Grief is particularly difficult to manage within the workplace.  The two are grossly incompatible.  Work takes place in a high-energy environment full of future-oriented developments, and its successes are measured in tangible results within clearly-defined timelines.  Grief, on the other hand, is fraught with uncertainty.  There is no clear goal to be accomplished amidst grief, nor are there metrics for determining when it is resolved.  Whereas workplace projects focus on what is to be created, grieving a loss entails focus on what has already been written.  Mourning a loss demands rest, draining energy otherwise available for work. It also demands an unnervingly passive process with no guaranteed ability to direct its course.  Grief simply is what it is, it is challenging to cope with, and it can be especially difficult to cope in the workplace when an employee dies.

Loss, it seems, throws a wrench into everything that makes for a thriving work environment.  And the stakes are high.  An employee’s death regularly disrupts group dynamics and presents serious challenges to success in the form of low morale, increased absenteeism and declining productivity.  How can workers cope with the death of an employee while still conducting business?  How can managers and supervisors provide an atmosphere that is conducive to both?  Can we learn to cope in the workplace when an employee dies? Here are five tips for how to navigate this conundrum.

(1) Have patience.

In the presence of another’s pain and suffering, we are naturally compelled to do something about it, to quickly remove what ails.  But when an employee dies, it is best to create a patient atmosphere in the workplace that tolerates slow, steady progress.  Employees often worry about their bosses and coworkers seeing them struggle beyond the first day or two after a death.  They may feel as if they need to hide their grief behind a façade of positivity.  Hallways and breakrooms can easily become filled with stilted conversations that mask tense, unspoken suffering, and chronic emotional restraint can lead to burnout and extensive absenteeism.  Leaders in the workplace should assuage these concerns as soon as possible by conveying sympathy for the emotional struggles ahead and directly encouraging open communication with each other.  It can even be helpful when bosses and supervisors model such openness by sharing their own experiences of grief about the loss.

Unfortunately, many well-intended comments convey impatience and discourage ongoing openness.  Excessive advice about how to feel happy and optimistic again may sound like pressure to simply “move on” and stop grieving before one is ready to do so.  Similarly, dispensing intellectual advice about psychology and the stages of grief only serves to avoid emotional processes that cannot be circumvented with knowledge.  Platitudes such as “Time heals all wounds” and “She’s in a better place now” fail to provide any real help or insight either, and they are usually experienced as minimizing the complexity of all that grief entails.  Avoid these common pitfalls, and you’ll be more likely to provide an environment in which employees are comfortable expressing their grief while also tending to their work.

(2) Maintain routines.

Alongside emotional pains, the death of an employee also brings about practical stresses within the workplace.  Empty cubicles or offices require reassignment.  Business accounts and projects must be delegated to other employees.  While these and other changes need to be made after a loss, it is equally important to maintain some semblance of routine that had already been in place.

The culture of a workplace can help employees cope with grief by providing familiar structure amid the chaos of having to adjust to loss.  Weekly rituals, “inside jokes,” and social outings all serve to reassure workers that some things will remain safely in place and unaffected by tragedy.  Even the act of simply getting back to work, as long as it allows for occasional emotional upset and setbacks, is perfectly healthy and notably comforting.  Why does this sometimes not happen?

Some people may harbor concerns that being lighthearted in conversation or reverting back to business as usual is disrespectful to the memory of the deceased, or that doing so is only a distraction from grief that needs to be processed and resolved.  In actuality, research on coping with loss repeatedly shows that grief is best managed if one oscillates back and forth between managing stress about the loss and managing stress about future developments.  Grief need not be thought of as something to dwell in until it is entirely complete before moving on to other tasks.  And frankly, a healthy dose of distraction ensures that grief will not be unrelenting and ultimately overwhelming.
In some instances, routines in the office are difficult to uphold because the deceased individual had been responsible for their maintenance.  Bereaved coworkers are surprised to find how many subtle aspects of daily office life were assumed by the deceased and how much those routines are missed.  It is crucial to fill roles left vacant.  If Kendra regularly brought in coffee and bagels on Tuesday mornings, someone needs to pick up the slack in her absence.  If Jeff organized happy hour gatherings on Friday evenings, another coworker must take the reins.

(3) Validate everyone’s grief.

