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Grief in the Workplace

Updated on July 3, 2011

Workplace Grief Can be Very Challenging

Much as we'd like it to be different, grief and the grieving heart do not take a break when you go to work. Someone grieving a loss still has to keep on going even when the world may be falling apart.

People can experience personal and professional losses for a variety of different reasons ranging from the death of a loved one, the break-up of a relationship, the diagnosis of a life-threatening disease to the loss of a job and other more private losses like experiencing a miscarriage.

Understandably, grief, the response to these losses, can and most often does follow employees and employers alike into the workplace affecting people's work performance on several different levels.

It may be impossible to determine the actual number of people who are affected by some type of loss at any given time. Safe estimates put these numbers in the millions, just based on the number of recorded deaths each year. It may be difficult for employees not to take grief with them to work as noted by bereaved sibling Kelly McBride:

  • One of the biggest issues I faced was I had to show up for work and maintain social appearances while inside my heart had stopped beating.
Find out more about what you can do to help yourself and to help others when grief enters the workplace.

Image: Pipp. Modified from Notebook. Royalty Free Use.

Grief Impacts the Workplace

Grieving Woman

Image: Modified Microsoft.

Numbers on Grief in the Workplace

According to research results released by the Grief Recovery Institute in 2003, the grief caused by the death of loved ones or a close friend, divorce, family crises, financial losses, pet losses and other major life events cost U.S. businesses more than $75.1 billion.

These financial losses are caused by caused by

  • Poor concentration
  • Reduced productivity
  • Increased errors
  • Accidents
Now, six years later in 2009, with the current state of loss in the economy one can imagine that the cost of grief and grieving losses in the workplace would be in excess of $80.0 billion or more.

In addition care giving responsibilities impact workplace employees. A 2006 study conducted by the National Alliance for Caregiving and MetLife found that United States businesses lose approximately $17.1 billion to $33.6 billion per year in productivity for full-time employees that have care giving responsibilities whether caring for aging parents or an ailing spouse or child. Caregivers experience a number of different types of grief.

Source: The Grief Recovery Institute and National Alliance for Caregiving.

Image Source: Martin Carter. Poppy flower leaves. Royalty Free Use.

Grief in the Workplace

Ways Grief Impacts People in the Workplace

A person who has experienced a loss is likely to still be grieving for quite a while at work. He or she may experience some of the following responses that can affect their work performance:

  • Problems concentrating
  • Difficulty making decisions
  • Disinterest in job-related details
  • Frustration
  • Irritability
  • Tension
  • Depression and mood swings
  • Marital and family problems

Dr. Dyer's Resources Dealing with Loss & Grief in the Workplace

My article on Dealing with Loss & Grief in the Workplace was reprinted as a resource for the LiveandWorkWell* resource for provided as a member benefit by the United Behavioral Health. Since then it has been reproduced and reused in several other locations.

* LiveandWorkWell provides people with confidential resources for mental health and life's changes.

Workplace Grief Website

Another resource from Dr. Dyer, the Workplace Grief website contains information to help employees, co-workers and managers better understand the normal grief response along with resources for helping those grieving a loss.

Loss and the Workplace - Chapter

What to Do at Work When the World Crashes in Around You

Healthy Profits: The 5 Elements of Strategic Wellness in the Workplace the book is now available through the Health Profits website. Dr. Kirsti A. Dyer has contributed the chapter on Grief in the Workplace entitled "Loss and the Workplace: What to Do at Work When the World Crashes in Around You."

Dr. Dyer, a.k.a. Comfortdoc, is one of 32 authors who have contributed to the 200 page Healthy Profits book. Healthy Profits, the Book was written to be a resource for people and businesses who are already working to address the problems and create healthier and more productive workplaces.

Healthy Profits: The 5 Elements of Strategic Wellness is available through the Health Profits Health Profits website for $22.50 including shipping and will soon be available on Amazon.

Grief in the Workplace Articles on Suite 101

A series of articles focusing on grief in the workplace that I am writing on Suite 101.

Grief in the Workplace Book

Be watching for an extended book version of Grief in the Workplace written by Dr. Dyer based on the chapter "Loss and the Workplace: What to Do at Work When the World Crashes in Around You."

