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Grief: The overlooked employee experience HR needs to pay attention to

Human Resource Executive
Dr. Mekel S. Harris and Janet Gwilliam-Wright
Mekel S. Harris, Ph.D., NCSP, PMH-C, CAGCS, is a writer and author, TEDx speaker and licensed psychologist/health service provider with 12 years of postdoctoral experience working with children, adults and families. Janet Gwilliam-Wright, M.P.A., earned a Master of Arts and Master of Public Policy from Queen’s University. Based in Ottawa, she has 15 years of experience as a leader of teams, large-scale organizational change and developing policy and programs that improve the lives of Canadians.

We are often asked why addressing grief in the workplace matters. The answer stems from our own personal journeys with loss, as well as the influence of managers and organizational culture on each of our experiences.

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Dr. Mekel Harris: “I had no idea that just three weeks after receiving a diagnosis of stage IV pancreatic cancer, my mom would die. I worked in academia at the time, and the timing of my mom’s death fell a few days prior to the end of the semester. I traveled home to assist my brother with funeral arrangements and, shortly thereafter, I returned to work, emotionally and physically drained. In addition to the weight of grief, just a few short weeks after returning to work, I began to internalize the discomfort exhibited by co-workers surrounding my loss. While everyone knew my mom died, no one said anything. I wanted to talk about my mom, and they wanted to talk about business. However, my life had shifted in a significant way, and I knew I wouldn’t be fully present until someone actually acknowledged the pain I was experiencing day to day. Throughout that season, I couldn’t compartmentalize my grief from work responsibilities. Several months after her death, one courageous leader finally knocked on my office door and asked to come in. Little did she know that I’d already begun exploring other job opportunities in the preceding months.”

Janet Gwilliam-Wright: “My mom died from breast cancer on the day I graduated from high school, just as I was beginning my adult life as a university student. With little support, I struggled through that first year of university, unsure how I was going to survive the grief and shock of losing my biggest supporter and the implosion of my family system. As I entered the labor force, I never talked about my grief, uncomfortable with the prospect of having to navigate conversations about why I always took my birthday off or felt sad in the middle of June (the anniversary of her death). I never saw any discussions of death or grief in the workplace around me, beyond expressing brief condolences when a colleague suffered a loss. The assumption always seemed to be that people were expected to come back to work as they were before, to pick up where they left off. In the years when my mental health suffered, I struggled to explain how my grief was impacting my life and instead focused on feeling stressed about the workload with my supervisors. I often felt shame and guilt about not being ‘normal,’ always feeling like I should have ‘moved on’ from my mom’s death.”

Both of our perspectives, while seemingly outliers, actually align with those of other employees navigating loss within organizations. For example, research highlights the cognitive, physical and emotional challenges faced by employees as they adjust to work reintegration following a significant loss. In addition, it outlines the potential impact of work-related stress on the exacerbation of employees’ grief symptoms.

What we and others who grieve at work know is that creating space within organizations to normalize grief and loss, as well as institute practical tools for supporting grieving employees, is absolutely critical.

A 3-pronged approach to grief

Contrary to what one may believe, employees navigating loss actually appreciate the acts of noticing and asking—that is, verbally acknowledging their grief experiences and inquiring about their nuances. While this may seem paradoxical on the surface, highlighting an employee’s loss forges one-on-one connection between an employee, their colleagues and management, a cornerstone of workplace satisfaction and wellbeing.

A 2020 qualitative examination outlined the impact of silence on the part of grieving employees’ colleagues. Specifically, the article explored the likelihood of employees experiencing grief disenfranchisement within the workplace when their loss experience is not acknowledged.

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In addition to the connection between managers and grieving employees, it is also important for HR leaders and managers to facilitate opportunities for community within the workplace. Whether in the form of public forums to better understand grief and collectively support employees who are grieving or private circles for employees to routinely gather, community matters.

All too often, grievers report increased feelings of isolation and social disconnection within the workplace upon their return to work. Employees’ experiences of isolation or lack of compassion from their management teams may contribute to them leaving the organization altogether, with ripple effects experienced in terms of productivity loss and employee turnover within the organization.

A 2021 BBC article asserts, “The strength of turnover contagion depends on which employees leave, and the kind of circumstances they leave under.” It comes as no surprise that employee resignation as a result of feeling unsupported will likely have significant negative consequences for any organization.

Finally, making strides to create a predictable and stable grief-informed workplace culture is vital for long-term organizational success. Deaths encountered as a result of the pandemic ushered organizations into a space where conversational avoidance about grief and loss is no longer a viable option. Further, recent research emphasizes the importance of organizations placing emphasis on improved bereavement leaves and work reintegration strategies.

The main takeaway here is that addressing concerns surrounding loss not only positions HR leaders and managers as cultural change agents, but also creates psychological safety among employees. In the face of loss, grieving employees desperately need to feel safe to share their day-to-day experiences.

Taken together, there is a strong organizational imperative for increasing grief literacy and implementing compassionate, grief-informed management practices to support employees navigating loss. Emphasizing the three Cs—connection, community and culture—provides a platform from which organizations can grow their understanding of grief and promote short- and long-term infrastructural changes. Doing so not only benefits grieving employees, but also managers and organizations as a whole.

Bloomwell Partners, LLC teaches organizations how to build compassionate, grief-informed cultures, and trains managers and HR professionals to support employees navigating grief and loss. Our mission is to help organizations skillfully address grief and loss through both evidence-based and innovative approaches.