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The risk to business that’s hiding in plain sight.

The biggest risk in business right now is [fill in the blank].”

This headline appeared in an online article by Fortune last fall. It’s a risk that 20 years ago was estimated to cost employers $75 billion and can reasonably be assumed to have exploded in recent years.

Any idea what big risk Fortune was citing? Was it “Quiet Quitting” or maybe the “Great Resignation?” Good guesses but no… even though those terms did generate 4.21 and 6.89 million results in less than a second when plugged into Google.

Rather than offer additional potential answers, I’ll share the full headline now:

“The biggest risk in business right now is grief.”

For me and for many, this headline is personal. But here, I want to share my thoughts on the topic wearing my HR professional ID badge.

Grief is a condition that in Western society is, to use one cliché, generally swept under the rug. To be more specific, societal norms push to keep it hidden. But now, thanks in part to COVID, it’s difficult to sweep it away. Now it’s (hiding) in plain sight, using another cliché).

And it’s that response to grief — not the actual grief itself — that I believe is costing employers billions of dollars.

First, though, let’s look at how an employee’s grief may manifest itself in the workplace[1]:

  • Signs of fatigue; lack of energy.

  • Low morale.

  • Inability to concentrate and/or make decisions.

  • Hyper-focused behavior.

  • Expressing anger.

  • Demonstrating a range of emotions in a short time — for example, tears to anger.

  • Lack of motivation.

  • Depression.

Cumulatively, of course, grief in the workplace can result in increased rates of greater stress within teams and unwanted turnover.

Now let’s look at typical and more supportive responses to grief, in the form of workplace policies as well as behavioral responses.

Workplace policies

Let’s start by considering what would be required of each of us in the event of a loved one’s death. Typically, at a minimum, time off from work is required if for no other reason than to arrange for and/or attend a funeral, sit shiva, or follow other religious or communal traditions. Some of these traditions require immediate action, leaving little time to transition work or make other work-related arrangements. For many, attending these events requires extensive travel. It may also mean substantial and unbudgeted expenses.

Now consider your organization’s bereavement leave policy. Is it 3 days? 5 days? Does it vary depending on the employee’s legal relationship to the deceased? If more time is needed, is the employee allowed (or put another way, required) to take vacation or personal leave?

The reality is that in most instances — other than a loss of friend or relative outside the immediate family — 3 or even 5 days is insufficient in meeting the near-term needs of the griever.

For an employee dealing with the aftermath of their spouse’s death, maintaining a 9-to-5 schedule can be difficult — tasks ranging from canceling credit cards and bank accounts and/or transferring various accounts and services to their name, to shutting down online shopping and social media accounts, to handling the estate process often can only be done M-F, between 9 am and 5 pm (or thereabouts).

Last year, Empathy, a grief and estate support service, published “The Cost of Dying,” a report on both the hard dollar costs to individuals when a loved one dies, as well as the impact on their productivity at work.

According to this report, 78% of grieving family members (including those acting in the role of executors) made at least four calls a week over the course of 13 months, the time it took to handle all the details. The greater the responsibilities, up to and including executor responsibilities, the more phone calls required, with approximately 35% of respondents needing to make seven to 10 calls a week … or 520 calls over the typically required 20-month period.

These responsibilities, combined with the emotional trauma of the loss, frequently impact employee performance. Again, from Empathy’s research:

  • “Nearly half of employed respondents said their job performance was negatively affected by loss: 31% found it hard to focus, and 25% were constantly distracted.”

  • A combined 31% considered quitting and/or were worried that their reputation at work was slipping or were afraid of losing their job.

For those who have experienced multiple losses in a short period of time — something that became more common because of the pandemic and demographics — the impact on productivity is likely greater.

Offering grieving employees the opportunity to flex their work or even a reduced schedule while continuing to receive full pay can benefit both the employer and the employee.

  • The employee benefits from the continuing engagement with colleagues and fulfillment of their job, while also being able to get the rest they need and tasks done… without suffering a financial hardship.

  • Employers, meanwhile, get the continued benefit of the employee’s contributions while helping to support their emotional wellbeing.

Next, think about what support services are available to grieving employees. Is your organization’s “go-to” answer for employees in need of support the Employee Assistance Program (EAP)? If so, do you know whether your EAP offers meaningful support? For example:

  • Are they able to put the employee in touch with available grief counselors? And at what cost to the employee?

  • Does the EAP provide guidance services to help the employee with the practical tasks associated with their loved one’s passing?

  • Can the EAP (or some other service) help the employee find child (or elder) care services if they need help or their deceased loved one had been the primary caregiver?

  • If it was an employee who died, does the EAP provide group or individual counseling to the employee’s colleagues and their manager (who is likely thrust into a new role as an unofficial counselor)?

And speaking of counseling, what support is available to managers with an employee who’s grieving the loss of their loved one? What guidance are they given regarding the company’s policies on bereavement leave and other options and services that may be available to the employee?

This is by no means an exhaustive list of the ways in which workplace practices can be adapted to support grieving employees, but these suggestions are good places to start.

