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  • Desleigh White

Supporting employees who’ve experienced grief

Updated: Mar 13


I have experienced significant grief (two traumatic events) and learned so much about how employers could handle this better.

Many years ago, I had an incomplete spinal cord injury and ended up in emergency surgery.

Some years later my mother died – it was voluntary euthanasia.

Two events that led me to think that employers need to handle these things differently. These experiences have given me greater empathy at work, greater awareness of ways in which I personally can support people, and greater awareness of what I believe are some better business practices at times like this.

Background

I had ~2 months off work after my spinal cord injury and surgery, although I had been working from home as much as I could, as I had an extreme, and somewhat irrational, fear that I would be terminated.

When I returned to the office, I was cheerfully greeted by someone in their most upbeat voice asking if I had had a good holiday.

Wow.

I was going to have to tell people myself, which at that time for me meant I would have to re-live the trauma and grief of my injury, surgery and the ongoing impact (organ dysfunction, chronic pain, having to learn to walk properly again – and frankly who knew that few of us walk properly according to the physios) again and again. My boss had not explained to anyone why I had suddenly disappeared, even though he had been fully informed.

When my mother died, I had known her intentions for ~12 years (she was a ‘card carrying member’* of ‘Exit International’). In the lead up to her planned death I elected to tell people at work that she was very ill, which she was. It was a challenging time.

Learning moment – as employers we just don't know what is happening for people. I like the iceberg analogy. Be curious. Check in. Make observations if you need to. One of my colleagues described me as ‘unusually solemn' when she checked in.

After my mother died, I had the maximum permitted compassionate leave (this is 2 days under the Fair Work Act), plus a week personal leave. I returned to work but worked from home, had a pre-planned conference to attend and then went to the office. I had told my team and manager the truth, and told my team that if anyone asked, they could tell them the truth about what happened.

They did tell people who asked, but what I could not have predicted was that people didn’t ask, because they assumed things – holidays, working from home, you name it. And that’s normal. But what it meant for me was reliving the grief and trauma from the first meeting – ‘I haven’t seen you in ages – you must be enjoying working from home’. Ouch. Not their fault, not intentional, but resulted in tears within 30 minutes of being in the office.

Another wow.

What have I learned through these two traumatic events?

Essentially that we all need to do this better if we care about employees / our colleagues and want to support them.

Contact

After my mother’s death, my team were respectful and stayed in touch occasionally in the same way in which I contacted them – through my personal email. This worked for me. They expressed that they were there if I needed them but didn’t push when I said no thanks to their offer of coming to have lunch with me.

Learning moments for employers

  • Follow the lead of the person who has experienced the loss or trauma. Ask the question – would it be okay if I touched base with you [weekly / every few days], and what’s the best way of doing that.

  • Engage with the person who is away – ask them how they would like you to handle any information about their absence – would it be helpful for them if you told people why they are away? If so, what would they like you to say?

  • Be patient – they have a lot going on and may not get back to you quickly

Flowers.

Everyone wants to send flowers – I do too. Please though, don’t send Lilies. Lilly pollen kills cats. I have a cat – and a dark sense of humour. When I received Lilly in an arrangement I thought ‘Awesome – as if I’m not going through enough, now they want to kill my cat’. I’m sure it was done with good intentions but imagine if my beloved cat had died.

Learning moments for everyone

  • if you are going to send flowers, send innocuous ones such as gerberas, or ones you know they like – not deadly to animals, have little scent.

  • Send an arrangement that has a water supply, because chances are that the person may not be home.

Time off

Frankly you need the person to take as much time off as they need in order to get back to some level of effective functioning.

Learning moments for employers

  • Look at your policies – seriously, could you or should you return to work after 2 days compassionate leave (legislated in Australia) after the death of a parent, child, partner? Spoiler alert – generally, no. Sheryl Sandberg who was previously COO at Facebook increased their paid leave to 20 days following the death of her husband. I believe all employers should offer that.

  • Be supportive, check what other leave might be available to the person. Maybe even ask if they would like to go into negative personal leave for 5-10 days and get an agreement drawn up. regarding that. Or better still, gift them some additional paid leave. The last thing people experiencing trauma need is financial issues on top.

  • Be flexible – is there work that they could do intermittently from home? Do they want to? Note – I’d suggest its administrative and not contacting customers, suppliers etc. until you are sure that they are doing well enough to do so. Don’t make assumptions about this – talk openly when they are ready.

  • Do not suggest that they do emails etc until they are ready, I’d suggest that you probably don’t want them near their mobile or work email initially

Grief is tough.

Grief is intensely uncomfortable – especially when it’s someone else’s grief (I stole this from a great Ted Talk – I recommend watching it. The lessons can be applied in all sorts of situations, not just grief relating to death).

Learning moments for employers

  • Once you have approval from the person themselves, talk to their colleagues. Talk about what the person wants. Personally, I wanted to not discuss either situation at work. I wanted to not cry constantly; I wanted to not talk about the repercussions of a spinal cord injury. Let people know their wishes.

  • Talk about what not to say – I strongly recommend that unless people know the specific situation that they absolutely, categorically DO NOT say ‘I know what you’re going through’ (that response to me nearly resulted in serious injury to the person and/or relationship. Actually ‘Jan’, no I’m pretty sure that you don’t). Don’t make it worse.

  • Do not ask how the person died. If they wish to share they will. Never ever ask how someone suicided (trust me ..... I have been asked twice)

People want to reach out, sometimes for the person, but in fact sometimes because it makes them feel better about themselves.

Learning moments for employers

  • Suggest that people who are close to the person (for me it was my immediate team, and 2-3 others in the workplace) can offer support that is appropriate to the relationship – the team I work with give each other hugs when one of us goes on leave or comes back. A hug from them is fine. We have that relationship.

  • Suggest that people not all that close but who have a desire to acknowledge the person’s situation might leave a card on their desk. That way they can open it when they are feeling resilient enough to do so.

  • People should absolutely never talk to other people in the workplace about the person – how they’re coping etc unless they are speaking with HR or the Manager with a genuine concern. Anyone else – that’s just gossip – not helpful and in fact toxic.

Summary

A workplace supportive of an individual experiencing trauma sends a strong positive message to their team. It says:

We care.

You are important.

You belong.

It speaks to your culture, your employee value proposition, your values.

It speaks to who you are as a leader, employer and a human.

Disclaimer

I would like to be clear in this blog that I believe that suicide is preventable and am absolutely committed to being positively involved in reducing the rate of suicide related to mental ill health. I also believe in voluntary euthanasia where there is significant/terminal health issues. I am a passionate believer in the power of being kind and compassionate and supporting people through ill health whether that be physical or psychological.

If this blog raises issues for anyone, I hope you will contact your EAP, Beyond Blue (Call 1300 22 4636, 24 hours / 7 days a week) or Lifeline (call 13 11 14).

* I don’t know if they have cards for members, but this phrase articulates her commitment to the voluntary euthanasia movement. For the record, I too support treating people with dignity and respect, as I do my animals when they are on pain and suffering, and voluntary euthanasia.


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