When a Colleague Is Grieving
Grief is a universal human experience, yet workplace culture is often inhospitable to people suffering profound loss. “There are many taboos at work,” Laszlo Bock told us, “and death is one of the greatest.” The former Google chief people officer and a cofounder of Humu, a Silicon Valley start-up dedicated to helping executives humanize the workplace, was celebrating Día de los Muertos on the day we spoke. It was November 2, and following a coworker’s suggestion, Humu had adopted the Mexican tradition of honoring the departed. “We have the lace paper flyers in the office, and the candy stalls, and people have put up photos of family members who have passed away,” Bock explained. “We made offerings to their spirits. We’re doing it because we want to make it OK to have conversations about death, to recognize that everybody is human.”
We had reached out to Bock because he is one of the few executives, along with Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg (who wrote a book, with Wharton professor Adam Grant, inspired by her experience after her husband’s death), who have advocated a more thoughtful approach. While at Google, Bock addressed the taboo of death at work head-on by championing a unique human resources policy that grants the significant other of any employee who passes away 50% of his or her salary for a decade, plus a monthly subsidy for each school-age child, regardless of the employee’s role or tenure. The impact of the policy “was tremendous,” Bock told us. “It speaks to your values, it speaks to your compassion. For employees with terminal illnesses, it was a great source of comfort.” The policy helps managers, too, who no longer have to make ad hoc decisions about how to support the family of deceased team members. But as Bock knew well, the financial distress that very often accompanies grief is only the tip of the iceberg.
Strong time-off policies, sensitive managers, and open conversations also make a big difference for employees in times of mourning. Yet those are rare in the workplace. As psychotherapists, instructors, coaches, and colleagues, we have encountered people struggling privately with death and grief at work, yet seldom have we heard those words spoken in the workplace or seen the topic featured in a management workshop. In researching this article, we spoke with managers, grief experts, executive coaches, and academics, and examined seminal studies, books, and articles on death and mourning. On the whole, we found, managers come to work prepared to celebrate births and birthdays, and even to handle illnesses, but when it comes to death, they fall silent and avert their gaze. The default approach is to try to spare the office from grief, leaving bereaved employees alone for a few days and then hoping they’ll return expediently to work. This approach makes management complicit in what Julia Samuel, a psychotherapist specializing in bereavement and the author of Grief Works, calls a “conspiracy of silence” surrounding death—a conspiracy that, she finds, can do far more harm than loss itself does. It deprives people of the support that work could offer in times of mourning, erodes collegial bonds, and drains working lives and workplaces of meaning.
Companies need a better approach to grief. Obviously, there is value in finding efficient and humane ways to help workers return to productivity, but managers’ obligations run deeper. Over the past few decades, as traditional support systems such as the extended family, religious communities, and government institutions have lost influence, the workplace has emerged as a primary domain where people seek to fulfill their spiritual and social (as well as economic) needs. Companies promise employees meaningful work and a sense of community, not just a salary. We make work a pillar of our identity and turn to the workplace for help throughout our lives.
Jean Claude Noel, an executive coach we interviewed for this article, explained that this promise breaks down for people who are grieving at work: “They become isolated at a time when they need connections the most.” The result can be “disenfranchised grief,” which psychologists define as “a loss that is not or cannot be openly acknowledged, publicly mourned, or socially supported.” Stigma associated with suffering, studies find, is the prime culprit, and is most salient for people in leadership roles, prestigious organizations, and competitive workplaces—that is, in roles and environments where employees are supposed to “keep it together.” But of course, the stigma surrounding death, like death itself, does not make distinctions of status or wealth. It affects factory workers as much as CEOs. When grief is disenfranchised, the natural withdrawal that accompanies mourning is more intense and lasting, eroding performance in the short term and diminishing commitment and loyalty to the organization in the long term.
The silence that Samuel decries is painfully evident to most people who find themselves bereft and suddenly isolated. It is also not surprising. Death seems to be the undoing of everything we value at work: control, growth, productivity, connections. Death can’t be fixed or mastered. It has no care for strategy, talent, or future plans. And so, at work, we have no words for it. Grief, as Sigmund Freud first noted in his seminal paper “Mourning and Melancholia,” is work, but we are not in control of it. We can’t work on grief; it works on us. At best, and with support, we can work through it.
“People have two instinctive responses to death,” Samuel explained. “One is to grieve and feel the pain and be sad. The other is to survive, to get on with it, to not be defeated by death.” Managers can help employees handle both responses. If managers “build a relationship of trust with a mourning person when they’re shattered, they will be a pillar of their recovery.” And in time, Samuel noted, “the loyalty they’ll get, and the level of work, will far outweigh the input.”
How Managers Can Help Grieving Workers
Half a century ago, John Bowlby’s groundbreaking work on grief identified three phases of mourning: one marked by defiance and anger; one by pain, despair, and disorganization; and one by slow reorganization and reinvestment in life. Bowlby cautioned against assuming that these phases unfold in a progression. Although popular interpretations of David Kessler and Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s five stages of grief paint the process as a steady march forward, researchers have confirmed Bowlby’s belief that grief ebbs and flows. The initial, intense sorrow and debilitation usually attenuate over the year following a loss, but grief doesn’t then unfold in a neat, linear manner. Mourning workers will experience both progressions and regressions after a loss. That’s why managers should understand the three phases and the most helpful response to each.
