Encourage an environment where emotions are respected and acknowledged, and where grief is recognised as part of life.
- Acknowledge the loss: Expressing sympathy and acknowledging the grief can be comforting. A simple "I'm sorry for your loss" can mean a lot.
- Encourage them to take care of themselves: with all the strong emotions, arrangements that need making and the continued demands of day-to-day life, self-care can drop off the list.
- Offer flexibility in work arrangements where possible: This might include homeworking, hybrid working, dropping to part-time hours temporarily, ad-hoc days off for mental health or a leave of absence.
- Regular check-ins: Schedule private, non-intrusive check-ins to understand their needs and offer support.
- Monitor workload: Ensure that the grieving individual is not overloaded with work responsibilities. Grief will affect the emotional bandwidth people have for dealing with other stressors and reduces their window of tolerance. Where possible, offer them support in performing their role, especially tasks that they are currently finding challenging. This could include giving them longer time to complete tasks or temporarily delegating some responsibilities to other team members.
- Acknowledging significant dates: Being mindful of anniversaries or significant dates related to the loss shows continued support.
- Access to professional support: There are many different therapeutic approaches that can help people through the grieving process, particularly if they’ve become stuck or the loss was especially traumatic. The opportunity to have specialist support can be invaluable.
Engaging in Sensitive Conversations
Sometimes it can be hard to know what to say and the risk is we don’t say anything at all. Starting conversations when someone’s experienced a loss requires tact and sensitivity but can help people feel less alone in their grief. Here are some tips for approaching the topic:
- Choose a private setting: Conversations about grief should be held in a private, quiet space.
- Offer the person the opportunity to talk, but don’t push it and don’t be invasive or ask for details. It’s more important that they can tell you how they’re feeling now and what they need rather than what happened. Let them know that they can approach you (or a relevant team member), whenever they feel ready.
- Use open-ended questions: Encourage sharing feelings without pressure. Ask, "How are you feeling today?" rather than "Are you okay?"
- Listen actively: Offer empathy and understanding without trying to 'fix' their grief. Be willing to listen without judgement and to validate their feelings. Try not to give advice or talk about your own experiences — it will be more useful if you listen and ask about how they’re doing.
- Ask them what they need, don’t assume you know. Even if you have experienced something similar yourself (or know someone else who has), everyone’s situation is different and their grieving process will be unique to them.
- Ask them if they would like their colleagues to be informed so they are aware and if so, how much detail do they want to be shared? Or would they prefer to tell people themselves (or not)?
- Respect boundaries: Some individuals may not wish to discuss their grief at work. Respect their preference and allow them to guide the conversation.
The truth is that most of us lose loved ones, pets and/or relationships that matter to us at some point in our lives. That is why it’s essential that every workplace has a structure in place for supporting individuals through it, so that they can continue to thrive in their career — the structure, rewards and social connections that work provides are often vital for supporting wellbeing and healing.
And by learning to both spot grieving responses and address them sensitively — while also having a good employee mental health programme in place — you can enable your organisation to be a safe space that supports people through every kind of life challenge.