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Grief At The Workplace

Mar/17/2024 / by Sweta Vikram

Why companies should care about employees coping with loss

Side profile of young South Asian woman with long hair in an office looking sad
Photo via Shutterstock

In honor of Women’s History Month, I was invited to speak on a panel organized by The Alliance of Career Development Nonprofits (ACDN) couple weeks ago. My topic was “Grief”. 

We talked about the concept of post-traumatic growth and how individuals and organizations can find strength and resilience in the face of grief. We highlighted the impact of unresolved grief in organizations. The organizers also recommended my book “The Loss That Binds Us, which is set to be released next month by Loving Healing Press. In this heartfelt grief manual, I share 108 practical tips to navigate the multitude of emotions brought upon by loss, which is a response to any kind of grief. 

Understanding Grief

Grief is our response to any kind of significant loss in our lives. It could be the loss of a loved one, end of a romantic relationship, foreclosure on your home, being laid off from work, termination of an old friendship, death of a pet, or even a missed opportunity and loss of good health. You get the picture. 

Grief Spills Everywhere

You may wonder what grief has to do with workplace conversations or performance. I would say EVERYTHING. When you experience a loss, grief can be ever-present in your life, and work is no exception, especially when the grief is new and raw. I have lost count of the number of people who confessed that they had burst into tears in a meeting or felt agitated out of nowhere or their guilt drowned them (when they used work as a distraction). Grief can show up when you are least expecting it, and if we spend 8-14 hours of our day at work, can you see how there is no escaping grief in your workplace?

In a 2003 study to quantify the financial impact of grief in the workplace, The Grief Recovery Institute calculated the financial loss in productivity to businesses as just over $75 billion dollars. Bereaved employees have higher rates of absenteeism in the year following the death and are more likely to quit their jobs or change careers.[1]

Bereavement Leave In The U.S.

Even in today’s day and age, not many companies hold space for grieving employees. It’s hard to fathom that the average length of bereavement leave in the U.S. is just three days. Based on a U.S. Department of Labor survey, 56% of civilian workers have access to paid bereavement leave, but the benefit is linked to income: 81% of the top 10% of wage earners in the U.S. have access to the employer-sponsored benefit, compared to just 19% of the bottom 10% of earners.[2]

How many organizations take any initiative to set the tone for communication? Social and community supports during bereavement are generally inadequate.[3] A client recently shared that when he was grieving the loss of his health (invisible chronic illness), a colleague said, “You look all better.” The person assumed that since my client didn’t demonstrate any physical signs of illness, he was ready to work 20-hour days. They did not pause to think what months of being confined at home would have done to this person’s emotional or mental wellbeing.

How To Support Grieving Employees

Unresolved grief can manifest within an organization, affecting productivity, morale, and decision-making. You may not know what to say to a grieving employee but holding space can make their post-bereavement return to work smoother. 

When my father died, someone said to me, “Now what’s done is done.” I remember thinking to myself, “How lucky to be you!” This woman hasn’t lost anyone close to her. I had to complete becoming an Ayurvedic Doctor while managing a wellness company, home, health, and showing up for two grieving families as my father and father-in-law died within two days of each other.

Be patient and understanding. I still remember the kindness I received from my executive director and a board member when I was a cross-continental caregiver for my father. They allowed me flexibility in so many aspects. Their generosity made me fiercely loyal to the organization.

Other ways of offering support:

Check in with the grieving employee and ask how they are coping.

Try to temporarily lighten their workload, so you can minimize the challenges and stress of work.

Ask them openly what they need and what you can provide.

Confirm whether they want support or privacy. Some people may not want to share their loss with their colleagues while others would appreciate support from their coworkers. 

I have learned that the more you try to deny, hush, or ignore your grief, the bigger it becomes. But if you acknowledge it and stay intentional about healing from grief, the intensity lessens over time. Employers need to find ways to recognize grief in the workplace and have support options available to their employees.

“Each person’s grief has its own life span; it needs to follow its own path.” ~ Rick Riordan

Disclaimer: The content is purely informative and educational in nature and should not be construed as medical advice. The information is not intended for use in the diagnosis, treatment, cure, or prevention of any disease. Please use the content only in consultation with an appropriate certified medical or healthcare professional. If you are looking for advice from a trained yogi and ayurvedic doctor, contact the author here.

[1]  Holmgren H. Returning to work following spousal loss? The experiences of widowed parents. Illness, Crisis & Loss. 2022;30(3):499-515.

[2]  Walsh MJ. National Compensation Survey: Employee Benefits in the United States, March 2021. U.S. Department of Labor, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics; 2021:568.

[3] Stroebe M, Schut H, Stroebe W. Health outcomes of bereavement. Lancet. 2007;370(9603):1960-1973.

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