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The truth about grief at work – a guide for employees and managers

Emma Tomes |
December 16, 2021

All of us at some point in our lives will be in a position where we are grieving, but we feel the pressure of having to return to work.

This may be straight away, or we might have taken time away from the workplace.

Whatever your position, returning to work can be fraught with difficulties, not only for the bereaved employee, but for managers and work colleagues too.

How do they treat you? Do they mention the loss? Do they ignore it and continue as normal? Do they skirt around the issue?

There are dozens of ways people think they ought to react, and what is right for one person may not be right for another. No-one wants to say the wrong thing, so often we end up saying nothing at all. Which surely is not good for anyone?

So how do we navigate our way through such a tricky time?

The first thing we need to do is acknowledge that grief is not only confined to a situation where someone has died. There are over forty life events can cause feelings of grief. These can include divorce, redundancy, a child leaving home, illness or injury, and other major life changes.

Employers and employees need to be aware that any of these situations can cause feelings of grief. These experiences can have an impact in the workplace, affecting the employee’s wellbeing and ability to work productively.

When my son’s dad died, I felt as though I was inconveniencing my workplace; I was asked to take annual leave to cover hospital visits and the funeral. Some people avoided talking about my situation.

When I went through a divorce, some of my colleagues took a similar approach. The same thing happened when my mum was diagnosed with terminal cancer and then when I went through redundancy.

Repeatedly people avoided me or the subject – and if they did not, there were plenty of those unhelpful ‘at least’ statements knocking around. ‘At least you will get another job,’ ‘at least you are still young,’ and so on.

These events left me feeling isolated and alone at work, and at risk of my mental health deteriorating.

It is important that people can feel they are comfortable to bring their ‘whole self’ to work.

By providing a safe environment for people to do that, they are more present, authentic, and engaged. This way they are not wasting time and energy on suppressing a part of their lives or trying to be something they are not.

For someone who is grieving, it is vital that they feel able to communicate this and to feel heard and understood by their peers and managers.

If this is done right, in some situations being at work can help with grief – reducing loneliness and giving purpose and structure.

Done wrong it can be extremely damaging and isolating.

For those who are grieving, it is important that they do what they need to do, in their own way and their own time. It may be that time away is the way they feel most able to cope.

Two-way communication between an employee and their manager is vital here. Employers should provide a space where the employee feels they can communicate their thoughts and feelings, working together to establish what support is available.

Empathy from managers and colleagues is also of significant importance.

Managers need to listen, give time off where needed and be aware that there is no set time limit for grief. Grief is unique to the individual and their circumstances. They should keep talking – after all if someone takes time off for a broken leg it is natural to stay connected and ask how they are; why should it be different for grief? Remember to book in your next check in or follow up.

Recent research by the Sue Ryder charity showed that 60 per cent of people who felt well-supported by their employer after experiencing a bereavement said being allowed enough time off and not being pressured to return to work were key.

It also found that 62 per cent of people believe paid leave following the death of a parent, partner, sibling, or child should be at least a week. 

The charity is now calling on the government to introduce a statutory minimum of two-weeks’ bereavement leave for the loss of an immediate family member.

There is a lack of understanding about grief in society and I am on a mission to help people unlearn the myths surrounding grief and to learn what is enormously helpful.

As a certified Grief Recovery Method Specialist, I use the eight-week Grief Recovery Method ® to help clients move through the life event that has caused their feelings of grief. 

My workshop called The Truth About Grief can help anyone, including managers, find out more about the truths and myths surrounding grief and what is helpful and what is not when someone is grieving.

If you want to find out more, get in touch now. 

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