Validate each employee’s experience of grief as legitimate and deserving of compassion.  This point may seem rather obvious at first glance, but the temptation to invalidate emotional experience, including one’s own grief, is more insidious than it may seem.  For example, it is common for an entire workplace to implicitly identify and focus on one or two individuals whose grief is deemed legitimate.  These are often individuals who had worked more closely with the deceased or knew them longer than any other remaining employees.  People will navigate conversations about a recent loss not by talking about their own grief and leaning upon each other for support, but by talking about what that person must be dealing with.  Focusing exclusively on another’s pain often serves a defensive function, distracting oneself from his or her own pain.  The end result is that employees may not adequately process their grief or they will feel self-conscious when they do struggle at a particular moment.

Know that there are various causes for upset about losing a fellow employee, and make efforts to communicate this understanding to employees and fellow coworkers.  It is easy to understand why one employee who knew the deceased for 20 years is struggling, but on the other extreme, there is something uniquely upsetting for an employee who had just started to get to know the deceased and may have been excited about the relationship developing or the prospect of working on future projects together only to have that opportunity ripped away.  In short, don’t waste time and energy trying to figure out whose grief is more or less valid, as doing so benefits nobody.

(4) Provide opportunities for remembrance.

The acute stage of grief usually passes and gives way to life and work unburdened by intense feelings of grief.  Nonetheless, those coping with grief find great value in making efforts to ensure that memories of the deceased will be kept alive well into the future.  In the workplace as well, it is helpful to initiate conversations about how to remember an employee who died.  There are a variety of ways to do this, and it is best to work with as many employees as possible to share ideas about creative endeavors or meaningful events that would provide opportunities for remembrance.  Employees can work together to assemble a book of collected photographs, memories and thoughts.  Hanging a piece of artwork somewhere meaningful within the workplace is a great way to acknowledge the impact the deceased had on the workplace.  If there is space, planting a tree nearby is healing for many.  Employees can also brainstorm together to create a scholarship in honor of the deceased or make a financial contribution to a cause related to the employee’s death, such as the American Cancer Society.

(5) Intervene if necessary.

Those in positions of leadership within the workplace need to identify employees whose struggles with grief go beyond what is reasonable.  It is crucial to know what to look out for so that support can be provided to those who are particularly in need.  Some signs are obvious, such as symptoms of depression, many of which will be apparent in relation to workplace productivity and morale.  Workers may display a loss of interest in activities at work that they usually enjoy.  It is not uncommon for grieving workers to experience poor concentration, loss of energy, and difficulty with goal-directed behaviors, leaving them struggling to meet deadlines and complete quality work.

Some warning signs, however, are less obvious, such as an employee’s presentation that looks more like what psychologists call a “manic episode.”  A manic presentation often looks like the extreme opposite of depression: euphoric mood, reduced need for sleep, high energy and excelled focus on productivity.  It is counterintuitive for many managers to identify this as a problem because it often looks like high functioning, and here’s the kicker: this kind of high-energy manic presentation may even win the approval of managers if productivity soars, especially if motivation and productivity are waning elsewhere throughout the company in the immediate aftermath of a loss.  People commonly resort to this kind of behavior not because they suddenly become an exemplary worker.  Rather, it is an ultimately unhealthy way of distracting oneself from feelings of grief.  Such workers regularly endorse the idea that “If I keep myself busy, I won’t have any time to feel what I’m feeling.”  This attempt to cope is, of course, doomed to eventually fail and have a negative impact on both the employee and the workplace.

There are a variety of supportive services that can be provided to help employees cope with the death of an employee.  First, providing an in-service is a wonderful preemptive option that can be done soon after the loss, certainly within a week or so.  In-services entail hiring a professional counselor or psychologist to come in to the workplace and provide a variety of services on site for employees.  While there, psychologists can field questions about the grieving process, provide consultation to managers and supervisors, facilitate group processes that focus on helping employees express their feelings together, and they can also be available in an informal manner to meet one-on-one with employees at their request.  It may be necessary to connect employees with services outside of the workplace, especially if certain employees are too uncomfortable sharing their emotional reactions in the presence of those with whom they work.  Outpatient services include individual therapy or group therapy, and it is beneficial for leadership to clarify workplace benefits such as flexible spending accounts or to communicate an intention to help cover the costs of services if manageable.

by Paul Martin
Originally published in Association Forum