Grief in the Workplace

Grief is not resolved once the standard three bereavement days are over.

By Heather Leigh

What do you say or do after your supervisor’s spouse passes away suddenly?  Do you ever wonder how your co-worker manages to cope every day after her brother’s suicide or an unwanted divorce?  How can you respectfully acknowledge a colleague’s rape, loss of a home to fire, or cancer diagnosis? How can we better prepare our workplace environment to embrace the individual who is struggling with a tragic life event?

Grief is the normal and natural reaction to loss of any kind. It’s also the most neglected and misunderstood experience, often by both the grievers and those around them.  We have been socialized to believe these feelings are abnormal and unnatural. We regurgitate the clichés like “keep a stiff upper lip,” “I know how you feel,” “she led a full life,” and “God, will never give you more than you can handle.” These empty platitudes do nothing to help the griever and may add to their already existing confusion, anger, disappointment, and frustration. It is normal for a griever to be overwhelmed, feel lost, dazed, confused or frustrated when a major loss impacts or disrupts her life.

The griever may see returning to work as a distraction from mourning or a way to move beyond the loss. However, unresolved issues can lay dormant until a co-worker offers a well-meaning comment, a forgotten memento is found in a desk drawer, or a client takes the opportunity to overshare details of her own loss. Co-workers may feel the bereaved is receiving special treatment or that they must mind their words and actions so as not to cause a breakdown.

Everyone in the organization should recognize that grief is not resolved once the standard three bereavement days are over. Both employers and employees can take steps to address the issue of grief in the workplace.

Employees and Grief

In an attempt to provide comfort, people typically repeat what they have learned and heard. While said with the best of intentions, words often ring hollow to the grieved. Rather than saying “call me if you need anything,” try to provide the griever with specifics: “I am going to the store, can I pick up a salad, fruit, or soup for you?” or “I’m free on Tuesday, can I mow your lawn, take the dog for a walk, or drop the kids off at school for you?” When providing the griever with specific options, they know what you are willing to do and may be more receptive to your offer.

A grieving colleague may want to talk about the loss, and it is okay to ask what happened. Take this opportunity to listen with an open heart, without analysis, criticism, or judgement. Refrain from sharing your similar experience or saying, “I know how you feel” ­— because you don’t.  Let the griever share her story with her words and emotions.

Employers and Grief

Employers who acknowledge the impact of grief also understand there is power in creating a positive environment. This means finding ways for employees to feel empowered to help the griever in a positive and healthy way.

Creating a supportive environment is one safe from gossip, obligatory sympathy, or fear of judgement and appearing unable to perform her job. Creating a safe space may require offering one-on-one counseling, participation in a grief recovery program, employee training on grief and communication, flexible work hours, or an on-sight area where the griever can go for comfort and privacy.

Showing sad emotions in the workplace is often misconstrued as a sign of weakness or unprofessionalism. A griever can suddenly become overwhelmed many days or even months after the life event. Crying is the body’s natural response to distress. Shedding tears in a professional setting is nothing to be ashamed of and doesn’t require an apology.  The griever is not responsible for how others may feel when he or she expresses such emotions. However, courtesy dictates that the griever let co-workers know that tears may well up spontaneously and are not cause for concern. This allows everyone to continue working through the sniffles.

How grief can affect the organization

There are financial aspects of grief in the workplace that employers should acknowledge. In 2011, Business Insider reported that grief costs employers over $75 billion a year due to reduced productivity and increased mistakes. The Grief Recovery Institute published a landmark report detailing the negative impact of unresolved loss in the workplace. Across the nation, employers bear the brunt of employee grief through loss of production, absenteeism, inefficient use of time, clouded judgement, and the potential of increased job injuries. The stakes are higher among employees with physical jobs; the inability to concentrate may increase on-the- job injuries that can result in higher worker’s compensation claims impacting the company’s bottom line.

How companies handle employee grief can easily determine whether or not a good employee would stay with the organization. Creating a culture of understanding and embracing human emotions as part of the organizational fabric can help retain the best talent and protect an organization’s bottom line.

Heather Leigh is a Certified Grief Recovery Specialist with The Grief Recovery Institute and can be contacted at

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