Coping with Grief while at Work
Updated: Apr 16, 2021
Tilak Mandadi lost his only daughter when she was 19 years old. In this video, he shares about his struggles returning to work and his suggestions on what workplaces can do to improve the support for grieving employees.
This article will be about the difficulties faced by a grieving person who is concurrently dealing with the professional demands of a workplace.
There will also be a discussion on how an individual can achieve a healthy work-life balance and how companies can develop a culture of empathy at the workplace.
Grieving while at work - how does such a situation arise?
1. You received a diagnosis of a life-limiting illness but you are still able to go to work
You may have only taken a single day's Medical Leave for the doctor's consultation. Life-prolonging treatment may or may not be an option. You may be waiting for further tests results to be out or for further scan dates to be scheduled.
The shock of receiving the diagnosis may not have worn off yet. The emotional weight of the news may just be starting to sink in - the diagnosis of terminal illness changes everything.
You feel physically well enough to return to work and might think work is a productive way to get your mind off some dark and worrying thoughts.
Taking time off work may not even be an option for some people. You may be the sole breadwinner of your family. Treatment may be expensive and you are not sure if your insurance is able to cover it. You might be relying on your company's insurance to cover the expenses of palliative chemotherapy or immunotherapy (medications given to slow the progression of disease but not cure the disease) and if you leave your company, you lose the insurance as well.
2. You are a loved one of someone who has just received a terminal diagnosis
You might have taken a day of Family Care Leave to accompany your loved one for their medical appointment or you may have just received a tearful call from your relative or friend informing you of the bad news.
You are physically well and you might think to yourself that the emotional burden that you feel is nothing compared to the person who has just received the diagnosis. You may tell yourself: "You have no reason not to show up at work."
Again, taking time off work may not be an option for you (for the same reasons quoted above). But it doesn't change the fact that the news of your loved one being diagnosed with a terminal illness has impacted you profoundly.
3. You have just lost someone close to you
You have taken some days off on Compassionate Leave - most of your time was spent organising the funeral wake and you've barely settled the administrative matters let alone deal with your emotions.
Time moves on for everyone except for the ones who are gone. You are lost in the current that sweeps you forward but the hole in your heart hasn't been plugged and you don't yet know where to begin.
What are the pros and cons of returning to work?
"We all experience grief and loss in our lives. For most of us, that means, at some point, getting up and getting back to work while living with the grief. On those days, we will continue to carry the incredible burden of sadness but also a hope that work itself can restore for us that much-needed feeling of purpose." -- Tilak Mandadi
Productive distraction from grief
Going back to work can provide us with a much needed break from the role of grieving. There is a difference between healthy distraction and avoidance and the former is what we are aiming for. Taking a break from grieving can give us the headspace to come up with more effective solutions on how to deal with the grief.
Source of support
Depending on the relationship you have with your colleagues, returning to work may actually improve the amount and quality of support that you have.
Sense of purpose
Accomplishing tasks at work and being valued for your contributions can be a great morale booster. The feeling of contributing to something larger than yourself can also confer a sense of purpose.
Unexpected changes in health status or scan/clinic appointments can affect work commitments and cause disruptions to the workflow.
Dealing with emotional breakdowns while at work
Grief is not linear. It can flare up at unexpected times. It can be triggered by anything (e.g. significant dates, photographs, and even food) and can happen even while you are at work.
Disenfranchised grief occurs when you are unable to openly acknowledge or mourn your loss. If you feel that the challenges you are facing are not acknowledged or understood by your coworkers, you may withdraw yourself from social interactions at work and feel unvalidated. This can result in a protracted period of grieving that can affect work performance and diminish commitment and loyalty to the organisation in the long term.
Ultimately, the decision to return to work is a decision that will varies for every individual. Returning to work early may be extremely beneficial for some but counter-productive for others.
You have decided to continue working. What are some of the challenges you may face?
"The biggest challenge was having to separate my personal and professional lives completely ... Living in two completely different worlds at the same time, and all the hiding and pretending that went with it, it was exhausting, and it made me feel very alone." -- Tilak Mandadi
1. Distinguishing personal and professional lives
Drawing the line between personal and professional interactions can be difficult. Some of our coworkers flit between the role of 'friend' - someone whom you feel a connection with, you enjoy each other's company, watch each others back and have each other's best interests at heart - and the role of a supervisor, subordinate or coworker - someone whom you work together with to achieve goals for the company and progress in your career.
Not everyone would want to share about their personal lives at work. They may worry that it will affect how their colleagues perceive them, be afraid of losing career opportunities, or believe that no one will understand them even if they shared.
Where the line is drawn will differ for every individual based on their personality and their workplace environment. It would be useful to have yourself mentally prepped by pre-determining your boundaries. A framework that could be helpful:
How much information are you willing to share? ("Someone close to me has passed on" versus "My mother, whom I was very close to, has just passed on")
How much of your feelings are you willing to show? ("I am still grieving" versus "I have just spent 45min crying my eyeballs out in the toilet because I don't know what to do")
Are you willing to be helpless around your coworkers? (Would you let them sit beside you and pass you tissue paper while you cry)
If you are to share about your personal life, when will you share it? (Would you share it only when asked? Will you be comfortable sharing it in the workplace setting or only while having lunch/dinner?)
Who are you willing to share details about your personal life with? (Alternatively, you can rephrase the question to be: who are you not willing to share details about your personal life with?)
In general, it would be helpful to share the details or the situation causing you grief with your immediate supervisor or manager for practical purposes - this will be the person who is approving your urgent leaves and grading your work performance.
