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Grief has a communication problem

"There is no grief like the grief that does not speak" Henry Wordsworth

TW: this article is intended as a gentle guide for anyone who is grappling with grief, visible or invisible (recognising that grief can be a very broad church) and its intricacies. This piece is also a reminder that workplaces can navigate grief outside of the grey text of policy.

Three days into a new job in a new country, my father’s nursing home rang. He was on his final journey, and there was no time to waste. Within a few hours, I’d left my new desk and unboxed apartment and raced to the airport.

Having said my goodbyes and faced the whirlwind of death-related admin, I returned to work with mixed feelings. The grief was raw and I was concerned about the potential impact of this event so early into a tough job, in a new culture.

In another work lifetime, a boss of mine passed away while still in office. While her passing was anticipated, it was speedy and difficult to process. So much was left unsaid during a gaping transition, and her larger than life character was painfully absent.

These different experiences remind me that for such a universal human experience, grief has a communication problem and boundaries are often tip-toed around.

Photo by Mike Labrum on Unsplash

Often we just can’t find the words, at home or at work, to share some of our complex internal or external processes around loss. We fear of oversharing or somehow exceeding the prevailing patience levels.

How long is the right amount of time to grieve? Can you ask for support or help without fear of judgement? Perhaps you’ve returned to the office while still processing such a loss, and you have the feeling that people don’t know how to talk to you and feel awkward. Maybe you withdraw from work or maybe you throw yourself into it as a coping mechanism.

Processing a period of mourning while juggling the pressures of workplace performance can be an emotional minefield. Neither employer nor employee should make assumptions about what is needed. As a good friend once said: “grief is messy and has no road map. You can’t rush it nor control it.”

The impact of grief on the workplace goes beyond productivity levels. Other risks include: burnout, decreased motivation and engagement, employee mental health and well-being. Providing support for grieving employees can help to reduce negative impacts and foster a more supportive and empathetic workplace culture.

The interactions that happen between workplace policies are key. Here, through the lens of psychological safety, are my top tips:

  • Create a safe, open and empathic space. Grief isn’t tidy and often strays outside of our personal lives, most likely affecting our work. As a leader or team member, it's crucial to create a safe, open and empathic space for a colleague who is going through a difficult time. Acknowledge their loss and offer kind words of support, and most importantly, make sure they feel comfortable sharing their feelings without fear of judgement. Communication is fundamental and questions like “how are you feeling?” and “what do you need?” should be par for the course. The tone at the top matters. And a simple card from the whole company (and ideally the team too) can go a long way.

  • Respect confidentiality. Grief can be hidden. Depending on the corporate environment or industry you work in, you might feel that you cannot share life-changing events. Particularly as they are unfolding. Loss of a pet, a break up, redundancy, being a carer, chronic illness, miscarriage, divorce, and suicide can be a silent and invisible type of grief; adding another dynamic to holding it all together while feeling alone. A friendly ear will not suffice, you need a ‘Switzerland’ type space that’s confidential, neutral and safe to share.

  • Considerate planning. Return-to-work flexibility is essential, particularly when productivity and motivation have hit a low. Grieving employees may benefit from a plan to help adjust their schedule or workload. Being understanding and offering alternatives, such as working from home or adjusting their hours to align with the healing process, can build long-term trust for all. Certainly making decisions on behalf of the employee is a big no no.

  • Make it ok not to be ok. Socialise grief support resources before they are needed. When grief strikes, guilt and burnout can be a huge risk, and it’s possible to address early and empathically in a culture of psychological safety. If employers or colleagues are not equipped to provide the suggested support for grieving employees, it’s important to make it ok to seek external resources such as grief therapists or support groups. These resources can provide a neutral and safe space for employees to process their grief and receive the support they need. It’s crucial to normalise taking advantage of them if/as and when needed.

  • Caring is a collective experience. Check in regularly and encourage colleagues / team members to do so with your grieving colleague. Ignoring it because you feel awkward is never a good solution. You can address it by asking if they want to talk, giving the griever an opportunity to establish the privacy boundaries that they are comfortable with. Showing you care is key, ask them if they want distraction, such as a friendly ear over coffee, or just time and space to process. An open and empathic line of communication can help to demonstrate the employee’s value to an organisation, it ensures that they are aware that ongoing support is available from leaders and their team members.

“Grieving is not a linear process, nor is it a one-time event. It’s messy, complicated, and unique to each individual.” Julia Samuel MBE

If you are experiencing grief in life and it’s tipping into work, these resources might be helpful:


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