By Jessye Kass
The death of a loved one, loss of a pet, heartbreak, illness, being laid off, unexpected financial hardship—we can experience loss and grief in countless ways. Grief reaches us wherever we are. No one is immune to grief, though it affects us all differently.
Often, we still have to work—even when grappling with ongoing grief. Determining how to carry on at work can be challenging if you or even a loved one are grieving.
There are different reasons an individual might limit themselves or be limited from creating space for their grief, but grief—almost always—demands space. One way or another, it usually claims that space.
Even the most supportive workplaces can struggle to provide space for grief when it naturally and inevitably occurs. Often, bereavement policies are reserved for immediate family members—creating a limited window of allowable grief—though we all experience grief that doesn’t fit this mold many times in our lives.
At work, grief can show up in a myriad of ways. Sometimes we disengage from our work, fall behind, or productivity diminishes. We might miss a deadline or a few. We might call out sick. We might be distracted or lash out at co-workers uncharacteristically. We might feel irritable or unmotivated to do tasks that once energized us.
While these ‘symptoms’ are not limited to grief, when these experiences at work are connected to grief, there are specific tools that can help you to create space, communicate in ways that feel comfortable, and check in with yourself in a guided way to alleviate natural symptoms of grief while at work.
This is a starting point and not a complete list. Seeking support from a trained grief counselor trusted loved one, or mental health professional can also provide support. Your workplace may also offer Employee Assistance Programs with access to short-term counseling.
If you are experiencing a mental health crisis due to grief or feel unsafe, call 9-1-1 or head to your nearest emergency room.
Take stock of your daily schedule at work.
Consider the following:
Create a work self-care list.
We often tell ourselves, “I don’t have time!” and then scroll on social media for 45 minutes. Creating a work-based care action list can help you alleviate symptoms of grief. Even 10-15 minutes of space in your workday can make a huge difference as you manage your grief while working. The following are potential options that may be useful for you:
Grief can make it hard to know how we feel or how our work is being affected. Remember, it is totally normal to experience grief. We often blame ourselves for being unable to move past the grief or for how it affects our work. This, too, is normal, but there are ways to address it and ask for help.
After you have considered your daily (or weekly) routine at work, it’s time to take your self-coaching to the next level.
Exercise 1: Create a time-limited window on your calendar (usually 20-45 minutes) to check in with yourself on how your work is going and what may help or what you may need.
These guiding questions may help you get a clearer assessment of how your work could be affected by your grief.
Jot down some notes, record a voice memo, or take some time to take stock of these questions. Even the awareness of these questions can be useful in being able to take steps when you’re ready.
Wait a day or two after Exercise 1 to engage in this next exercise. Give yourself time and space.
Exercise 2: Project Manage Your Task List
If the questions below feel overwhelming or unanswerable on your own, do this exercise with someone else. In fact, the following exercise may be best to do with a manager—or, if you’re a senior leader or executive director, with a board member or trusted colleague. It can be challenging to engage in this next exercise alone immediately following a loss, and your direct supervisor may have a better idea of what is possible. You could bring your reflections from Exercise 1 to the conversations.
We all have different relationships with asking for help, influencing our ability and willingness to ask for help. Our workspaces, co-workers, job tasks, supervisors, and type of work will also affect our capacity to ask for help.
When determining how to ask for help, here are some self-coaching questions that may be effective:
It can feel overwhelming to think of what to say when asking for support. While there may not be an option to change your workflow, asking is an important step. Here are some tips and ideas to support you in asking. Find your own voice within these suggestions to suit your circumstances.
If your employee is experiencing grief, offer them clear options, refer them to any employer-supported benefits (such as EAP - Employee Assistance Programs), and think creatively about how to support your team members during times of loss.
If you know an employee is grieving, offer to take on a set of tasks or to work with them to assess their workload. Question urgency culture and adapt timelines—where possible.
If you have the capacity to do so, consider working to broaden the definitions for bereavement policies to include other loved ones instead of just immediate family.
For an in-person or hybrid role, consider the possibility of offering further work-from-home options for a short-term reprieve.
Inform employees of all relevant organizational benefits, such as bereavement policies, mental health days, Employee Assistance Programs, wellness stipends, or other support structures.
Instead of asking, “How are you?” (which puts the onus on them to answer how they are), ask them, “Are there ways I can support you or your workload right now?” or “Give me one thing I can take off your plate today.”
Instead of “I’m sorry” (which puts pressure on them to reduce your discomfort), tell them, “I’m thinking of you. I'm here if you want to talk or need support.”
We all experience grief. There is no shame in it. Reducing urgency to support our team members in crisis can be a great way to increase workplace wellness and support your colleagues by honoring their experience, needs, and grief.
Grief can be reactivated and can hurt just as deeply as though the loss were yesterday. Setting up your work self-care toolbox and check-in questions can help support you when you have those days or weeks in the future—as well as immediately after.
There is no right or wrong way to experience grief. Hopefully, these tools and questions can help you navigate how best to support yourself, your co-workers, and your employees when experiencing grief.
Jessye Kass is a workplace wellness consultant and coach. She helps organizations and individuals embody their professional and personal missions, reach their goals, and learn new skills. Her expertise is in leadership development, burnout prevention, stress resilience, conflict resolution and communication wellness, and career coaching. Her work is deeply rooted in anti-oppression and anti-racism frameworks, empathy, and mindfulness. To maintain accessibility, she offers a sliding scale for all services. Check out her LinkedIn or sign up for a free consult here!