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Managing Grief in the Workplace

The grieving process is difficult enough as it is without the prospect of returning to regular work activities. How can you make this transition as easy for yourself as possible?

Returning to any semblance of normality can sometimes be the most challenging part of the grieving process, especially after you’ve just dealt with the stress of organising a funeral. And while some day-to-day activities (such as meeting up with friends or even keeping on top of housework) may feel easier or even comforting, this is not always the case for returning to full-time work.

Of course, everyone’s grief takes on individual characteristics, and being back at work may actually feel easier than facing close friends or family after the loss of a loved one. But given the physical and psychological effects that grief often has on the human body, it’s wise to prepare yourself for the eventuality that things may not just be “business as usual” for the foreseeable future. 

Being kind to yourself during this difficult time is a good start, but if you can, it’s also advisable to be open with your superiors and your colleagues. A few words in person or by email – and a few of the steps detailed below – may make this transition a little easier, both on yourself and the people around you. 

Take the time off if you need it 

Choosing whether or not to take time off work is an entirely personal decision, and there is no universal protocol when it comes to grief. If you feel as though returning to work is too triggering for you, or you do not feel that you are in a fit state to conduct your regular duties, it may be worth investigating your company’s leave policies so you are not caught unawares. 

There is currently no law in the UK that mandates companies provide compassionate leave, be it paid or unpaid. Nevertheless, some employers may choose to incorporate this approach into their policies and handbooks, so make sure you find out what your individual rights are.  

For those that are not afforded this sort of leave, it may be necessary to use up holiday allowance or annual leave if you are not comfortable returning to work right away. Of course, some people (especially those relying on tips or commission to financially support themselves) may be worse off financially in the short run, but prioritising your mental wellbeing is vital during the grieving process. By taking time to rest alone or with friends and family, you’ll ensure that you are fit to work when you do eventually return, to the benefit of yourself and the business. 

It’s also important to remember that you are within your right to change your mind. If you initially chose to return to work, but are feeling overwhelmed and unable to cope, you should not feel guilty for taking leave or asking for a temporary reduction to your work schedule. Be honest with yourself and your employer about what your limits are, and don’t force a return to work if you are not ready. 

Reflect upon and manage your expectations 

The idea of taking time out for any kind of self-reflection when your emotions are running so high and stress is likely at its peak may seem unthinkable. Yet as much as you may not like it, simply showing up at work in the days following a loved one’s funeral and expecting things to carry on as normal may cause you more harm than good. 

It’s helpful for us to consider how our behaviour might be affected when we are placed in an environment where we must act professionally, be productive and mingle with other people, and manage our expectations accordingly. 

For example, while you may have expected to stay home during the early stages of grief, keeping busy and being at work can actually be a helpful coping mechanism, depending on your personality. If being alone with your thoughts causes you unnecessary distress or upset, perhaps being in an environment with people you like and doing work you enjoy can give you an unexpected sense of relief. 

On the other hand, returning to work could be triggering or upsetting in ways you might not expect. If you have decided against taking leave, it is important to prepare yourself for the fact that you may not be up to interacting with your colleagues in the same way as normal, or working up to your usual standards. Fatigue, loss of concentration and emotional outbursts are all perfectly natural and normal responses to grief, but preparing yourself for this eventuality may lessen the anxiety over “keeping it together” at all times. 

Ultimately, if you are returning to work, expecting the unexpected is the best policy. That might mean feeling less okay than you were anticipating, but it could also mean coping far better than you thought you would. By being honest with yourself and those around you, you can reduce the stress around a return to work, and lighten the emotional burden you might be carrying.

Don’t be distracted by people’s opinions

Of course, this is not to say that the feelings of your co-workers and managers don’t matter in the face of your own struggles. It is important to keep yourself in check, and remember that just because you are experiencing feelings of anger or stress during your grieving process, taking it out on those around you is not only unfair, but may result in consequences for you professionally.

Remember that during the grieving process, it’s likely that everyone around you will have an opinion, even though they are not the ones experiencing the grief themselves. Often, this will come from a place of good intentions. Co-workers may attempt to comfort you and offer unsolicited advice in the hopes that it may make your return to work easier, even though what they are saying makes you unintentionally uncomfortable.

On rare occasions, these opinions can come from a place of judgement, and people can feel entitled to comment on whether or not you are grieving in the “right way”: that you’re looking too happy or too sad, oversharing or even not sharing enough. If this is the case and is impacting your ability to cope at work, don’t hesitate to speak to a manager, an HR advisor, or even to the individual themselves. 

Being mindful of others is important, even when you are grieving, but putting your own best interests first means that you will be taking good care of yourself and at your own pace. Do not feel pressured or guilted by colleagues into performing a version of grief that they feel is appropriate – and don’t feel bad about taking time off if this prospect worries you.

Communicate with your employer 

Communicating with your colleagues is helpful to establish boundaries and make your wishes known, but communicating with your employer is even more vital. It may not be easy approaching your boss during such a difficult time, but they are the ones capable of making sure your work environment is as bearable as possible while you process your grief. 

For example, if your employer is made aware of your personal situation, they may be able to make allowances for you to take more frequent breaks if you feel under stress or pressure; a sort of emotional “time out” during your work day. They may also choose to allocate part of your workload to other people if you feel you need an adjustment period to begin with. 

In some cases – and depending on your industry -your employer may even allow you to work from home, at least on certain days of the week. This would mean you are still occupied with a task, but do not have to face the entire workforce if you do not feel up to it. 

Even if your boss cannot make those allowances for you, having a conversation with them will still benefit you. You’re bound to have days that are worse than others, or moments when you might snap or cry for no reason. In knowing about your grief, your employer is far better prepared to accommodate and deal with this, ensuring that the business is not affected and you are not reprimanded in any way. 

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Managing grief in the workplace can be an emotional minefield. After all, the workplace is an environment in which we spend a considerable amount of time every week. Despite the fact that we may see some of our colleagues more often than our spouses or friends, there is still a professional distance that does not always make emotional matters easy to navigate. 

This, coupled with the toll that grief can take on our mind and body, makes for a challenging transition back to normal everyday life. Take this process at your own pace and do not compare your needs to others. By being mindful of your own needs and figuring out what processes your work has in place to support you, your transition to everyday life can hopefully be as smooth as possible.

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