The void: Be present.
In the immediate aftermath of the death of a loved one, or at any point in which grief flares up acutely, acknowledging the loss without making demands is the best a manager can do. Let the griever take the lead. It is important at this stage to ignore the impulse to “fix” that drives most managerial actions. Death is unfixable. Instead, managers should be present and support employees by managing the boundary between them and the workplace. “People are touched by simple things” in the aftermath of loss, Noel, the executive coach, told us, “and you will see what is most useful if you just pay attention.” Close colleagues typically will reach out to grieving coworkers, but it is especially important that a manager does. Managers represent the organization, and their demonstration of support is a signal that the workplace cares. David Kessler describes bereavement as “one of the most crucial experiences” a manager and an employee can share and cautions, “They will remember how you handled this.”
A manager’s presence, through a phone call and, if welcome, a personal visit, goes a long way toward reassuring employees that they are valued and supported. Show that you recognize the loss they have experienced, and find out what they would like you to tell others at work. Sending flowers or a card is a thoughtful gesture, and you might also inquire whether your presence at the memorial service would be appreciated. Don’t hesitate to be open with the bereaved about what the policy is for returning to work and whether it might be flexible, and assure them that colleagues will be glad to see them when they do return. While some managers might find it awkward to discuss an employee’s return to work in the immediate aftermath of death, the bereaved often long for clarity. At a moment in which life feels like a maelstrom, work can be a life raft of familiar structure and choice.
There is no formula or agreed-upon recommendation for when to return to work. Federal law does not require companies to provide time off, but according to the Society for Human Resource Management, nearly 90% of organizations in the United States offered paid bereavement leave in 2018. In 2016, employees received, on average, four days for a spouse or a child, three for another close family member, and one to two for a more distant member. Although this may give employees time to deal with the practical demands of a death, it is unlikely to be enough for them to process their loss. In their book, Option B, Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant make a forceful argument that compassionate leave is inadequate at most corporations. In recent years, Facebook and Mastercard have increased theirs to up to 20 days for the loss of an immediate family member. Companies might consider leave-sharing schemes that allow employees to donate vacation time to those in need. These policies are common at many organizations, including Accenture, the National Institutes of Health, and a number of smaller firms. Another possibility is an employee assistance fund (to which coworkers may make contributions that are matched by the company) to help workers cover funeral or other expenses. Managers whose teams include full-time employees working alongside subcontractors, consultants, or freelancers should be mindful that the benefits available to the former will most likely not extend to the latter and could surface or exacerbate feelings of resentment.
Having clear and generous policies in place, Laszlo Bock told us, also ensures that managers are not given too much discretion, which might have the effect of favoring employees with more-senior roles, longer tenures, or more personal connections in the office. But ultimately, patience and support are what make the difference. Grieving employees tend to complain less about the HR policies themselves, Kessler writes, than about how managers apply those policies and how colleagues treat them when they return.
Samuel concurs. “Workers are often told, ‘There’s a fixed number of days you’re allowed to have off,’ which is often three days around the death and then nothing,” she told us. “This can backfire. The person feels that they’re being treated like a machine.” What’s more, people process grief differently. Some long to get back to work as a respite from grieving, as a reminder that there is one part of life where they still have some control. Others may need more time, for practical reasons or because they are more overwhelmed by their grief. Some employees may want to bring some of their grief to work, hoping that others will acknowledge it.
Individuals’ responses differ with the kind of loss they have experienced—how close they were to the person and the nature of the death itself. Unexpected deaths, violent deaths, and suicides are likely to be more traumatizing. All these factors should be taken into account when agreeing on time off, especially in organizations without a formal policy. And when the employee is ready to return to work, managers play an important role in preparing coworkers, through communication about the returning employee’s wishes and perhaps an expert-facilitated workshop on how to deal with grief. Samuel encourages managers to ask bereaved employees what they want and need: “How would you like your colleagues to respond? Do you want to come in for an hour or two and see everybody, so your return is not too overwhelming? Would it be helpful to work half time for a couple of weeks?” Empower grieving employees to choose, and respect their choice—and if they are not sure what would be best, give them some time.
The absence: Be patient.
Most workers resume work after a few days or weeks. But grief typically remains intense for months, and as we noted earlier, it can flare up years later. So even when the return to work has been handled sensitively, managers can’t assume that everything will go back to business as usual. The person in mourning will continue to be in the grip of intense confusion, exhaustion, and pain. Furthermore, the months that follow the initial shock of loss are often a time of ambivalence. We go back and forth between feeling pain and wanting to move on. Since ambivalence is not always conscious, let alone easy to express, it often manifests as inconsistency. One moment we throw ourselves into a challenging project. The next we can’t answer a single email. This inconsistency can be confusing and irritating, not least for the grief-stricken. Alongside the absence of their loved ones, they often begin to notice their own absence.
