When Employees Grieve

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Our society often struggles in dealing effectively with the grief process, but when that struggle reaches the workplace, new dynamics are presented. Frankly, it's never more important for your business to develop genuine empathy and show its compassionate side. Personal experience has shown we have a lot of work to do in dealing with grief in the workplace.

It's important to understand your employees can grieve for a variety of reasons. The obvious is the death of a loved one or friend, but grief is to be expected with other major losses, such as the loss of a job, a culture, divorce, or a miscarriage, the loss of physical items such as house, pet or maybe even grieving a person or children who have moved away and many other losses that require letting go. All of these can leave a hole in an employee's heart that needs to heal or adapt. Providing support and understanding at these times not only helps your employee but it can increase employee loyalty and demonstrate the human side of your business.  Take three basic steps to Learn, Listen and Support.

LEARN

The most important step your business can take is to learn more about what your employees are experiencing and how to define grief and mourning, they're different concepts. Dr. Alan Wolfelt of the Center for Loss and Life Transition defines it in this manner, "Grief is what you think and feel on the inside, and mourning is when you express that grief outside of yourself. Mourning is grief inside out. Mourning is showing and doing." Chances are, what you experience in the workplace is more of the latter.

If you have an employee who has experienced a recent loss, then they are most likely in shock or the early stages of mourning. Despite what we'd like to think, it can't be compartmentalized and left at home. I once had a superior ask about an employee who had experienced a sudden, tragic loss several months earlier. His comment was that I might talk to her because "she needs to get over it." With no compassion, he had put a timeline on her grief and mourning. There are no such timelines and it will provide no benefit to set one.

LISTEN

Perhaps the best support provided in a loss is the least costly, simply listen. Our discomfort with the topic will often result in a need to fill the conversation with some half-hearted cliché.  Ironically, it demonstrates how out of touch we are with the employee's need for empathy. Things like "they're in a better place," "they are not suffering,"  "at least you were able to ______," or one of the most overused, “time will heal.” More than likely they've heard these more than one would care to know and as Dr. Wolfelt states, “grief never leaves one where it found them,” so healing the old self may never come.

Allowing the individual to voice their pain will be the best and only action necessary, with no expectations that you "fix it."  No need to say "I understand," because more than likely you don't or can’t. Even if you have experienced a similar loss, it's impossible to "understand." Personalities are different, dynamics of relationships are different and the support surrounding you will vary. All of these make it impossible to truly understand that specific individual's journey. Just listen. At some point it may be appropriate to say, "I'm always willing to listen, is there anything else I can do to help as you work through this?"

SUPPORT

If appropriate, this is a good time to reaffirm the value you place on the employee and their work.  As their world seems to be falling apart, it's reassuring to let them know their work is appreciated and solid.

In conducting DISC assessments we’ve found that knowing personality types will also determine the best support for a mourning person.   For example, an "I," or Influencer, may need to be surrounded by people and draw life from others.  On the other hand, an "S," or Supportive person, may be more introverted and find solace in their alone time.  Whatever system used, consider the personality needs and differences that may exist in the individual and your resulting approach.

Recognize, just as you would in motivating an employee, that each will require their own approach in these difficult times. Tailor your support to provide an environment allowing your employee to navigate this difficult journey, knowing that you care and are willing to walk with them.

As a final means of support, offer your employee resources that may include your company Employee Assistance Program or refer them to Dr. Wolfelt’s site at www.centerforloss.com or any of the many others available.

The grief and mourning process is difficult, exhausting and often isolating.  Invest in your employees by taking time to support them in this difficult journey.  It’s the right thing to do and will build trust with your most valuable asset, your employees.

David Fry is president of Effective Advancement Strategies.

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