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Grief is Complicated…

Sooner or later one of our staff is going to receive dreadful news while at work (because we all spend such a large proportion of our lives there) or return to work after having had time off to deal with something deeply upsetting in their lives. Both are tough situations for our employee, situations that we are going to be drawn into.


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This Pivot: Some ideas on grief, and how we might handle it when it affects one of our staff members.

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My only sibling died in a car crash when I was 19, and several office colleagues had pulled me aside back then to share stories of their pets being hit by cars. - Tré Miller Rodríguez

Grief.

Sooner or later one of our staff is going to be affected.

Sooner or later one of our staff is going to:

  • receive dreadful news while at work (because we all spend such a large proportion of our lives there), or
  • return to work after having had time off to deal with something deeply upsetting in their lives.

Both are tough situations for our employee - situations that we are going to be drawn into. If we handle them poorly, we will seriously affect our employee’s morale and damage our relationship with them.

As a typical early childhood centre manager, we aren’t a trained grief counsellor and we don’t have an on-site specialist to advise us. We also don’t have a grief policy and procedure in place.

We are not alone. Grief is a largely overlooked issue in all but the largest workplaces.

We Can’t Expect to Avoid Grief

Of course, we can’t prepare for everything.

To maintain our focus on the important stuff, we must park some issues as having such a low probability that they will likely not affect us (like being hit by a meteor!).

We can park other issues and hope that their outcome is not going to be too bad – we’ll just deal with any problems at the time. 'Park-and-hope' is probably where we have grief now.

But...

  • Grief is almost certainly going to come visiting our workplace at some time. If we employ staff, the odds are against us escaping (there are just too many ways that grief can be caused, as we’ll see below).
  • We are dealing with an extreme human emotion. Everything is magnified and is more intense, for both the person at the epicentre and for those outside (because we are all reminded it could easily be us in that position). When emotions are running in hyper-drive, slip-ups have a much more serious and lasting impact.
  • Poor handling of a grieving employee will hurt our centre. Our employee will be less productive, other employees will feel uncomfortable, children and parents will be disturbed, and someone somewhere will be looking for a new job!

Just to make matters harder for us:

  • Grief affects everyone differently. One employee may find returning to work a helpful distraction for their grief whereas another may find it overwhelming. Some may appear to be back to normal in a few weeks, but others may take months or years. Everyone’s different.

Grief is complex. It is going to arrive unexpectedly and has the potential to cause plenty of problems in our workplace.

It’s Not Just About Death Either

When we think about grief, what first comes to mind is death; but staff can grieve for other reasons.

Grief is how we react to loss.

  • Loss of a loved one
  • Loss of a relationship
  • Loss of health
  • Loss of a lifestyle

We can experience grief over losing a partner, a friend or family member or a miscarriage. Or from a divorce, a terminal or life-changing diagnosis, a natural disaster, or a personal or family bankruptcy.

In short: death, divorce, diagnosis or disaster!

And, just to keep us on our toes, the way each person experiences grief is unique, complex, and personal – and it is shaped by their culture. Emotions can be surprising in their strength (death of a pet) or mildness. Emotions can be confusing too, such as when a person misses a bad relationship or grieves because they did not grieve enough in the past.

There have been models proposed to explain what happens when people grieve. The best-known model was offered in 1969 by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, in her book On Death and Dying. She identified five stages of grief:

  • Denial
  • Anger
  • Bargaining
  • Depression
  • Acceptance

Kubler-Ross noted that everyone experiences at least two of the five stages of grief, and that some people may revisit certain stages over many years or throughout life. (Later she refined her model, explaining that the stages are not a linear and predictable progression but rather a collation of five common experiences for the bereaved that can occur in any order, if at all.)

Sadly, not everyone reaches acceptance…

(And not everyone agrees that grief is this simple.)

So, What Can We Do?

Here are some simple suggestions (in the absence of a comprehensive policy on grief).

As It Happens

When a person learns bad news at work there is not much argument over what happens next. The person leaves immediately (and we scramble to cover). That’s simply the right thing to do.

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Tip: Suggest to staff they not post on social media straight away. There have been instances of family members finding out about the death of a loved one through social media posts.

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While They Are Away

It’s good practice to appoint someone (not necessarily ourselves) to stay in touch with our grieving staff member, to check on their well-being and to offer any support they might need. It’s also a good idea to clarify how much information they are happy to have shared.