It may also be worthwhile to have at least one co-worker who understands what is going on in your personal life. As much as we want to be strong, infallible and perfect individuals while at work, the truth is that we are human beings who spend majority of our waking hours at work and grieving takes time.
If you are able to find a colleague you can trust to share your personal struggles, this colleague can become an important source of support during unexpected grief flares, cover for you when you have to step out for an urgent errand, and grab a tissue for you when it is too far away for you to get it yourself without being seen with puffy eyes and a red nose.
2. People unintentionally say things that hurt you or avoid the topic because they don't know what to say
Not everyone is great at empathising or finding the right words to say.
Some people may give inappropriate responses that you may find insensitive. For example, some people may feel offended that the death of their loved one was compared to the passing of a colleague's dog. Others may find it difficult to even approach the topic of death and avoid it altogether or change the topic to something happy instead.
Some people may make suggestions that are in conflict with what you think is best. They may question your leave decisions
The most important thing to remember is that most of these people actually mean well! They don't intend to cause hurt to others and it be that they are simply don't know what they can say or do to make the situation better for you. We are all sensitive to different things during our process of grieving so it can be quite tricky for others to find the most appropriate responses.
Additionally, do remember that no one understands your situation as well as you do. Hence, the only person capable of making the best decisions for yourself can only be you. You may receive conflicting suggestions from various people but this is because they are offering advice based on the information you have given them and the experiences they've had.
3. You need to be prepared that you will face frequent, unexpected disruptions in your schedule
You may come across many situations that require you to take time off work.
In accordance with the employment act, most people (who have worked for a minimum of three months with their employer) are entitled to at least 5 days of paid outpatient sick leave and 15 days of paid hospitalisation leave.
Compassionate leave is not mandated by the employment act. It is up to the company to decide if they would like to offer compassionate leave (some even offer bereavement leave for loss of a family pet).
Hence, do check in advance with your manager or Human Resource (HR) department on the number of leave days you are eligible for - medical leave, family care leave, compassionate leave etc - and what documents they require from you in order to process the leave. If you feel that leave days are not adequate, discuss other leave options such as annual leave or unpaid leave or consider flexible work arrangements.
Keep all important documents in digital format so that you can speedily send them to the HR department for processing e.g. medical documents stating the diagnosis or medical certificates (for medical leave and family care leave), death certificate (for compassionate leave).
Even after a loved one has passed on, be prepared that you may want to take additional time off work to have some time for yourself. Have these discussions with your manager and HR department to work out a feasible plan.
I am a boss or a colleague. How can we develop a culture of empathy at a workplace?
Image by Patrik Svensson via Harvard Business Review
"A workplace where empathy is a core part of the culture ... is a joyful and productive workplace, and that workplace inspires a great deal of loyalty." -- Tilak Mandadi
In the video shared above, Mandadi shares three suggestions on how workplaces can develop a culture of empathy:
Provide training for all employees on how to support each other (which he termed as "empathy training")
Have policies that lets an employee deal with their loss in peace without worrying about administrative logistics
Provide return-to-work therapy as an integral part of the health benefits package
Even if companies in Singapore are not yet able to push out such policies on a large-scale, on an individual level, we can still adopt and adapt these strategies to foster a healthy and caring workplace environment.
Build a safe space to grieve
Be present and acknowledge their loss directly while respecting their need for privacy. For example, "I am sorry that you have lost (name the person, if possible). Even though I may not know the right words to say or the right things to do, just know that I care and I'm here for you whenever you are ready to talk".
If they are ready to share, ask about the difficulties they are facing. You can consider an open-ended question like "what do you find most challenging to deal with at the moment" or something more specific like "do you have any unfulfilled wishes or activities that you are planning on doing?"
Check how much involvement they would be comfortable with e.g. "would it help if I were present at the wake?" or "what would you like me to do differently in order to help you?"
If you are the manager of a grieving employee, you could check if they would like you to inform the rest of their colleagues on their behalf. If workload allows for this, check if they would like a period of flexible work arrangements to test their readiness to return to work.
If you would like to draw on your own experiences to understand their grief, always be sensitive that your experiences may not be directly applicable to their situations. For example, be careful with making references to loss of pets; you can share your experiences, but acknowledge that the relationship and challenges faced may be very different. Do check out the other articles in this blog if you want to find out more about the challenges faced by caregivers and what end-of-life symptoms feel like for people with terminal illnesses.
Facing return-to-work challenges
Returning to work can trigger intense emotions in a person who has just lost a loved one. This may be because the action of return to work reminds them of how things have returned to their normal routines but it is no longer the same as their loved one is no longer around. It could also be that they are returning to work at a point in time when they are not emotionally ready, but are doing so because of other factors such as strained finances or work demands
Aside from providing a safe space to grieve, consider suggesting specialised grief counselling services. There are specialised grief counsellors that can provide counselling services on an individual basis or as part of a corporate package. For example, Singapore Counselling Centre has a corporate grief counselling package that includes having a counsellor at the company premises for half to full day individual or group counselling sessions.
Expect that certain dates such as death anniversaries and birthdays can also trigger an emotional response. Show your thoughtfulness and concern by marking down significant dates (e.g. date of the one-month death anniversary) in your calendar and reach out to the grieving employee on those dates. Checking in could be in the form of a simple text to say that you are keeping them in your thoughts and that you are here for them in case they ever want to talk.
The experience of grieving does not distinguish between the personal and professional setting. Having a supportive and caring work culture can significantly facilitate the healing process following devastating loss and inspire loyalty in employees.