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Grieving employees will tell you: Death is still a taboo subject

June 29, 2009
by Ann Borders
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“After three weeks back on the job, it was as if it had never happened.”

Such were the words of an employee who had recently returned to work after suffering the loss of a loved one. It’s an observation that I’ve heard from staff and colleagues virtually every time I’ve asked them about it. It seems that, although people certainly care about their employees and colleagues during times of bereavement, most employers and co-workers simply don’t know what to do. So, once the flowers have been sent and the warm welcome back is out of the way, things settle down to normal for everyone—except for the grieving employee. Yes, even in behavioral health!

Bonnie Greenberg, EAP consultant at GatewayRehabilitationCenter, notes, “Most people in our society are very misinformed about the signs of grief and how all-consuming and debilitating it can be.”

In 2004, The HR Specialist cited findings from a study of newly bereaved employees:

Ø 90 percent said that they experienced difficulty concentrating at work

Ø 85% said their workplace decision-making ability had suffered

Ø 90 percent in physical jobs reported a higher incidence of on-the-job injuries

Ø 80 percent characterized their interactions with co-workers right after the loss as “fair” or “poor”

Gregorio Billikopf Encina, a Labor Management Farm Advisor with the University of California reports survey findings that show the least amount of support came after the initial period of mourning. “Employees who found little or no support in the workplace (or from those whom they expected to receive help) were deeply hurt, even several years after the loss of a loved one. ‘No one asked how I was, no one cared,’ wrote one. Another said, ‘One person totally ignored me and I had worked with her fifteen years.’ Several commented that people pretended that nothing had ever happened.”

And, I suppose, if it has to be about money, the Grief Recovery Institute estimates that employees’ grief costs US companies $37.5 billion a year in lost productivity. But few of us look at it that way. We care about our employees and want to do the right thing. What the right thing looks like, though, can be rather amorphous.

The Washington State Employee Assistance Program offers these suggestions:

The role of the manager

~~Grief is an important and necessary process for your impacted employee(s), and recovery takes time. Telling an employee to “snap out of it” will not return an employee to a productive life and is not conducive to a comfortable and productive work force.

~~Grief work is hard work and is lonely work, and you, as the manager, cannot make it “go away.” Your job as a manager is not to “manage the grief” but to create an environment where work can progress as your employees move through the grief process.

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Great post, Ann. Death and taxes are inevitable, but we certainly have difficulty dealing with the former when it happens to co-workers. Ironic that even BH workplaces have this problem, but perhaps they can become leaders in handling it better.

Thank your for your important piece. It seems that in our youth oriented culture, no one wants to touch the subject for fear it will happen to them. As a new employee in health care , I was surprised when my manager, a physician made no mention of my mother's death. Talking about the loved one is such an important part of the grieving process and at work there is no place to put those feelings. I appreciate learning that my difficulties are shared by so many others. It feels comforting to know that I'm not alone in my grief.

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Ann Borders

President and CEO, Cummins Behavioral Health Systems, Inc

http://cumminsbhs.org/

Ann Borders is president and CEO of Cummins Behavioral Health Systems, Inc., serving eight...