Employing Grieving Workers

This week in HR, we look at grief and how it affects engagement in the workplace. Mental health and employee wellness are huge factors of the Employee Engagement Formula. Most problems related to your employees’ health and wellness start at home. Where does the employer’s responsibility with respect to mental health and wellness stop and start?

4 years ago, March 3rd, I lost my precious mom to a brain tumor. It was unexpected, because she had begun to recover, surpassing even her surgeons’ wildest hopes for her post-op; for over a year, she thrived miraculously. Suddenly, all the wonderful progress came to a tragic end. And my sisters and I were completely devastated. I wouldn’t say I took it harder than my sisters, but I am more emotional than they are, and I spent almost 2 full years in the abyss of deep grief. I quit grad-school, I switched jobs, I perfected some unhealthy habits, I lost friends, I disengaged, I stopped doing family events, even stayed in bed on Christmas, Thanksgiving, and birthdays.

I went from two Director-level HR jobs to doing systems implementation project management and training in a matter of 2.5 years, re-enrolled in grad school, and moved twice. Looking back, I was a frenetic zombie.

Then my house burned down in January of 2019. I was away at school when it happened, so I was safe. The burning purged me. It did some of the impossible work of letting go of my mom's things I had hoarded that I was physically incapable of doing. Everything seemed clearer and less fettered afterward.

I look back on that wilderness in my life now and I am so grateful it is behind me. Even today - every day, I have to process the physical pain of grief, and occasionally a sense of overwhelming loss, and it takes time to refocus. But refocusing is feasible, finally.

So, I started thinking. What can employers do about depressive or mentally unwell workers? How much of the burden of employee mental health and wellness should employers take on? Employers foot the costs of disengaged workers, so it shouldn’t be out of their scope of management to provide employees with useful resources or even intervention.

One think-tank, the Grief Recovery Institute Educational Foundation in Sherman Oaks, California, estimated “the cost of major grief incidents—from death of a loved one, $37.5 billion annually to employers in the USA, to divorce, $11.1 billion, to pet loss, $2.4 billion.” – Chicago Tribune, 2003. It isn’t too much of a stretch to imagine the numbers have increased exponentially in 17 years, especially in this age of loss and tumult.

Another organization, DocuVital, wrote, “85% of management level decision makers indicate that their decision making ranked from Very Poor to Fair in the weeks or months following the grief incident that affected them. 60% of those responding Fair, Poor or Very Poor, indicate that some of their decisions definitely had direct negative financial impact on their company.”

Taking the conversation beyond grief to broader themes of employee mental health and wellness, I can speak for myself personally, that I am easily distracted by things in my personal life. Under the best of conditions, I find focus challenging.

As in many challenging circumstances, the burden of helping hurting employees is the domain of managers and Human Resources. One thing we know for sure is that loss is all around us, personal problems will always impact employees’ ability to focus and to work, and outside stimuli – tragedy, politics, life’s incidentals – will bring to bear on the bottom line. The most important thing any manager or HR pro can DO is to BE empathetic. One person asked me in my first 6 months of bereavement, “How long before you get over it?” It was one of the most jarring things anyone could have said. It was hard to appreciate the statement's unvarnished candor. The mandate to employers is to expect long-term hardship and to accommodate, if and where possible.

  1. More than anything, letting your employee know that you remember their pain, that you remember their loss can make all the difference. (Kathy Serenko, a brilliant Communications Expert, published author, and advocate, also my mother's best friend and my mentor, taught me this when her brother passed suddenly many years back). People need to know others remember. Demanding an end to grief is as irrational as it is insensitive.
  2. Remind people that mistakes are inevitable when one is dealing with heartbreak, but help them share their work with others so you not only protect the company’s bottom line, but you also take some of the pressure off their shoulders. Some won't want to step back, but you should almost make it a policy that they do.
  3. Think of all important processes as needing fail safes or checks and balances. If any one employee holds the keys to every door at your business, proactively plan for crisis with continuity plans. Employees that feel the weight of a department on their shoulders will have the added guilt of letting down their colleagues and bosses in addition to grieving.
  4. Finally, a foundation of meaningful relationships and genuine concern for others is the best and only way. "Show yourself friendly," (Mom) so you have the capital needed to comfort your colleagues.

The best thing I ever heard from my boss right after my mother passed had nothing to do with work. He described his own loss and said something like, “Things are going to change for you. You are not going to feel inspired by the same things as before. You’ll have to give yourself time to learn a new way of doing things.” - John Valenta

What a gracious and life-changing statement from someone who was responsible for keeping me productive! I am forever grateful for that.

Three things, always:





P.S. If I could give any personal advice, from experience, it would be to make no big decision in the fog. But, then again, I'm an impatient booger; I need movement and activity. So maybe everything worked out as it was supposed to for me. I can say I'm grateful to God for good people, great bosses, a good partner, and happy pups. BTW - Tabasco's leg is all better.
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