Behavioral responses

One would think that as an “experienced veteran” of grief I’d be skilled in knowing what to say to someone else who’s grieving. But I’m not, at least not in the moment. What I have learned is what not to say and, perhaps most importantly, what actions can help. It’s through my lived experience, combined with lots of reading and research, that I’ve developed the following tips:

First and foremost, refrain from toxic positivity. This article discusses the harm toxic positivity can cause; while it does not address grief, the concepts it covers certainly apply. Phrases like, “s/he’s in a better place now” or “at least s/he’s no longer suffering” are rarely well received by the griever… as are phrases like “someday, you’ll be over this and will be able to move on.”

Don’t ignore the situation. I get it. It’s awkward talking to someone who’s grieving. And, in group settings, no one likes to be the one to cast a pall over the conversation. But not acknowledging someone’s loss hurts more than having someone say the wrong thing. Simply saying “I’m sorry for your loss” really does go a long way.

Do ask someone who is grieving how they’re doing… that day. Asking someone who is grieving “how are you doing (end of question)?” seems like a perfectly fine thing to do. But to the one who is grieving, it’s a huge, hairy, difficult question to answer. But asking them how they’re doing that day is manageable. They can say things like “you know, it’s been a good day today” or “I’m having a tough time today.” This then presents an opportunity for further support. You can follow up by saying, “That’s great! Would you like to share why it’s been a good day?” or “I’m sorry, would you like to tell me about it?”

Do let someone know you’re there for them… and then show up, do something, without being asked. Invite your colleague out for coffee (or set up a virtual coffee break). Offer to help them with a personal task that you know is on their plate. Don’t put the burden on the grieving colleague to figure out how you can help them. And don’t assume your colleague has a personal support system. Many people do, but many do not. For some, their closest friends are the people they work with and in times of grief, they need the support of their colleagues more than ever.

Getting ahead of the issue by building a grief-resilient culture

The term “grief resiliency” was coined by “The Dinner Party, an organization whose platform helps grieving 20-, 30-, and early 40-somethings find peer community and build lasting relationships.

While much focus has been placed on building “resilient cultures” within organizations, particularly since the abrupt and disruptive arrival of COVID, there hasn’t been a focus on building “grief resiliency” within the workplace, despite the abundance of losses people everywhere are going through: Not just losses of loved ones, but job losses (their own or their partner’s), loss of social connection, loss of physical vitality as a result of COVID (or other medical issues), and so much more.

How does an organization go about building grief resiliency? Angeline Thomas is a former public interest attorney turned hospital chaplain, and self-described avid student of grief and resilience. She offers these tips:

Prioritize trust-building before there is a crisis. Of course, this is a good, all-around tip for building a resilient culture. But in the area of grief, specifically, this involves reviewing what support mechanisms you have in place, revising and/or expanding them to be better aligned with employees needs, and creating a culture where personal life milestones, of all types, are acknowledged, celebrated, and/or supported.

Take stock: How grief sensitive is your organization? Thomas cautions against telling employees to “take all the time they need,” but then not following through by taking responsibilities off their plate. High-performing employees in particular can feel caught between two competing needs: the need to grieve and the need to continue doing their job in the same manner they did previously.

Put clear protocols, training, and cultural norms in place to minimize people being unprepared for a loss. This includes such actions as:

  • Training managers on company policies as well as in how to support an employee during this difficult time.

  • Ensuring leadership understands the importance of the organization’s policies and approach in these situations.

  • Making sure each situation is handled in both a flexible yet equitable manner.

Humanize and standardize the way you welcome an employee back. Angeline sums it up well when she wrote “being ‘grief illiterate’ has consequences,” adding “Contrary to our cultural norms, good managers and leaders run towards the pain, not away from it.”

Beyond that, there’s a lot to think through, including some of the considerations I covered previously. You can start, though, by asking the employee what s/he needs and wants, while also offering suggestions if they don’t know how to respond. More often than not, people who are grieving struggle to articulate what they need.

Is this really something employers should get involved in?

Organizations and the people within them routinely speak out and speak up for those coping with various illnesses. Just recently, a new initiative was launched — which I wholeheartedly applaud: the Working with Cancer pledge. As noted on its website, 50% of us will get cancer, so it makes good business sense for organizations to take steps to support employees with a cancer diagnosis.

Yet grief is something 100% of us will experience, guaranteed. That’s why grief-support advocates, such as Angeline, encourage doing the opposite of sweeping grief under the rug. Rather, Angeline’s final tip is to be an advocate inside and outside of your organization.

In 2020, the United States experienced its largest increase in deaths in 100 years, jumping 19% according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The Bureau’s report also stated that “Half of all states and nearly three quarters of all counties experienced more deaths than births — known as natural decrease — in the 2021 estimates year.”

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC), meanwhile, reported that life expectancy in the US. dropped two years in a row (2020 and 2021.

While it’s unlikely that employers have a way to measure the increase in the “grieving population” amongst their workforces, these studies — combined with what we all have experienced, either directly or indirectly — illustrate that a significant increase in grief has taken place, bringing with it increased risk to businesses.

Positively addressing grief in the workplace makes good business sense. It’s also the right thing to do.

[1]; spring health

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