It’s Time We Talk Honestly About Grief in the Workplace

As we continue re-writing the rules of work, it’s time to address one of the biggest taboos in life and work: death.

I lost my mother to a long battle with multiple sclerosis in my early 20s. I lost my father to cancer in my early 30s. I lost my brother, the last remaining member of my immediate family, to addiction in my late 30s.

My experience isn’t unique. We’ve all lost loved ones. We all carry the scars of grief, heartbreak, and loss. And yet, despite the fact that death is a part of life, we rarely discuss it candidly. That lack of openness creates a stigma that isolates those grieving in their greatest time of need.

This is especially true when it comes to work—a place where we spend so much of our lives. In these settings, we’re expected to compartmentalize our feelings and carry on.

As more companies embrace mental health as a fourth pillar of employee benefits, it’s time they factor in grief in all its forms into their programs. Grief-specific training for managers. Rethinking bereavement policies. Support systems for employees. Flexible leave programs beyond the traditional bereavement period. Normalizing (and even encouraging) conversations on grief at work.

Death, loss, and grief are universal conditions. While our journeys through grief are individual, the experience is collective. It’s time we recognize that reality and bring more empathy to how we support grieving employees.

Carrying the weight of the world

Despite the fact that many workplaces maintain an outdated perspective toward grieving, the pandemic has brought death and suffering to the forefront of our consciousness. According to the World Health Organization, we’ve lost 6.54 million lives to COVID-19 over the past two-plus years, including over one million lives lost in the United States alone, making COVID the third-leading cause of death in 2021, according to the CDC.

COVID grief is not limited to death. Research from the Brookings Institute shows Long COVID may be keeping four million people out of work in the United States alone. The loss of lifestyle and agency creates its own type of grief and mental health struggles—a risk that may be exacerbated in cases where psychological stress existed before infection, according to researchers at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

The pandemic–fueled increase in mental health struggles is a global phenomenon. Earlier this year, the WHO cited a 25% increase in anxiety and depression worldwide. “The information we have now about the impact of COVID-19 on the world’s mental health is just the tip of the iceberg,” said Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General in a scientific brief published earlier this year. “This is a wake-up call to all countries to pay more attention to mental health and do a better job of supporting their populations’ mental health.”

The stress and burdens society carries show up in life, including work. It’s time employers rethink how they meet this moment.

It’s easy to get lost in the numbers above as just data, but we can’t forget what they represent. Mothers. Fathers. Neighbors. Colleagues. Mentors. Friends.

The human toll of the pandemic and the mental health struggles that have been building over the past several years will continue to have a profound impact on our society and our workplaces for years to come. The time for companies to adapt to this reality is now.

The toll of unresolved grief

The journey through grief is nonlinear. For some, grief is an acute pain followed by a full recovery. For others, grief is an endless sea with waves that ebb and flow for eternity.

Living with grief in the latter scenario can create a range of mental health challenges, as McKinsey explored in their study, “The hidden perils of unresolved grief.

The study found that unresolved grief costs companies billions of dollars annually in lost productivity and performance. It found that unresolved grief is a pervasive, overlooked leadership derailer that affects perhaps one-third of senior executives at one time or another.

Living with grief means you often don’t have control over when these emotions manifest. The mental health struggles of navigating this pain are very real. Grief triggers can be known: birthdays, anniversaries, songs. They can also come from seemingly nowhere and send you down a spiral of emotions.

I vividly remember a work offsite at a former employer where we were asked by a facilitator to point to where we were from on a map. It was two years after I lost my father and I was still processing that pain.

When it was my turn to point, I couldn’t. The seemingly benign exercise of pointing to your hometown on a map made me think of what I no longer had there: the deep voice and warm embrace of my father that was gone forever. I broke down in front of my entire team, and had to step away from the exercise.

Living (and working) with grief

Grief and recovering are personal, individual journeys, yet most employers view them as one-size-fits-all. Bereavement plans are typically three to seven days in the United States. Rigid applications of the guidelines are not nearly enough to account for the post-grief emotional haze that can last weeks or more.

Kyle Cupp, manager of content services strategy at Mineral, tragically lost his son Jonathan and shared his experience in a USA Today piece. “To my colleagues, I probably appear to be holding up reasonably well,” he wrote. “I’m able at times to smile, laugh, and joke. That isn’t to say my grief isn’t evident to the members of my team, however blurred it may be over the computer screen. … You can’t keep grief out of the workplace. It will be shared. The alternative is to make a place for it.”

When you make place for grief in the workplace, you give grieving employees space to deal with their emotions as they come. You remove the need for a forced-compartmentalization veneer of normalcy and allow employees to navigate their grief at their own pace. Employers who recognize that the grieving process comes in waves and make that support clear to employees (and their managers) will benefit long-term from the empathy and care they show grieving employees.

Lisa Lee lost her father in 2019. She shared her experience processing her grief in a Medium story, Grief and Work. In it, she shares how being able to speak openly about her father provided comfort in the days and weeks after his death.

“Coming back to work, I noticed that talking to and being around colleagues who have met Mr. Lee or are at least familiar with my family made me feel less lonely. I’m sure it’s because their simple presence in my life confirmed that he was real—it was a temporary med to the shock of having him there one day and not the next. I knew that as hard as it would be to talk about him, ‘giving in’ to my thoughts by addressing them in a managed way actually helped me to get through each day.”

How can employees meet this moment and adjust their approaches toward grief?

New platforms like Betterleave are being created as a workplace benefit to help employees navigate everything that comes from bereavement to estate planning. These resources are helpful support for grievers, but we need to go broader and deeper to create a workplace that can help the healing process.

That includes grief counseling that extends beyond the grievers, more support for managers helping their employees as they navigate loss, and normalizing these conversations from the top on down.

Death, grief, and loss are universal. The taboo-driven isolation that accompanies our inability to discuss it doesn’t have to be.

If you’re experiencing grief, I know how isolating it can feel. Please know you’re not alone.

I recently covered the topic of living with grief in my podcast. The post below includes a range of resources, books, podcasts, and stories to support those of you grappling with grief. You can find it here.

This article was authored by Lars Schmidt and was originally published by the Fast Company.