Grief is a difficult subject to deal with at the best of times, but how should companies handle employees who are grieving at work?
In 2017, a devastating incident occurred in Portland, Oregon, leaving two men dead. Stephanie Blakey, a senior HR business partner with the Cadmus Group, soon discovered that one of the men who had died was an employee in her company’s Portland office.
Blakey spoke about this at Workhuman 2019 alongside grief and trauma consultant Jennifer Crow. Together, they went through the process of how to deal with the extremely sensitive issue of what to do when a co-worker dies.
While an incredibly sombre topic, it was one of the most compelling sessions at the conference for me, and I heard several other attendees mention it as one of the highlight sessions, most likely because of how well it was dealt with by Blakey and Crow, but also due to the importance of the subject itself and how little it’s talked about.
Having a co-worker die isn’t and shouldn’t be a common occurrence, but that doesn’t mean it never happens. If it does, what steps should the leaders and HR members take? How do you break the news to the rest of your employees? How do you delegate that person’s work? What about their desk or office? In the case study from the Cadmus Group, Blakey said she engaged Crow straight away to ensure that the company went about it the right way.
The most important step was the immediate response from the company. “We decided it was important to reach out to his immediate team members first,” said Blakey. “We had an all-employee meeting as soon as possible.”
Blakey said that during the meeting everyone was on the same level; their CEO and some other executives and vice-presidents were there. She also said the CEO got emotional when speaking. “That really showed our employees that it’s OK to cry here, this is a safe space, we’re all in this together.”
When dealing with the specific circumstances of a co-worker dying, as in this case, there are some specifics involved. The Cadmus Group chose to transform the deceased employee’s office into a reflective space with words on the window that other employees associated with him as a memorial. She also added that bringing in someone external such as Crow was a really important part, particularly because everyone, including the HR team, will be affected.
Even in cases where companies are small and may not have a lot of resources, Crow said bringing someone external in is essential to help everyone through the process, even if it’s only temporary. In companies small enough to not have a HR manager, this would be particularly important.
Individual grief in the workplace
While the death of a co-worker may thankfully not be that common, grief in the workplace is. On an individual level, any number of employees might experience grief in the workplace at any given time, and how an employer handles that is extremely important and not often talked about.
There may be a bureaucratic process of bereavement leave of between two and five days for family members immediately after the death. But, as Crow mentioned during the session at Workhuman, grief is not linear and doesn’t always behave the way we expect it to. “We have these five stages of grief in our mind, right?” She said this clearly defined step-by-step process doesn’t necessarily apply any more.
‘Everybody processes grief differently and needs different things’
– JENNIFER CROW
In the case of the Cadmus Group, the policy around bereavement leave was normally two days immediately after the death of a family member. However, when their own employee passed away, the employers extended that leave to all employees and they were told to take all the time they need. “Whether they use it or not, employees knew it was there and that does something,” said Crow.
I caught up with Crow later that day to further discuss what employers can do to approach grief in the workplace the right way.
“Everybody processes grief differently and needs different things,” she said. “Giving some options and continued check-ins, even if the person doesn’t need something in the beginning, not forgetting about that.”
She also said that from a manager’s perspective, it’s important to ask the person if they want the rest of their colleagues to know, and if they would like the manager to tell them.
“Grief and death are arguably one of the worst times in people’s lives and so, when would it be more meaningful and important to really surround the person with good care?” said Crow. “The workplace provides this amazing opportunity for that because it’s a little culture within a culture.
Crow said one of the major pitfalls people make is feeling compelled to say something that might put a positive spin on things, such as, ‘You’re young, you have time to find someone new’, when a spouse has died. “We get uncomfortable in a situation that’s painful and that’s full of sorrow naturally.” Crow said that instead, “holding space and saying ‘I’m so sorry’ and being authentic and genuine in it rather than trying to inadvertently fix it” is more important.
This comes from an ill-informed belief that grief is something that must be solved. There is a common stigma surrounding grief that leads many to see it as an unhealthy state of being, something to get out of, something to be fixed – when in reality, it often something that has to be felt, processed at its own pace, and allowed to germinate and be alleviated naturally.
“Are you just really uncomfortable that they’re sad and that’s why you’re talking? Because that’s often the case, right? We’re compassionate and understanding people and we don’t want others to be sad and in pain and in grief, but we can’t fix it,” said Crow. “But we can round out the edges; we can shave off all of the other things that could make it harder.”
Both during the session and speaking to me, Crow spoke about how society does not seem to give a good understanding of grief, especially when it comes to how long the process can take.
“So, there’s a default setting I think in our brain that says, ‘This will be done in three weeks and then you’ll be back to normal’ or ‘This person’s not crying, they’re really holding it together.’”
These kinds of comments means that there is a set narrative that people can then try to conform to, when in reality there are many different styles of grieving, different lengths of time, different triggers and the list goes on.
“There’s instrumental grievers and intuitive grievers and there’s a spectrum,” said Crow. While instrumental grievers are more inclined towards needing to do something and have tasks, intuitive grievers might want to talk about it more and feel or sit with the grief. “Something that organisations can do is offer things that will be beneficial to both.”
Crow also spoke about disenfranchised grief, which, simply put, is grief that is not recognised for a variety of reasons and this can be particularly present in the workplace where people feel like they can’t bring this grief to work. She said miscarriages, abortions and suicides can fall into this category in certain circumstances, along with deaths related to drugs or alcohol.
“Disenfranchised grief can prevent the grieving process and complicate it, so really allowing people to get validation and recognition and be able to express how they’re feeling helps ease the process,” said Crow.
Not all companies offer bereavement leave and the ones that do often have a policy in place that allows employees to take a certain number of days off immediately after the death of a family member.
However, the human nature of relationships can complicate this along with the non-linear behaviour of grief. What if a family friend was like a parent to you? What about a cousin who was more like a sister? What if you need more time and what if that time is needed six months down the line? How flexible is your company’s bereavement leave when it comes to a partner you are not married to?
“It’s an inclusive move to make [leave] based on the person’s relationship and their ability to claim that and their ability to say, ‘This was a major loss for me.’”
So, what’s the solution? Could the best move forward be open-ended, unlimited bereavement leave? “I think there are some modifications that should happen with bereavement leave, and that’s one of them,” said Crow. “I don’t know many policies that offer that and I wonder if that stems from fear of it being abused, but it’s not in line with current ideas of how grief is [dealt with] and what’s most difficult for people and how individualised it is.”
Crow also talked about the importance of having a plan in place for when someone has to suddenly take time off, such as bereavement leave. In smaller companies where the lack of resources may affect the team more, it’s important not just for the team to have a process to give the digout, but also for the person taking time off to know that there’s a process in place so that they don’t feel guilty for leaving their team in the lurch.
Crow said when it comes for needing that time off, recognising that grief is difficult but also normal and not equal to weakness. It can help people to advocate for themselves. She also said that it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. “Sometimes a half a day, leaving early or saying, ‘Is it OK for me to gauge the day based on how I’m doing hour by hour?’”
The most important thing to remember when dealing with grief at work is to treat it as a flexible, human process and not a rigid, bureaucratic one.