Managing Grief & Loss at Christmas in the workplace

Although grief and loss are universal or does not discriminate across cultures and social class, they are widely overlooked issues in the workplace, an element that may contribute to complicated grief for the bereaved and to loss of productivity and workplace disruption for the employer.

The bereaved, whether out of fear, embarrassment, or endurance, often try, unsuccessfully, to rein their emotions at the door, hoping their fragility will not show and that they will not be noticed. The idea at work is that you should keep the personal at home, which has taught people to compartmentalise. With grief, “The compartmentalizing skills become completely overwhelmed.” It’s a struggle that leads to further anxiety because grief isn’t easily disguised.

Employees who have experienced a significant loss may not express their feelings verbally, but may display an inability to concentrate, lack of energy, fatigue due to lack of sleep, indecisiveness, short-temperedness, and a range of emotions including anger and intense sadness. However much they may try to stem tears, crying may be irrepressible, and many workers don’t have the option to close an office door and weep in private. These emotional states may lead to impaired performance and reduced productivity, which in turn, may heighten anxiety. Grief takes a toll on the body as well, leading to physical ailments that may result in absenteeism.


While supervisors may care for their employees, their role is to get the job done, a task that may be at odds with providing compassionate support. Supervisors who do wish to be supportive may feel helpless, not knowing how to approach grieving employees, or they may lack support or direction from upper management and have no authority, policies, or guidelines with which to make a difference. Thus, they may at best turn a blind eye to a grieving employee and at worst be required to take punitive measures, such as withholding a raise or promotion, due to perceived substandard performance.

Sometimes, despite compassion for a grieving colleague, co-workers may become concerned or even disgruntled over the worker’s diminishing ability to do the job and the need to step in and pick up the loose. During grieving, tasks and responsibilities may take a back seat to trying to cope with loss. The griever still needs to work, and employers need a job done. Co-workers may not understand why the grieving person is not doing what they need to do, why they’re not fulfilling their responsibilities, why the quality of their work has declined, or why they seem removed from the task at hand.


The workplace struggles with helping people grieve vs. maintaining productivity and usually people will use clock time or calendar time to gauge how long it’s appropriate for the person to be less productive. There’s an impact on the co-workers who are asked to pitch in to take some of the burden off of bereaved workers. Then their own productivity can suffer, arousing resentment. This can result in a cascading domino effect that can demoralize a unit that may be sympathetic to grief but is swamped by the need to get a job done.


Tips to supporting a worker suffering from grief & loss








Tips to supporting a worker suffering from grief & loss


Don’t ask. Its best not to ask how they’re doing, how you can help, or what happened. Keep it short and simple. Asking forces your coworker to do something; they have to decide whether and what to share, which they might not be capable of at that time.  Instead say things like “I’m here for you if you need to chat” or “if you need anything just give me a shout”. Let them know they can come to you when or if they need to.


Don’t compare. Everyone mourns differently. And every loss feels and impacts us differently. Often it isn’t necessarily the closest in relation that hits us the hardest.  Don’t assume that because your co-worker lost a friend and not say their parent or partner that it would impact them any less.


Don’t track their progress. While we know that the acuteness of grief will dull over time, many people in the throes of grieving aren’t ready to hear that, or to think about letting go of the grieving process. During brief pauses in their pain, they might feel guilty when they’ve managed to set aside sadness for a short time. Instead of saying, “Are you doing any better?” or “I’m glad you came to the party. It must mean you’re doing better,” simply try, “It’s good to see you” or  “I’m glad you came.”


Don’t ignore them. After reading all these don’ts, you might be nervous to do anything. But don’t let your level of discomfort lead you to say nothing. Ultimately, your support and intentions will come through. Simply focus on your colleague and take your cue from them.

Your bereaved colleague will appreciate your intent to support them. Give them the space to call on your support as and when they need it, without being too forceful. Make your intentions known, and then leave it up to them to guide you in how far to go.

As always, if you have an EAP program in place within your organisation, gently encouraged your co-worker to enagage with them, or speak to us to learn how we can support your team.