Coping with grief in the workplace

Businessman sleeping at his workplace in office

The workplace is, above all, a social construct, and with it comes all of the nuances of the human experience. We rejoice with our coworkers, we celebrate their successes, and we also grieve with and for them. Grief is a continuum, not a finite process, and it cannot be “managed.” It is personal, unique, and disruptive. And every single person on the planet has been touched by it. Most larger organizations have policies in place regarding “bereavement,” and most of these fall far short of providing true support to coworkers during times of crisis. Bereavement policies generally address paid time off, and end there. As anyone who has ever experienced the death of someone close to them knows, the immediate aftermath is only the beginning, and grieving does not end once the funeral is over. 

Managers and those in positions to affect policy changes need to realize that grief comes in many different forms and that there is no mathematical formula that can adequately quantify bereavement. This is why most formal policies fail. I had a client tell me that she had to take PTO when her aunt died because an aunt did not fit the company’s definition of “immediate” family. No consideration was given to the fact that her aunt was the one who had raised her following her parents’ death. This is a prime example of how policies can fall short and why compassion and empathy should override situations such as these. 

American culture has a wholesale aversion to death, and this translates into the workplace. There is an unspoken mantra that states that once a colleague returns to work, everything is back to normal. In reality, nothing could be further from the truth. A client with whom I’ve worked for many years was unexpectedly widowed in her early 30s. She told me that “following my husband’s death, all I did was show up. I showed up every day, sat in my office, and stared out the window. That was all I could do for about nine months.” Fortunately, her management was supportive and adjusted her workload so that she could manage it along with her grief.

This brings me to another point. In most situations, management needs to understand that they simply need to listen and not try to “fix” the problem. Death of a loved one is not a business issue that can be managed, worked through, or workshopped to a neat conclusion. Grief is messy, ugly, and irrational. Your coworkers and direct reports need to know that you understand this and that you accordingly adjust your expectations. 

Another thing that managers need to consider is the optics of how they react to employees’ times of crisis. A client told me recently about a coworker whose spouse and child were both killed in a tragic and freak accident. Her management sent out an email with a link to the obituary, and then nothing more. For my client, how this was handled was the final straw; she has elected to leave the company due in no small part to management’s wholesale lack of both empathy and support for her colleague.

business man at the office

What should you do? 

Realize that loss and subsequent grief are endemic to the human condition and that there are no hard and fast rules. Offer support. Volunteer to take on a colleague’s projects. Offer help, rather than asking what you can do. Grieving people are often overwhelmed and confused, and placing the burden of determining what they need on them is unfair. Most importantly, address the loss directly. Nothing is more discomfiting to a grieving person than having those around them act like everything is normal.


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