This book will be longer with more more in-depth information aimed at helping employees, managers and employers cope with grief in the workplace.

Email Dr. Dyer for updates. Send a message to comfortdoc -at- (Replace the -at- with @).

Acknowledging Grief in the Workplace

  • People never forget and never forgive if they think a person has not been respectful of death.
  • That in the long run can be damaging in productivity and morale for a whole work group.
  • Carol Hoffman, MSW, LCSW, CEAP
  • University of California at Berkeley
With so many ways that people can experience a loss it is not uncommon for a co-worker or a manager to experience some kind of loss whether it is the death of a loved one, the break-up of a relationship or the diagnosis of a life-threatening disease.

It is important for co-workers and managers alike to acknowledge when a loss has occurred on a personal level and on a professional level as well. The grieving person will remember long after the loss how friends, family, co-workers and managers how a loss was handled. As noted by Carol Hoffman not being respectful of a death can lead to damage in the workplace.

Simply acknowledging the loss can provide the grieving person with some comfort in knowing that their loss has been recognized. Recognizing a co-worker or employee has experienced a loss may also help to bring out in the open something that may affect their work performance for some time.

Image: Marcin Wichary. Flowers. Creative Commons.

Resources on Grief in the Workplace

A collection of other resources on Grief and the Workplace selected from the Internet.

Healing Grief at Work: 100 Practical Ideas After Your Workplace Is Touched by Loss

Healing Grief at Work: 100 Practical Ideas After Your Workplace Is Touched by Loss (Healing Your Grieving Heart series)
Healing Grief at Work: 100 Practical Ideas After Your Workplace Is Touched by Loss (Healing Your Grieving Heart series)

Grief and Loss expert Dr. Alan Wolfelt wrote this book with 100 practical ideas you can follow after your workplace is touched by loss.

Wolfelt looks at the different kinds of grief workers can experience--death, divorce and layoffs. He offers effective ways to channel grief during the workday, how to support coworkers who mourn, participation in group memorials, and negotiating appropriate bereavement leave.


Suggested Ways of Helping a Grieving Co-worker

Being supportive of a co-worker or employee who is grieving a loss can be very helpful for the grieving person. Knowing friends, family, co-workers and employers are thinking of them and wishing them support can provide comfort to someone grieving a loss.

Here are some suggestions of ways to help a grieving co-worker.

  • Let the co-worker know you empathize with their loss--in person or in writing.
  • Respect the grieving person's desire for privacy.
  • Remember to include the co-worker in any social plans. Let your co-worker decide whether to accept or decline the invitation.
  • Accept less than their best performance from your co-worker for a while, but expect them to return to their best over time.
Image: Laura Glover. Holding Hands. Royalty Free Use.

Ways of Sending Condolences to Your Colleagues

Knowing what to do with a grieving co-worker can be awkward because we want to somehow want to acknowledge the loss, but many people are uncomfortable with being confronted about a loss, knowing that bringing up the loss might lead to a public displays of emotions (hugs, crying etc.)

The following list are just some ways that you can send your condolences to colleagues or show your support when they are grieving a loss.

Note: Not all of these suggestions are appropriate in every situation. Much depends on the circumstances of the loss and your relationship with your grieving colleague.

  1. Send a Note
  2. Write a Letter
  3. Send an eMail message
  4. Consider sending a Text or IM message - only if this is how you communicate normally with your colleague.
  5. Send Flowers
  6. Make a Donation to their favorite charity.
  7. Organize a Memorial in the worksite
  8. Attend the Funeral or Memorial Service

Loss, Grief, and Trauma in the Workplace (Death, Value and Meaning)

Loss, Grief, and Trauma in the Workplace (Death, Value and Meaning Series)
Loss, Grief, and Trauma in the Workplace (Death, Value and Meaning Series)

In this book Loss, Grief, and Trauma in the Workplace author Neil Thompson offers a basic understanding of how loss, grief, and trauma affect people in the workplace.

Thompson offers advice so that executives, managers, human resource professionals, and employee assistance staff may be able to more effectively help their grieving employees to cope with life's losses.


Grief Doesn't Take a Break

Grieving Man

Image: Modified Microsoft.

Bereavement Leave

Bereavement leave or funeral leave is the time off given to an employee by his or her employer to settle all of the matters and issues surrounding the funeral and reading of the will. The time span ranges from a few days to a few weeks, in the best of circumstances.

