Understanding grief in the workplace
When my six-year-old son Harry died, 19 years ago I was thrown into a different landscape almost overnight; it was entirely unfamiliar – it had some of the same features, but somehow they were all in a different place. Friendships and family relationships needed to be redefined around the great void which was now central to us. The host of medical professionals who had worked with us for the years before Harry’s death (with whom we had built close relationships through endless visits), evaporated into nowhere. And then, in the full throes of grief and after years of not being able to work, I had to find a way forward, both personally as a mum of two newly bereaved siblings who needed extra guidance and care and professionally too.
With work I was very lucky, an opportunity arose which connected me directly to Harry and proved to be cathartic. I was given the opportunity of working for Helen & Douglas House, the children’s hospice where he died, fundraising and producing events which linked strongly into my previous work in TV production. Looking back, I now realise this had all the ingredients of good continuing bonds – keeping Harry’s memory alive, linking me to him, but through raising funds benefitting other families with the superb care we had received and enabling me to move forward with him.
Other people may not be so lucky to retain those bonds through their work – and now that I work with HR and Management Teams, helping retain staff following major life changes, I find it so hard to hear from staff that they feel isolated at work following a bereavement or major life challenge. I constantly hear ‘nobody spoke to me about it’ or ‘I didn’t know what to say’.
It is fascinating investigating what makes people fearful of tackling grief. A major problem is the notion that ‘time heals’. It doesn’t. We just get better at adjusting, at adapting our lives to accommodate our grief. Most companies I speak to will tell me that they have excellent provision for bereavement, or for anyone coming back to work after a major life change. They proudly tell me that they offer six weeks counselling – and I always say ‘And then what’? Most fall silent at that point as there is very little provision for ongoing support when people get back to work. And by support, I don’t mean spending a fortune, but talking to staff about how that person would like to be treated, opening up a conversation, putting someone in place to be their rock.
The physical effects of grief
If unaddressed, grief (over a Death, Divorce, Diagnosis, or any major life change) can cause serious physical effects. How many people in your company are suffering from the symptoms of heart, lung and gut problems and taking medication? And how many have truly investigated where those problems originate? Many symptoms will be from stress or grief from events which may have been recent, or many years ago. So many people I meet have had a parent die too young, a sibling, a child, or have been through divorce. And years later these symptoms are treated with medication, no-one stops to ask ‘Why’? Doctors perform scans and don’t come up with answers because most often they relate to issues from years before, which if withheld will show physical symptoms eventually.
So how much do you know about your colleagues and teams? How do you cope when they suffer a family bereavement, or go through divorce? There is so much positive acknowledgement that can make a difference. It’s not rocket science – just to be able to offer help, support, to talk, yet over and over again I hear of people suffering in silence, feeling isolated and living in fear of losing their jobs if they confess to struggling.
The slightest acknowledgement can relieve tension for someone. And even if they break down, it is not you upsetting them, it is the fact they are living with grief and they will usually be so relieved that someone asked.
I have learned personally that grief changes, it isn’t in any order – so don’t give up! Just because someone suffering might push you away to begin with, it doesn’t mean that will last. There will come a point when they want to talk, to be asked out, to be acknowledged – so be brave and stay alongside them until they are ready.
A big issue seems to be that so many HR Teams are unable to spend time with the people they support. They deal with endless forms and data and when the humans need help, they can’t always provide it. This is where good peer to peer support is vital, watching out for each other, not being scared to address issues and equally not being fearful of showing you need help.
I no longer want to hear about people’s fear of addressing this subject any more, let’s work out how we can encourage all employees, but especially HR and Management to be better equipped to encourage and aid the humans they employ and from that lack of fear, reap the benefits of staff feeling safe and the rich seam of energy and loyalty which will undoubtedly flow from that support.
Lizzie Pickering, speaks and consults on Grief in the Workplace and delivers workshops and motivational talks on change. She can be reached at email@example.com. Lizzie’s early work was for Channel 4, but following the death of her eldest son Harry, she co-founded the Fundraising Team at Helen & Douglas House, the world’s first hospice for children and young adults, helping to raise £5 million a year and also working closely with the Bereavement Team. After 12 years she left to set up In Trust Films with Film Director Polly Steele. They produced Let Me Go, starring Juliet Stevenson, from Helga Schneider’s memoir on inherited trauma. It premiered in the USA and the Edinburgh Film Festival. They are developing their second film Four Letters of Love by Niall Williams. Lizzie also fundraises for The Good Grief Project, raising money for their Active Grief Retreats for bereaved parents.
‘Lizzie’s compassionate and personal approach to grief and loss resonated very powerfully indeed with the team in Salford. Since her visit I’ve received more emails and comments from staff who feel her advice was invaluable – and how they feel their personal resilience will be impacted by her words – than after any other visiting speaker. We will be inviting her to share her insights with a wider group soon.’
Cheryl Taylor, Head of Content, BBC Children’s