How HR can support grieving colleagues at work

August 2022

Introduction

The human mind is an incredible tool. It’s able to shield us from trauma until we’re better able to cope with it, giving us the time and space to keep on keeping on. One of the things humans are particularly good at forgetting is how life ends: inevitably, 100% of the time, in death. Yet, as many a philosopher, psychologist and even neurologist has discovered, if we were to think constantly of our own and our loved ones’ mortalities, it would probably cripple us.

And then, 2020 hit. Suddenly, the reality of death was not just valid for one person, but was on the whole world’s mind, all at once. The Covid-19 pandemic meant that suddenly, the whole world was grieving and afraid. It meant that workplaces had to adjust how they treated employees – it meant people had time to think, to contemplate mortality and to discover what truly means the most to them.

It put death – and grieving, and kindness – front and centre. Suddenly, the fears of the ‘apocalypse’ weren’t just in a film: they were real life.

In his Pulitzer Prize-winning, 1974 book The Denial of Death, American Author and Cultural Anthropologist Ernest Becker said: “The irony of man's condition is that the deepest need is to be free of the anxiety of death and annihilation; but it is life itself which awakens it.”

Sadly, being aware of this fact does not seem to lessen the blow of losing a loved one, nor the grief that can be so debilitating afterward.

In fact, grief can be so shocking and so debilitating, some people suffer a psychiatric state known as Complicated Grief Disorder. While this diagnosis isn’t terribly common (about ten per cent of bereaved people experience this), some of the symptoms are experienced by most grieving people, particularly when the loss is traumatic or sudden.

As the Mayo Clinic’s research article on grief from 2021 puts it: “During the first few months after a loss, many signs and symptoms of normal grief are the same as those of complicated grief. However, while normal grief symptoms gradually start to fade over time, those of complicated grief linger or get worse. Complicated grief is like being in an ongoing, heightened state of mourning that keeps you from healing.”

Much can be said about the diagnosis and psychology of grief, however, this report is about how to handle it both long- and short-term in the workplace.

Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it.

– Joan Didion

Why should HR and leadership care about grief?

The obvious answer is, of course, “because everyone dies and that means almost everyone will lose someone dear to them”, but let’s look at some numbers: In research published in 2020, palliative care and bereavement support charity Sue Ryder found that at any given moment, at least 24% of the working-age population of the UK has suffered a bereavement. The charity’s research also showed that the cost of grief to the economy is around £23billion per year, when taking into account absences, mental and physical impact and decreased productivity.

Further insight into bereavement from the US’s National Library of Medicine reported that even as long ago as the late 1990s (when mental health and employee wellbeing was less on our collective radar), one-quarter of consultations to GPs were the result of loss.

The paper, Bereavement in Adult Life goes on to detail the impacts of loss: “After a major loss, such as the death of a spouse or child, up to a third of the people most directly affected will suffer detrimental effects on their physical or mental health, or both. Such bereavements increase the risk of death from heart disease and suicide as well as causing or contributing to a variety of psychosomatic and psychiatric disorders. About a quarter of widows and widowers will experience clinical depression and anxiety during the first year of bereavement – losses are a common cause of illness and often go unrecognised.”

It continues: “Yet the consequences of loss are so far reaching that the topic should occupy a large place in the training of health care providers - but this is not the case. One explanation for this omission is the assumption that loss is irreversible and untreatable: there is nothing we can do about it, and the best way of dealing with it is to ignore it. This attitude may help us to live with [the reality of mortality]. Sadly, it means that, just when they need us most, our patients and their grieving relatives find that we back away.

“Despite this, though, there is also evidence that losses can foster maturity and personal growth. Losses are not necessarily solely harmful.”

A heavy topic, right? Don’t worry, HR Grapevine is here to help. This report will condense the pertinent info available, including why you should create a bereavement policy.

To aid you in understanding what the challenges are around identifying and supporting your grieving employees and what skills leaders will need to do so sensitively, HR Grapevine has pulled together insights and data from psychology and HR experts, mental health professionals and more.

It’ll be a long read, and a hard one, if you’ve gone through loss and are still grieving, so take regular breaks, but we hope it will be truly beneficial to you, your colleagues, your bosses and your staff.

 

This Report includes insights from:

 

Smriti Joshi,
M.Phil, MBPS,

Lead Psychologist at
Wysa

Jeremy Field,
OBE,

Managing Director at
C.P.J. Field

Dinah Mears,
MBACP,

Relationship Counsellor
and specialist trainer

 

Nicola Harker,
GP and career coach

Natalie Ellis,
HR consultant specialist
in sensitive topics

Marilyn Devonish,
Career Coach and NLP practitioner
specialising in neurological issues

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