Grief in the Workplace


Losing a loved one can leave you overwhelmed with grief. Expressing that loss in the workplace may be next to impossible when co-workers are not close friends. Grieving is not aberrant behavior, nor is it mental illness, yet it can feel like both to the person experiencing a loss. It may seem like both to the employer trying to understand what’s happening as far as productivity is concerned.

Grief has an impact on productivity that can be truly shocking. According to the Grief Index of 2003, the cost of grieving employees in the U.S. by businesses was almost $74 billion a year.  And grief is not restricted to the loss of a family member. It may involve the loss of a pet, a divorce, giving birth to a disabled child, or other losses. It may even involve workplace changes such as a layoff or being fired from a job.

In the first days following a loss, the bereaved may feel numb and unable to express any emotion. Co-workers often see this as a sign of strength and think the individual is coping just fine. They may even withdraw their support thinking the worst is already past. Unfortunately, the signs of grief may not be shown until much, much later. Because we don’t expect grief to surface months or even years later, it may be a surprise to both the individual experiencing it and to his or her employer.

Some of the more common expressions of grief include difficulty concentrating, lethargy, impaired decision-making, confusion, anxiety, unavoidable crying, social withdrawal, and decreased productivity. The employee may suddenly experience a high rate of absenteeism, sickness, alcohol and/or drug abuse and even an increase in accidents in the months following the loss.

Most businesses provide at least three days of leave for the loss of a significant other or family member. But three days, while certainly helpful when funeral arrangements have to be made, family members notified, etc., is not enough time for the bereaved to even fully experience what has happened, yet alone come to terms with it. Healing takes time, and the effects of the loss and learning to successfully cope may linger for two years or longer.

Even the supervisors who wish to be supportive may not know how, or have the support of their superiors to do so. At best, they may simply turn a blind eye to what the grieving employee is going through, or, at worst, be forced to resort to more direct action where that employee is concerned, such as denying a raise or promotion.

So, how can you support an employee or co-worker who is grieving the loss of a loved one? Begin by listening to that person’s story. There is a need for the grieving to verbalize what they’ve been through and have that experience validated. There is no need, as a co-worker, for you to take any action, just listen. Try not to feel uncomfortable if the grieving individual cries.  The shedding of tears is healing. Try to think of it as a release of the pain the individual is in.

Don’t tell the bereaved “I know how you feel.” Even if you went through the same thing in the past, you haven’t had the same life experiences and been in the same situation the bereaved has. You don’t know how that person feels; you can’t. Each person’s experience is unique. If you feel the need to say anything, tell that person you’re there for him or her and that you care.

Acknowledge that the loss was significant, regardless of whether you understand it or not. Just because the person is grieving the loss of a pet doesn’t make his or her pain any less important. It may be the strongest, most stable relationship that individual had.

Remember, grief is a normal human behavior that occurs as a result of significant loss. A little understanding on the part of co-workers can make the grieving process a bit easier to bear and help the bereaved find their way through the pain.

Christine Wistrom is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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Mark Hammer

Nice piece, and important point.

I think it bears noting that grief can be for many different things, and so require many different sorts of accommodations.

There’s grief for lost children, grief for miscarriages, grief for family members who have been ill for protracted declines (e.g., dementing parents), grief for lost best friends, and even grief for pets.

What links them is that the emotional experience is real, even though the time course and nature of consolation may be a little different.