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Seven ways to support grieving employees

It can be difficult to understand why some workplaces aren’t more compassionate and understanding of the impact grief can have on an individual. For grief can impact us all differently. But this is perhaps due to a lack of knowledge on what grief is, the different stages of grief, and how best to support someone who requires help with it. 

This week is grief awareness week (2-8 December) and I wanted to shine a spotlight on this subject which is still taboo in the workplace. 

Grief and bereavement are ubiquitous. It is highly unlikely that you will not be touched by sadness and the feeling of loss following the death of an important other during your life. The likelihood is that you have already, and more than once.  

It can be difficult to understand why some workplaces aren’t more compassionate and understanding of the impact grief can have on an individual. For grief can impact us all differently. But this is perhaps due to a lack of knowledge on what grief is, the different stages of grief, and how best to support someone who requires help with it. 

In the workplace it is important for everyone to understand the indicators of the ‘normal’ process of mourning and to look for when the process has become ‘stuck’. 

Raising awareness about grief at this time of year is pertinent. The holiday seasons are often particular points of remembrance of lost loved ones. Sometimes these memories can be celebrated and remembered with joy and love. However, these times can also bring an intensity of grief and loss that is difficult to experience. 

What is grief?
Grief refers to the psychological, social, emotional, and biological responses following the loss of a loved one. Mourning is a period of adjustment to the loss of a valued person which is not necessarily problematic. New research in this area has established a model of the seven stages of the ‘normal’ process of mourning, which is considered to last approximately six to 12 months. 

The seven stages of grief 

Shock – or surprise about the loss. This can happen when a death is expected.

Denial or disbelief – this is a mismatch between feelings and facts. 

Frustration – recognising that life is different which can lead to anger at times. 

Depression – this is the first stage of full acceptance of the loss. 

Experiments – engaging in a new situation without the loved one.

Decision – learning how to adapt to a new life without a loved one and starting to feel more positive. 

Integration – life changes are integrated, and the person is renewed. 

This is a useful lens in which to understand grief and mourning, as is the notion that people ‘grow around their grief’ – the idea that bereaved people’s experience of the loss is not diminished or becomes less important to them, more that they grow as a person via processes of growth such as: experimentation in life, engaging in new activities, meeting new people, deciding to move into new situations, and integrating the changes in their life, yet include memories of the deceased. 

These models help us to understand the tasks that the bereaved need to do during a ‘normal’ or uncomplicated grief response. They also enable us to notice when people we work with may be stuck in their grief. This normal response to grief is experienced by most of us. 

Problematic grief and Prolonged Grief Disorder
Sadly, there is a proportion of people where bereavement persists, leading to difficulties in functioning and wellbeing. For their working life this can mean not wanting to work at all or working too much, or being unable to undertake certain tasks, for example. 

The reported prevalence of this is in the region of 4% to 10% for people who are bereaved from natural causes. However, this figure rises to approximately 50% for bereavements that have occurred due to violent death, disaster, or the death of a child. 

Thus, we can be aware of the vulnerabilities of developing Prolonged Grief Disorder (PGD).  This is significant in and of itself, but the data also shows that 60% of people accessing physical and mental health services are experiencing undiagnosed PGD, thus the impact on personnel can be significant. Knowing key signs for PGD can support staff and organisations.  

The signs of Prolonged Grief Disorder
People experience significant separation distress from the lost loved one.  There is a reluctance to remember the person who has died, whilst simultaneously yearning for them; this inhibits the ability to positively reminisce and process the loss, with no growth following the bereavement (stuck in denial). The person is not able to fully integrate the loss of the person into autobiographical memory. 

There may be traumatic intrusions and nightmares about aspects of the loss, this is a sign that there are traumatic memories that are not processed, and these give rise to an ongoing and overwhelming sense of threat, leading to additional avoidance behaviours that inhibit the process of mourning.

There may also be a sense of guilt and/ or a change in self-concept. 

How employers can support employees experiencing grief

  • Be compassionate and supportive, watch and wait. Grief and mourning is normal, but distressing. Appreciate that work won’t necessarily be their priority.
  • Talk to the individual about how they feel and ask if they require any form of support from you or a third party. Have patience with the individual as they may not know in the early stages of grief what support they need.
  • Some people may struggle to communicate, so it is best to try different methods of communication to see if there is a preferred one. Regular check-ins with the individual help to see if there are any changes in how they feel and the level of support they require. 
  • It may be helpful for the individual to have more time off work than the contracted compassionate leave. Be flexible about this to help the individual if that is what they require. 
  • Talk to the individual about making adaptations to their daily tasks and workplace set-up to help the individual continue working – this can include 100% remote working, flexible working hours, fewer external meetings. 
  • Encourage employees to take breaks if they are struggling to concentrate or are overwhelmed with emotion. Work can be a useful distraction.  
  • Bereavement counselling can be helpful in the initial 6 months after this time, if individuals are struggling with engaging with their life, discuss a referral to psychological therapy.

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