Grief is an inevitable, natural part of life. According to the Grief Recovery Institute’s 2003 “Grief Index: The Hidden Annual Costs of Grief in America’s Workplace,” at any given time, one in four employees is grieving. Moreover, the cost of grief in the workplace — in the form of lost productivity, poor performance, and on-the-job errors or accidents — is staggering: some $75 billion, according to the study. The Institute is currently updating the research and estimates that the current number is more than $100 billion.

When employers consider the idea of grief in the workplace, the majority think about the death of a loved one, especially an immediate family member. Yet the reality is that any number of emotionally traumatic events can trigger grief. While the loss of an immediate family member is certainly one such event, there are many more, such as a breakup, separation or divorce; a family or financial crisis; the death of a friend, colleague, extended family member or pet; or a major lifestyle change. Not to mention the historic, cascading crises caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, which, according to Udemy for Business’ “2021 Workplace Learning Trends Report,” have precipitated a nearly 4,000% increase in workers’ demand for virtual training courses that teach anxiety management.

The bottom line? Grief in the workplace is a costly, existential problem that chief executive officers, chief human resources officers and other business leaders must meet head-on. Addressing this issue means more than dotting I’s and crossing T’s on bereavement leave policies. Leaders must create work cultures that consider employees’ grief and emotional well-being as a whole — as human beings with deeper, more complex needs.

Grief Can’t Be Turned off

Employees can’t “turn off” their grief while at work, which means that, regardless of where they may be within the so-called five stages of grief, they’re likely struggling on the job. The question is when leaders should get involved.

Since the nature of grief is personal, too many leaders wait for employees’ performance to decline before taking any steps to help them. For instance, let’s say that Bill, a longtime, valued employee at a major software company, recently learned that his wife has breast cancer. He may not trust his boss enough to share such personal information, let alone ask for help. He may continue to keep this news to himself, even as he struggles to balance the demands of his work with his all-important new priorities at home, from supporting his wife’s arduous treatment schedule to taking on more responsibility with their three school-aged kids — all compounded by his company’s hypercompetitive, high-performing culture, where asking for help is perceived as a sign of weakness or ineptitude.

With Bill’s mounting pressures, he quickly finds himself mentally and emotionally tapped out. He begins to miss meetings, wear his emotions on his sleeve and snap at his teammates. Worse, his usually stellar work is suffering, as he strains to clean up mistakes and meet key deadlines.

When Bill’s boss asks him how he’s doing, he repeatedly says he’s doing fine. But that response doesn’t cut it, and eventually his boss, now at the end of his rope, confronts Bill in no uncertain terms to tell him that this pattern cannot continue. Things don’t improve, however; in fact, as time goes on, they become worse.

Training Leaders for Courage, Compassion and Vulnerability

Dilemmas like this one are preventable, but they require leadership training in three critical skills:

1. Courage

The trailblazing scientist Marie Curie said, “Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood.” Leaders must have the courage to not only ask uncomfortable questions but also listen to and understand the answers. What if Bill had chosen to share his wife’s cancer diagnosis with his boss from the beginning? If he were an effective, courageous leader, his boss would have engaged Bill in an open, honest conversation. He would have asked him how he was feeling and what he and Bill’s teammates could do to support him in balancing his new work/life demands.

Since Bill chose not to open up, what should his boss have done then? Simple: He should have conjured up the courage to have a similar conversation at the first sign of trouble.

Asking safe, superficial questions like, “How are you doing?” or, “Are you doing OK?” is not the same as initiating a genuine conversation (as awkward or “touchy-feely” as it may feel) about an employee’s emotionally traumatic situation.

2. Compassion

Pursuing a conversation with an employee is one thing. Engaging in that conversation with a real sense of compassion is another. Employees won’t be honest with any leader unless they know that the leader comes from a caring place. They need to believe that their leader cares about their well-being as much as his or her own. What’s more, employees can easily sniff out superficialities or ulterior motives and won’t be forthcoming when they do — which will only lead to a vicious cycle of performance issues.

3. Vulnerability

Finally, courage and compassion, as essential as they are, can fall short without a leader’s willingness to be vulnerable. Employees want to see empathy in their boss’ eyes and hear true concern in his or her voice. A tear welling up, when heartfelt, can mean the world. These signs show that a leader is unafraid to show sincere emotion.

Courage. Compassion. Vulnerability. As leaders develop these three important skills, they can help grieving employees excel at work, while minimizing the effects of grief on their company’s bottom line. While it may not be easy, in understanding and dealing with the full spectrum of life’s grief-triggering events, everyone winds up a winner.

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