Managing grief in the workplace

Emma Nicholson is diversity and inclusion ambassador for IoD Yorkshire and North East

Grief is a very personal and unique phase of life.  Every employer or employee will experience grief at some point in their working life, whether a family relative,  close friend or family pet.  Despite wanting to be strong and control physical emotions in the workplace, grief can be unpredictable and overwhelming. The grieving process needs to happen. However, for many grief will be an alien emotion that can be out of the control of even the strongest of leaders, directors or employees.  It is important to recognise that some time needs to be taken to experience grief and the grieving process and to restore the balance that has been unsettled.

Every company should have its own workplace policy on grief and absence. How much time off is given to an employee for losing a loved one depends on the organisation.  It is important for an employee to check their company policy on loss and absence, and for the employer to regularly review this policy in accordance with UK employment law.

Grieving and grief can have physical side effects which are not possible to control or manage. These range from insomnia, anxiety, depression, fatigue, mental health issues, feelings of not being able to cope, stress, lack of motivation and sadly even suicidal thoughts. Grief might feel unsurmountable when you are experiencing it and even frightening, as the person who you deeply loved or cared for is no longer physically present and cannot be seen or touched. The experience of grief and grieving is a natural process, and sometimes our physical symptoms and bodies have to undergo this process.  It is nothing to be ashamed of and it is not a sign of weakness. An employee may wish to take annual leave or sick leave in order to cope with a bereavement. They may have witnessed death, or it could have had a traumatic impact, each situation is unique to the individual.

There are a number of ways that a line manager can support an employee. For example, having a one to one conversation  about their loss, providing a letter of comfort and links to company support. There also might be a need for the employee to contact their GP for support  such as counselling or medication for dealing with the effects of grief.

 The right time for an employee to return to work and resume full work duties and responsibilities will only become clear with either a review meeting with the employee or confirmation in writing between employee and employer.

Grieving has no timeline, it can take months, a year or more, and can be indefinite. However, time can help and in time whether your position is director, line manager or employee moving through the stages of grief and the grieving process will bring understanding and ability to return to work.

 It is very important for a line manager to keep in touch with the employee not just as a one off upon hearing news of a loss, but regularly after the employee has returned to work to monitor their wellbeing.  A small touch, such as, a personal message to say thoughts are with the bereaved person, a company letter or flowers or a card will make an impression.

Not everyone can feel they have the time to grieve properly due to work commitments and responsibilities, it is therefore important that some outlet is found outside working hours to nurture wellbeing requirements. This might involve meditation and yoga as well as looking after yourself by eating well during the grieving process.  Sometimes a change of scene such as a weekend away or a day away from the usual routine can really be of benefit. Experiencing nature, walking or gardening can also help process the loss and change that has happened and may relieve some of the physical symptoms of grief.

This article and it’s views have been written by Emma Nicholson, diversity and inclusion ambassador for IoD Yorkshire and North East

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