August 8 is Dying to Know Day – a day designed to create a world where we all know what to do when someone is dying, caring or grieving.

Jaydene Tucker, Registered Psychologist with PeopleSense by Altius, explains how people are confronted by grief at work, what impact this has and what can be done to support organisations and their employees through grief…

The loss of someone we know, whether it be a family member, friend, or someone we’ve worked with can impact us in different ways. Unfortunately, these impacts don’t just dissipate when it’s time to go to work. We might find ourselves in situations where we are grieving whilst at work and struggling to hold a strong front. We may be aware that a colleague is grieving but we are feeling awkward and not quite sure how to act. 

How are people confronted by grief at work?

Grief in the workplace can come about in different ways and employees can be impacted by the loss of people both inside and outside of the workplace. At times, these situations can be predictable, such as if someone is unwell or of older age, whereas at other times, they can be extremely unpredictable and occur completely out of the blue. Irrespective of the situation, loss impacts employees and their work.

What does the grieving process look like?

Grief is a natural response to loss that can impact your sense of self, emotions, thoughts, behaviours, physical health and relationships with others. I cannot emphasise enough that grief is an individual experience and people are likely to respond in different ways. Some people may grieve for weeks or months, whereas others may grieve for years. Some people’s grieving may be clearly externalised for others to see, whereas another’s grief might be more internalised.

The Kubler-Ross Model of Grief presents the five stages of grief people commonly experience in the face of loss. It’s important to note, these stages are not linear and some individuals may not experience any of them.

As can be seen in the model, the process of grieving involves coming to terms with the reality of the loss and the unpleasant emotions that this might illicit. The process of grieving provides people the opportunity to come to terms with the loss and adapt to life in the face of a persons’ absence.

What impact does grief have on people personally?

Responses to grief can be broken down into four categories of emotional, cognitive, physical and behavioural impacts. These are detailed in the table below.

What impact does grief have on the workplace?

It’s not surprising that grief impacts workplaces at the individual, team and organisational level. It is common for organisations to see increased absenteeism by those grieving. This time off can be beneficial but may also run the risk of someone disengaging from their normal routines, support networks and work. This should be judged on an individual basis with consideration for the persons’ severity of loss and their individual response.

On return to the workplace, individuals may experience a state of presenteeism - physically present, but their minds not necessarily completely on the job. They might find they’re spending their mental energy thinking about the person, the circumstance of their passing, or the implications of this in the future. During this transition, organisations may choose to decrease workload or monitor someone’s work more closely if they are concerned about the associated risks.

The broader work culture can be impacted by staff that are grieving. Colleagues may adopt the thoughts, feelings or behaviours of those around them. At times, this can be positive in uniting colleagues to support each other and work towards a common goal, whereas it can also run the risk of disengagement from colleagues and poor attitudes towards work. Organisations are encouraged to be strategic particularly in times of grief to foster a positive environment. This may be achieved by encouraging cohesion and drawing more attention to the good on a daily basis.

 How can employees support themselves through grief?

While people might not be able to change the circumstance of their grief, there are things they can do to ensure they’re looking after themselves whilst grieving:

  1. Mobilise support of family, friends and colleagues and talk with people whom you feel comfortable around that are empathetic listeners.
  2. Maintain a regular routine and structure. While you may not feel like it, make sure you are engaging in self-care and continuing to participate in enjoyable activities.

  3. Nourish your body with a healthy and balanced diet and avoid stimulants, drugs and alcohol.

  4. Stay active by stretching, walking and exercising - where possible, do these in nature for added benefit.

  5. Reflect about your experience and engage in something meaningful. This might involve a spiritual practice, journalling or doing something to mark the occasion.
How to support others through grief

People often report feeling helpless or awkward about their ability to support someone who us grieving. There are simple ways you can help others during this difficult time:

  1. Reach out and ask the person how they are coping. Acknowledge their loss and let them know that they can discuss it with you if they feel comfortable.

  2. Listen to the person by providing them airspace to talk, validate what they are saying and feeling and the impact that the situation has had on them.

  3. Understand that everyone grieves differently, people will respond in different ways, have different ways of coping and may take different times to heal.

  4. Ask the person how you can help them get through it and be respectful of how they choose to deal with the situation.

  5. Follow up with the person regularly to see how they are doing. Let them know that you are there whenever they need.

What support can organisations put in place for employees experiencing grief?

Organisations might be left feeling unsure how to support their staff during these challenging times. Sometimes, those in positions that require prompt decision making may be doing so whilst dealing with grief themselves.

PeopleSense by Altius provides support services for organisations to offer employees in the face of grief:

Employee Assistance Program (EAP) Counselling provides short-term confidential psychological assistance by Registered Psychologists for employees facing personal or work-related issues such as grief. It can be helpful to share information about the service in the lead up, or when responding to a loss, or have an EAP Psychologist attend onsite to discuss the service.

More on our EAP

Critical Incident Response provides psychological support to distressed employees and other parties affected by a workplace critical incident, such as the loss of a person. It aims to normalise responses to incidents and prevent the onset of abnormal reactions due to critical incidents such as Acute Stress Disorder and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Training or Group Workshops offer information and practical skills on ways to prepare for and respond to a loss. It provides employees with the opportunity to engage in discussion about common concerns surrounding the grief and foster collaboration between colleagues in supporting each other.