Bereavement leave may be granted by an employer with or without pay.

Taking Heartache Leave or a Grief Break

According to a 2006 article in the Japan Times, one company in Japan (Hime & Company) offers their employees the option of taking shitsuren kyuka or heartache leave, "compassionate leave to fix a broken heart" or "a [paid] holiday you take when that happens and you feel too devastated to come to the office."

Company CEO Miki Hiradate began offering shitsuren kyuka at the suggestion of her young female employees, who suggested this type of benefit when asked what they wanted from a female-friendly company. Perhaps companies in the United States should consider offering shitsuren kyuka or paid Grief Leave.

In the United States, bereavement leave is often limited to a few days and is not a required paid benefit. Maybe grief or bereavement will eventually become a paid benefit as an updated version of "The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993."

Grief Break

Another option for grieving employees who can't get time off from work, is to take a brief Grief Break on the job.

A grief break can be a simple as taking a few moments to go to the restroom and giving yourself a few minutes to let the tears (or the screams) out before returning to work. A grief break might also be taking a few minutes to get away from work and grab lunch, go walk in a near by park or go to the gym for a workout.

A grief break is designed to get the grieving person time to remember his or her loss and then come back to on focus on work and the task at hand.

Source: Hani Y. 2006. Heartbreak heaven for staff. The Japan Times.

Image: Red Chair. Royalty Free Use.

More on Grief

Learning to Live with Grief

  • Grief melts away like snow in May,
  • as if there were no such old thing.
  • George Herbert
We all know that as the seasons change the cold winter melts into spring. This analogy of winter melting into spring is a good one for people grieving a loss. Over time, the grieving person realizes that he will survive the loss and begins to start living again, as the grief begins to melt away.

The grieving person eventually becomes aware that life goes on and begins to take steps back into the world and live again.

As the grieving person learns how to integrate the loss, the winter of their grief gives way to a spring of rebirth and living a new life.

Source: Dyer K. 2009. Taking a Risk to Bloom in the Spring. Grief, Loss & Bereavement Edublog.

You can download the full inspiring article on Taking a Risk to Bloom in the Spring as a PDF File from Docstoc.

Books on Helping Others Cope with Grief and Loss on Amazon

Workplace Wellness

Benefits of Workplace Wellness Programs

The benefits of workplace wellness programs have been documented in numerous studies.

More businesses and managers are realizing these benefits and developing health promotion or workplace wellness plans for their employees.

In addition to the benefits for employees' health, the Infinite Health Coach points out some of the other benefits of having a Workplace Wellness Program:

  • Improving employee health
  • Reducing preventable health care utilization and lowering health care costs
  • Enhancing work performance
  • Improving employee satisfaction and retention
Research studies are also demonstrating a high return on investment (ROI) for businesses investing in programs to improve employee health and wellness.

Image: Modified Microsoft.

Have you ever had to cope with grief in your workplace setting?

Reader Feedback on Grief in the Workplace

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    • profile image


      7 years ago

      I know a lot of people who almost lost it because of work stress especially if they have difficult co-workers to deal with. One time, my friend was so pissed off at a co-worker that she sent him an anonymous email saying all the nasty stuff that's been on her head for a long time. She was relieved after that.

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      I went into work one day to be told that a friend and colleague, who had been very supportive of me during a difficult time in my life, had been killed in a freak accident while on holiday. It was a horrible shock and I felt the whole situation was not handled very well, considering what a large orgainsation I worked for.

      There seemed to be no process for dealing with the situation and it was made worse by the fact that my friends telephone calls had been diverted to me while he was away.

    • LisaDH profile image


      9 years ago

      I wish I'd had these resources a few years ago when a person on my team was diagnosed with melanoma. It was hard for everyone, but particularly difficult for me as a manager because I had to be sensitive to the team's needs while still trying to maintain productivity. Our coworker, who was only 23 at the time, died within the same year she was diagnosed. It was devastating for all of us, but we're lucky we worked at a company that was supportive.

    • Janusz LM profile image

      Janusz LM 

      9 years ago

      Wonderful Lens covering a difficult subject, I have had to cope with Grief once. Blessed by a Squid Angel.


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