Navigating Grief in the Post-Pandemic Workplace
COVID-19 has led to nearly 1 million deaths in the U.S. in the last two years. And the ripple effect of that devastating number has been considerable.
The unexpected loss of a spouse, family member or friend has repercussions as people work their way through the mourning process. Despite what many people think, there’s no ‘normal’ time period for coming to grips with that grief, and sometimes grief will come roaring back when you think you’ve moved on.
Researchers estimate that each COVID victim leaves behind 8.9 close relatives. That’s nearly 9 million experiencing bereavement to date. Even looking beyond young children, it’s a staggering number.
It’s a figure that’s also presenting a challenge for some business owners. Many companies are experiencing productivity declines, falling employee engagement and lower retention rates as people work through their grief – and companies that don’t have a compassionate work culture are seeing more pronounced effects.
“Grief is more prevalent in a person’s experience than we recognized before,” says Maria Sirois, a licensed clinical psychologist and author of A Short Course in Happiness After Loss (and Other Dark, Difficult Times). “It impacts energy levels and people’s capacity to think clearly.”
Grief can accelerate the march to burnout, which is frequently cited as one of the top reasons for the Great Resignation. One way that companies can help prevent this is to have an ongoing system in place that lets people navigate their grief.
A key step? Encourage team leaders to do periodic check-ins with people who are coping with the loss of a loved one. That not only makes the grieving person feel less alone, it’s an opportunity to remind them that the people around them are aware their life has changed, often dramatically.
“Some of the most impactful leaders are the ones who say ‘I’ve struggled too,’” says Sirois. “’I’ve felt this loss and it was hard for me to have things lined up or to talk about. It’s not about exposing everything (emotionally). It’s about connecting.”
Grief is often expressed in different ways. One person who’s overwhelmed by the death of a loved one could be anxious or agitated. Another person might experience extreme fatigue. Others could feel overwhelmingly sad or defeated. And some people will return to work quickly seemingly fine, only to experience the core features of grief a month or more later.
The best companies, says Sirois, are ones that create opportunities for teams to gather, especially when the person who has passed away is a well-liked coworker. Acknowledging grief can actually take away some of its sting. Sirois suggests that in quarterly or annual wrap-up notes to the staff, it’s good to acknowledge shared experiences of grief that have been part of the company’s journey over that time period.
Those mentions demonstrate that the emotions that accompany loss aren’t something that have to be hidden away or dealt with in a vacuum.
It’s also wise to have policies in place that enable anyone struggling with grief or any mental health issue to receive help or treatment.
Companies certainly had plenty of time to prepare for this bereavement tsunami among workers. Two years ago, the Journal of the American Psychiatric Association published a paper noting the long-term psychological effects of the pandemic, citing a variety of reasons, including grief. Employers, at the time, were encouraged to increase access to mental health options such as therapy, encouraging employees to take advantage of them and removing any stigma.
And in many ways, that’s more important than ever.
“One of the interesting things about the pandemic is the curtain did get pulled back about how much we carry as human beings,” says Sirois. “It showed how much we have to manage; how much we have to hold onto as we navigate work demands.”
The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.