Our spokesperson should stay in regular, but not obtrusive, contact and in time can broach the subject of returning to work.

During this period, we might take the opportunity to provide basic information to remaining staff on how they should interact when the absent team member returns (it can be a quite stressful time for the rest of our staff too). There are plenty of resources on the internet to help us. Some to consider are:

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Tip: Prior to the staff member’s return, ask them how they would like to be treated. Some people wish to talk about what has happened, whereas others want a fast return to business as usual. The best thing is to ask.

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When They Return

The return of a grieving staff member can be tense, both for themselves and their colleagues. No one quite knows what to do or say, or what not to do or say. We can’t expect (or ask) anyone to leave their grief at home, yet our centre still needs to keep operating. Our other staff have work to do alongside a returning colleague who may be:

  • unable to concentrate
  • lethargic
  • tired due to lack of sleep
  • indecisive
  • short-tempered
  • disconnected
  • numb
  • angry
  • sad

They may not return to their ‘normal’ or ‘usual’ behaviour for weeks, months or even years. Throw in staff who are not fully aware of what a person goes through when coping with loss (who haven't had a major loss themselves), and who don’t understand that there is no timetable for grief, and we’ll be under pressure to move things along and fix things.

There’s a very good chance that’s the wrong thing to do.

Practically every resource available on this topic suggests one of the best things management and co-workers can do to help a returning colleague recover is to simply be available and present. Instead of trying to be an advisor or a counsellor, they should just simply be available to talk to and to listen.

Here’s some (slightly edited) advice taken from this HBR article:

Don’t ask. Don’t ask how they’re doing, how you can help, or what happened. Keep it short and simple. Asking forces your co-worker to do something; they have to decide whether and what to share, which they might not be capable of at that time. Instead, try saying, “I’m thinking of you,” or “I’m holding you in my thoughts.” Because they might need some practical help, offer specific tasks you could do for them, and let them decide what, if anything, they would like you to do: “I want you to know you can call on me to help at any time. I can bring over meals, run errands, make phone calls that are hard for you to make right now, walk with you, talk with you… Just let me know when you’re ready to make those kinds of decisions.”

Don’t compare. We’re all different in how we grieve, and the process is different depending on what we have lost. Instead of going into a long description about what was helpful for you when you lost a loved one, briefly let your colleague know whether you’ve also lost someone, and say, “I can’t imagine what this is like for you.” Your colleague might ask you how it was for you, or might just take comfort in knowing they’re not alone.

Don’t rush it. Just because you’re seeing your colleague for the first time since their loss, don’t feel compelled to blurt out your condolences right at the start. Make eye contact and notice they’re there. When in doubt, offer your condolences in private, during a lunch break, or when your colleague doesn’t have to set aside their raw emotions and be in ‘professional’ mode.

Don’t track their progress. While we know that the acuteness of grief will dull over time, many people in the throes of grieving aren’t ready to hear that, or to think about letting go of the grieving process. During brief pauses in their pain, they might feel guilty when they’ve managed to set aside sadness for a short time. Instead of saying, “Are you doing any better?” or “I’m glad you came, it must mean you’re doing better,” simply try, “It’s good to see you” or “I’m glad you’re back.”

Don’t think of it as one-and-done. Grieving will take many forms over time. Let your colleague know that you’re around. Set a reminder to check in with them every few weeks or so. When checking in, keep it short. Try a simple text, such as “Thinking of you” or “Here to support you whenever you need it.”

Don’t ignore them. After reading all these don’ts, you might be nervous to do anything. But don’t let your level of discomfort lead you to say nothing. Ultimately, your support and intentions will come through. Simply focus on your colleague and take your cue from them.

Your bereaved colleague will appreciate your intent to support them.

Give them the space to call on your support as and when they need it, without being too forceful. Make your intentions known, and then leave it up to them to guide you in how far to go.

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Tip: Recommend to the grieving staff member that they start back at the centre on a Thursday or Friday so they have a shortened workweek and then a break.

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Grief is complicated.

There is no simple answer.

Food for Thought…

  • Sooner or later we will have to deal with grief in our workplace.
  • Poor handling of a grieving staff member can hurt them and our centre.
  • It's not just about death; it's about loss.
  • One of the best responses to grief is to just 'be there'.
  • Grief is complicated - there is no one simple solution.
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