For 20+ years I have provided guidance to companies and Employee Assistant Programs (EAPs) in support of grieving employees returning to work after a significant loss and/or supporting co-workers who are navigating the loss of one of their own peers. In either case, the emotional reaction to the loss sets off challenges for both the grievers and the company. Employees often feel their company doesn’t show compassion for their loss and the new challenges in their personal life, dancing around the subject because they are ill-equipped to handle the situation. Often companies rely on “experts” to help navigate the immediate needs with on-site support for their employees, resulting in the workgroup limping through the next 6+ months trying to empathize with the employee.
Following a significant loss, the workplace dynamics are impacted in several ways, including lower productivity, varying employee reactions, workload juggling, increased absenteeism and strained communications. Managing an emotional loss in the workplace does not draw upon the same skills necessary to do work, e.g., managing a project. A manager often feels inadequate in providing support to a grieving employee which results in the employee believing the company is not being compassionate, creating an uncomfortable work environment.
In a perfect world, all managers and human resource personnel would proactively receive adequate management training that addresses an employee returning to work after a loss (e.g., as part of corporate management training or a lunch and learn for all employees). In my role as an “expert” in grief in the workplace, I have spent time with numerous companies providing assessments of their current policies and procedures when faced with a loss. While most organizations feel they have appropriate policies and procedures in place for when a death occurs, I question the human interaction side of the policies. How can a company rely on specific procedures without face-to-face training of how to be compassionate, what to look for and how to address the individual’s needs? After all, if no two people grieve alike, how can there be specific procedures without the presence of human interpretation and compassionate delivery?
During a recent workplace presentation to grievers, I had the opportunity to hear their challenges when returning to work after a significant loss. Their expectations were not aligned with those of their workplace as these individuals looked through their own prism with survival instincts and expectations that were often misread or misunderstood by the employer. While providing support, I try to challenge both the employee and the employer to look closer at the individual situation before criticizing and blaming one another when dealing with a difficult transition back to work. In defense of grievers, how does one articulate their needs when they don’t know what their needs are? And in defense of the employer, how do they provide support without knowing what the employee needs? Even after 20 years of helping companies, I am taken aback by how many assumptions are made by both parties without communicating the wants and needs of the situation at hand.
One of the attendees at the conference shared that she worked at a hospital and was horrified by the way the doctors and administrators treated her during the sudden decline of her husband’s health followed by his death. When I asked her specifically what made her upset, she shared that as medical personnel in a hospital they SHOULD understand what she was experiencing and handled the situation better. I shared with her that hospitals are in the business of keeping patients alive and the medical staff training is in support of families and the patient through the medical treatment. She pondered the notion that her company, even thought it was a hospital, was no different from any other company from an HR administration point of view – a valid point, in my opinion. Bottom line, what she desired was emotional support from her co-workers. She wanted them to ask questions about her husband and show empathy. Her co-workers thought the less they asked, the better it would be. Clearly, the employer had good intentions; however, they were looking at the situation through a different prism than hers.
Another attendee spoke of his continued isolation following the sudden death of his fiancé. He worked in the field of construction and chose not to share his situation with his co-workers as they might perceive him as weak, potentially jeopardizing his job. He avoided all social media as he was afraid his story would be shared and fall in the hands of his workplace. In addition, he avoided all social interaction with co-workers to evade questions about his marital status. His emotional reaction to the situation made perfect sense since he was afraid of losing his job. What if he felt more comfortable talking to his management or even asking his company for support? He would feel less isolated and his grief journey might be different. When I asked him if isolation was more painful and stressful than losing his job, he pondered a moment. After looking through this different prism, he shared that interaction is what he needed most. I would imagine he left the room with the confidence and desire to take the next step to engage with others.
One woman in the room shared she has been employed by the same company for 27 years and following the loss of her son, she was provided with the traditional 7 days of bereavement leave. She approached her employer for additional time off and was told that bereavement leave benefit policy was 7 days. Her reaction was that of feeling anger and disrespect. Her sadness prevented her from inquiring about additional benefits to help her transition to her new-normal. When I asked her if she was offered the opportunity to look at other corporate benefits including the use of PTO, borrowed vacation time, availability of FMLA leave or additional time-off without pay, she indicated that no additional offers were made. Clearly it is hard to believe that a manager would treat an employee in this fashion, yet this situation is not isolated to just her. What if the manager had additional training regarding additional benefits and how to interact with a grieving employee? Wouldn’t the outcome be different – how can it not?
The common denominator in these situations is the griever’s inability to ask for what they need and the employer’s inability to know the best way to transition the person back into the workplace. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the employer took the lead in providing guidance to the employee with compassion, understanding and management training to say and do just the right things?
From a financial perspective, supporting an employee by showing compassion is less expensive than replacing them. As a result, the employee will be appreciative of the support and remain loyal. Both sides need to look through each other’s prisms to find the best approach to the situation and realize that, just like the different colors a real prism generates, there can be many different approaches.
Rachel is available to provide an assessment of your company policies or support for an employee or group returning to work.
Rachel Kodanaz is an author, speaker and consultant who provides support to workplaces when there has been a death of an employee or when an employee has experienced a personal loss. She is the author of Grief in the Workplace: A Comprehensive Guide for Being Prepared and Living with Loss, One Day at a Time. Both are available on www.rachelkodanaz.com or www.amazon.com.