Grief in the workplace

Monique Raimbault, MMFT
Counsellor, Employee Assistance Program
May 2, 2021

Update: The grief counselling program was available until December 31, 2021. If you need support at this time, Manitoba Blue Cross's counselling services are available to all Manitobans, regardless of whether or not you have coverage with Manitoba Blue Cross. Find the available support that's right for you here. You may also find support with articles in our wellness library, including Getting through grief.

We spend most of our waking hours and so much personal energy in the workplace. When we experience a death, loss or significant change in our personal lives, it’s bound to affect us at work. Grief cannot be left at the doorstep when we leave home.

Whether it’s a marital separation, severe illness of a loved one or a death, our ability to be present at work will be negatively impacted. Grief impairs our ability to function at work in many ways, including:

• Physically: Fatigue, lethargy, appetite changes, weight gain/loss and change in sleep patterns.

• Psychologically: Difficulty with concentration and decision-making, memory loss and confusion.

• Socially: Isolation, withdrawal and redefinition of self or social circles.

• Spiritually: Re-evaluation of values and beliefs, meaning of life and meaning of work.

When You Are Grieving

Grief tends to come in waves and can feel intrusive when it pops up unexpectedly at work. Anticipating the waves of grief, having a plan and sharing what you’re going through with others can help.

Strategies you can use at work when you’re in the process of mourning include:

• Identifying people who can be emotionally supportive. Many co-workers want to help but don’t know how so don’t be afraid to ask for what you need.

• Not taking on additional stress in the form of increased workload or new commitments. Lighten the load for the time being and discuss individual needs with your supervisor.

• Honouring the need to be alone and not shutting out co-workers or friends.  Staying connected to others is an important part of healing.

• Preparing for “grief bursts” (unexpected, brief and powerful waves of emotion) and managing them by going for a walk or getting fresh air.

• Contacting  grief counselling.

• Obtaining help from the human resources department for assistance with medical claims, life insurance policies, etc.

When a Co-worker Is Grieving

Grief is a process, not an event. There is no right or wrong way to experience grief, no orderly progression through grief, no “normal” timeline. Everyone will experience and heal from grief in their own way, some preferring to not discuss their loss, others needing increased emotional and social support. When we aren’t sure what someone else needs, we might find ourselves either overdoing offers of support or avoiding a co-worker out of discomfort.

Strategies we can use to assist grieving co-workers include:

• Engaging and listening. Look them in the eyes, listen without judgment and ask how they’re doing.

• Not using platitudes like “I know how you feel,” “He’s in a better place now” or “It was God’s will.” Instead try “I’m thinking of you,” “Lots of people here care for you” or “What do you need?”

• Helping with practical matters – yard work, meals, planting a tree or starting a memorial fund.

• Using the name of the deceased rather than generic terms.

• Understanding your efforts may be declined. Offer again in a few weeks’ time.

• Being brief in telling your own experience of loss, as no two losses are alike.

• Being sensitive during holiday celebrations.

• Remembering the anniversary of the death and offering support on that day.

Creating a Workplace Culture of Compassion

Everyone – the bereaved, their co-workers, and employers – can participate in the “work of mourning” in order to work more effectively. Understanding the nature of grief, balancing the need to mourn and move on, and implementing the above-noted strategies can help the grieving process and create a workplace culture of compassion. While work productivity is vital to an organization’s future, compassionate caring is essential for its existence.