As an employee, what happens when we experience a personal loss, yet life necessitates us to go to work everyday even when we are still in shock, need to take care of personal affairs and are not emotionally stable? And to complicate the situation even further, what happens when your co-workers and management team view death differently than you do? As grievers and employers unite on the subject of grief entering the workplace, an ultimate tug-of-war occurs: addressing the grievers needs while the employer ultimately struggles to create a fair environment for all employees and maintain business as usual for clients.
As employees we are drawn together in the workplace by our career choice, talents and work ethic. For the most part, our family allegiances, ethnic and religious beliefs are generally left in the parking lot or at the front door. Nevertheless, when a family death occurs, these beliefs permeate the workplace as the employee begins the healing process and the co-workers try to provide comfort. An entirely different scenario arises when the death is that of an employee – the reaction of co-workers, management team and Human Resources personnel are confronted emotionally in an environment that is all too often ill-prepared.
The notion of creating compassionate workplaces that support loss of life goes well beyond companies’ bereavement leave policies, which typically include providing personal time off and supporting an employee returning to work after a loss. A compassionate workplace must also take into account 1) an employee’s unique way of grieving; 2) his/her religious/cultural affiliation; and 3) the nature of the relationship with the deceased.
Recently a company asked me to provide support to employees who experienced a sudden loss of a co-worker. Apparently, the employee did not arrive at work so a co-worker called the police; the police found the woman collapsed on the floor; and her death was determined to be from natural causes. When I arrived at the workplace to provide grief education and support, I was caught off guard by the vast assortment of reactions from her co-workers.
First, I began with my general group discussion of what to expect over the next couple of weeks and months, which went rather smoothly. The group then broke into smaller teams providing employees the opportunity to share personal thoughts and concerns. What happened next was a snapshot into what really happens in some organizations when grief enters the workplace, creating a tornado of emotions and religious/cultural clashes that are difficult to anticipate and manage.
During the breakout groups, employees first shared stories of their co-worker and friend, who had been with the company for 7 years and sat at the entrance of the building, greeting both employees and clients. They then began sharing their personal beliefs about death, the afterlife, and mourning rituals. This is when the clash began and the co-worker/friend’s death took a back seat. Some employees expressed their belief that the dead are in a better place; others shared that the best place for their friends are at their desk working by their side. Some believed that the funeral must occur in 24 hours and only family should attend, while others shared that the funeral is a public affair. Some believed in life celebrations while others observed traditional mourning. As the facilitator, my job was to educate, direct conversations and offer support while providing the opportunity for the attendees to share their feelings.
Just like religious and cultural differences, grief and loss are challenging situations for companies. During this particular session, my focus shifted away from grief to the need to support one another through these difficult days regardless of individual customs or beliefs. Working as a team would require tolerance and understanding of each other’s viewpoint, requiring employees to be respectful of the differing reactions to the loss. Eventually, the employees worked together in partnership to get through the difficult days by channeling their energies towards the grieving family and collaborating with each other to maintain a productive work environment. In the weeks following the loss, their collective empathy created an accepting environment with co-workers showing kindness and compassion to each other in spite of their personal beliefs of loss.
In order to create a meaningful compassionate workplace, human resources personnel need to provide grief education and support in a timely manner, allowing the employee or workgroup to grieve the loss while balancing day-to-day business activities. Providing the appropriate time off, allowing employees to share their feelings and being receptive to cultural and religious differences will permit the organization to effectively work through its challenges.
Updated: August 19, 2015