It is easy, in the midst of such oscillations, to feel that we’ve “lost it.” We want to return to normal, to be who we were before, but we feel that it might not be possible. It is important for managers to realize that grief destabilizes focus, consistency, and drive—the very things we describe as “talent” at work. Inconsistency is normal for some time after a loss, as is a lack of appetite for challenges and change. Neither is a sign that an employee has lost talent or interest in work. Recognizing and managing these behaviors can avert a good deal of misunderstanding and conflict.
“People are very self-critical when they are grieving,” Samuel observed, especially those who have been very successful at work and find that working harder does little to assuage the pain of loss. “They often turn against themselves, which is a particularly cruel way of being, but it’s very common,” she told us. “You don’t want your manager to go down the despair route with you. You need him or her to believe in you whilst not putting too much pressure on you. It’s a difficult line to take, but by no means impossible to learn. It requires the capacity to listen and to offer people permission to be both a functioning employee and an incredibly sad, grief-stricken human being at the same time.”
It is usually a relief to people who are grieving to realize that their managers hold them in the same regard as before but will not have the same expectations for some time. It might even help them accept that while they can’t go back to “who they were before,” they can be as talented and dedicated after the loss. Institutionally, the policies that help in this phase are those that offer flexibility. Managers might assign people to tasks that are more likely to reinforce their agency or that support their need to tend to other parts of their lives. Managers might allow remote working or flexible work hours for a period, offering an extension of an up-or-out evaluation along with regular reviews to discuss how the employee is coping and whether further accommodation is needed. Flexibility helps people benefit from the structure of returning to work without being overwhelmed. If an employee continues to struggle several months after a loss, a manager might gently suggest that he or she could benefit from consulting a professional. Many companies’ employee assistance programs include funding for short-term counseling that can provide valuable support through the early stages of grief. Inability to sustain regular work duties six months after a loss may be a symptom of “complicated grief,” which is distinct from the usual grief process and requires clinical attention and sometimes a medical leave.
The new beginning: Be open.
Plenty of studies and stories document the generative effects of confronting mortality over time with the patient and steady support and caring of others. “A brush with death can lead to a new life,” write Sandberg and Grant, echoing Viktor Frankl’s classic work, Man’s Search for Meaning. Referred to as “post-traumatic growth,” these effects include a newfound appreciation of life, a more resilient hope, deeper connections with others, and a resolve to make the most of what one has. Post-traumatic growth does not replace the devastating feelings of loss or the need to grieve. Rather, it reinforces the realization that one has survived and that life is worth living. Whether it involves being more authentic and focused in one’s work, writing a book to break the taboo surrounding loss, or spending more time with family, such growth does not mean forgetting or returning to what was. It involves living fully with the loss.
“You don’t want your manager to go down the despair route with you.”
There is no timeline for the emergence of hope and resolve after loss, but when signs of them appear, managers can nurture them through affirmation and a gentle interest in what employees might be discovering about their attitudes to life and work. This is especially true in the early stages of this phase, when the person might feel some guilt about these new ways of feeling and seeing life. The most helpful managers are not those who captivate employees with a hopeful vision of the future. They are those who listen and support them as they craft a new way forward, carving out space for meaning making in the present.
It may also be helpful for managers to speak about their own experience of loss. That is what Laszlo Bock did when, early in his tenure as Humu’s CEO, he returned to work after his brother’s death. In sharing his experience with everyone at the company, his intent was to reassure his employees—and, perhaps, himself. “I knew [my brother’s death] was going to have an effect on me. I didn’t want them to wonder, What’s wrong with Laszlo? I didn’t want them to worry,” he told us. But his candor had unintended effects. Bock found himself “grateful and surprised to receive an outpouring of support, compassion, and appreciation.” Others who were facing similar struggles saw his openness as permission to speak about them in the workplace. “What I learned as cofounder and CEO was that talking about it made it easier for others to share what they were going through.” He had wanted to spare people. Instead, he freed them up. “If you’re interested in creating an environment where people are willing to talk about loss,” he concluded, “the best way is to model that by doing it yourself.” Research presented in Monica Worline and Jane Dutton’s book Awakening Compassion at Work strongly supports this view.
Not every manager, of course, will have had a major experience of loss to turn into an expression of compassion. Even if you haven’t yet been touched by bereavement, you are likely to have endured painful struggles and can draw on those. Jean Claude Noel told us that he found he was more comfortable discussing end-of-life issues with his clients after his own experience fighting cancer. Or you can simply pay attention to the shifts in attitude and focus of bereaved employees, and gently inquire about them. “Over the past few months I’ve noticed that you seem more interested in…” is often a good start. Given space and permission, people will begin to act on their longing for deeper relationships, real conversations, and meaningful work. And given support, they will over time muster the courage to talk openly about how they have grown through loss.
The three capacities we have described above—to be present in moments of loss, patient with the inconsistency it generates, and open to its growth potential—are not just ways in which you can help mourning employees. They also complement the vision, planning, and guidance that we traditionally expect from managers. In confronting grief, managers help organizations do better. They also develop into leaders who can fulfill their companies’ promise to bring out the best in their workers.
Post written by Gianpiero Petriglieri and Sally Maitlis for Harvard Business Review. See original article here.