Workplace Grief: 3 Keys to Help Coworkers and Yourself

Workplace grief is common.  We often spend more time at work than at home, and our coworkers can become like family. It is normal and natural to experience grief when a coworker dies, becomes ill, or experiences a family tragedy.

When my friend film editor Sally Menke died, her coworkers were devastated. “I loved loved loved Sally Menke,” said one coworker. He experienced deep grief over her death, as did the hundreds of others who packed her memorial service after her sudden death at age 59 while hiking.

No workplace is immune to grief, and some workplaces deal with grief almost daily, such as hospitals.

Hospitals deal with workplace grief on so many levels, from the oncology ward to the ER. Nurses mourn when the premature babies they have so tenderly cared for die. Sometimes staff become patients, and sometimes they die, such as a 29 year old nurse whose valiant struggle with Hodgkins disease ended with her death. Coworkers confront devastating losses at home, such as a nurse whose granddaughter committed suicide. I can think of no other workplace that routinely deals with so much grief on so many levels.

I recently had lunch with Diany Klein, who is the Vice President of Human Resources for Community Memorial Health System in Ventura, California. She really makes a point of supporting people who are stressed or grieving. “Anyone can send one text or make one phone call,” she said. “but to be there as an ongoing support, that’s the key thing and that takes commitment.”

According to the Wall Street Journal, the workplace cost of grief is $75 billion per year due to accidents, absenteeism and lost productivity. Diany Klein called this “presenteeism” — where the person is physically present, but mentally they are a million miles away.

If you are experiencing grief from the death of a coworker, here are 3 tips to help you recover more quickly:

1. Expect grief
2. Self care
3. Support team

1. Expecting grief means to make allowance for mourning. You’re not a robot, so don’t expect to return to work unaffected. Don’t make major decisions or operate dangerous equipment while distraught or distracted.

2. Self care is essential when grieving. Get extra sleep, drink plenty of water, take a walk in nature, exercise, get a massage. Grief is mentally and emotionally draining, so do things to recharge and replenish.

3. Support team — the fastest way to recover is with ongoing support. Reach out to friends and family, your HR department, your place of worship. Studies show that friends and family can only listen to a grieving person for 20 minutes, so consider working with a grief coach or another expert companion through grief.

As Robert Frost said, “The only way out is through.”    Workplace grief is normal and natural. Taking the above 3 steps of making allowance for grief, self care, and building a support team will help you move through grief more quickly, and avoid regret. If you care about someone who is dealing with workplace grief, forwarding this article to them can be an easy way to give support.


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