Human hands holding, giving heart isolated on wooden background.
July 26, 2023

Grief at work. How to build a grief-informed work environment.

By Amanda Constable

“Give sorrow words. The grief that does not speak whispers the o’er-fraught heart and bids it break.”

― William Shakespeare, Macbeth

I share an office with three supportive and wonderful people. I spend more time with them than I do with my family. They know that if I am quiet for more than five minutes, something is probably happening to me.

Even ten years after my dad’s death, the anniversary of his death and his birthday are two dates I anticipate every year. Around these times, I tend to become reflective, a bit sad, and uncharacteristically quiet. Fortunately, my office mates and I have built a grief-informed environment in our little office space. We speak about grief without stigma or fear. Grief is heard without judgment or criticism. I wish this for every office and every employee.

How do you build this environment?

If you are a griever, “Give sorrow words:”

  • Tell your co-workers you may need extra time to connect or disconnect with them beforehand.
  • Honor your loved one by speaking your grief out loud.
  • Honor yourself by learning to identify (as closely as you can) what you need and ask for that.

Grief is so mighty that an entire workplace can become affected by one person’s loss. This is especially true if it is a recent, traumatic, or unexpected death.

If you are not the griever:

  • Be there.
  • Listen.

That’s all. You don’t have to know what to say. There is no way to fix profound loss or pain. Deep healing and connection can happen when you sit quietly with someone while they cry or when you listen while someone shares their feelings or memories.

It is typical to feel our own grief in the face of someone else’s loss. This can have a ripple effect in the workplace. Phrases like “grief stays at home; work is work” are unrealistic. We are not productive at work when we spend our energy pushing down our grief.

Creating a grief-informed workplace can open communication channels, allowing for kind and compassionate sharing of emotions and stories and the thoughtful and intentional continuation of work. This will be more effective than maintaining a stiff upper lip and plowing our way through our workdays while ignoring our emotions.

If there is a death at the workplace and you are all grieving together, recognize that everyone grieves differently and no one is “doing it wrong.” Consider creating a group experience where sharing is encouraged, and the grieving can be done in a safe and identified “container.” This “in-office grief group” can take several different forms.

  • You can create a formal group with outside grief group facilitators who come in once per week for eight weeks. Here’s a real-life example: An in-office grief group met each Tuesday morning before work for 90 minutes. The group was open to anyone in the office who wanted to grieve the unexpected death of a co-worker. The members said that the group helped them manage their grief emotions, remain productive during work hours, and understand each other’s vastly different grieving styles.
  • In-office grief groups can also be less formal, like book clubs. Choosing a book themed around grief and scheduling a weekly discussion where members can share allows co-workers to discuss what grief is and isn’t for them. They understand what grief may look like for different family cultures and traditions.

Creating this type of environment takes vulnerability, and vulnerability takes courage. Grief almost always requires both. Help create a grief-informed environment by challenging yourself to be the compassionate and nonjudgmental listener you need in your grief.

There are many ways to create support in the workplace. If your workplace needs help dealing with grief, contact WinterSpring, our grief support and education team, at 541-552-0620.

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