Companies need to adopt a human touch when it comes to grief


By handling grief in the workplace properly, companies can save themselves money in terms of productivity and staff turnover, writes PADRAIG O'MORAIN

GRIEF REACHES into the workplace in many ways. The most obvious is the death of a colleague or a colleague’s loved one. Less obvious, perhaps, is redundancy, which can leave workers – both those who go and those who stay – grieving the loss of a familiar world.

Both issues are addressed in Dublin by David Charles-Edwards at a workshop today organised jointly by the Irish Hospice Foundation (IHF) and Ibec and at an IHF workshop tomorrow. Charles-Edwards has consulted in the workplace bereavement field for many years and is the author of Handling Death and Bereavement at Work (Routledge).

The death of a colleague, their partner or a close family member is not something others in the workplace simply shrug off. In one IT department Mary, the 16-month-old toddler of one of the staff, died. The whole department felt traumatised. “Many of them had followed Mary’s progress since she was a baby and she had been in from time to time,” he says.

Joyce, the manager, “felt out of her depth. She hadn’t been trained for this.” She brought in an experienced consultant and “she arranged for staff to meet the consultant in small groups for an hour, so they could share how they felt and what they wanted to achieve in the way they related to Greg [the father] when he came back to work. The consultant also subsequently met Greg, both on his own and with Joyce. They established how best to support him at work, in terms of what he felt he needed from her and his colleagues, and also, just as important, what he didn’t want.”

Most firms, perhaps, would not think of calling in a consultant, but the key point is that death and grief need careful handling in the workplace.

According to the IHF, “approximately one in 10 of the working population is directly affected by a death annually while one in 25 workers is caring for a seriously ill relative”. A significant number of firms report an increase in sick leave after a bereavement, according to an IHF survey.

But not everyone reacts the same way. “For some who are bereaved or indeed terminally ill, work can be a welcome distraction. For others, home may be lonely or an environment where they feel they have to give rather than receive support,” says Charles-Edwards.

That’s all very well from a human point of view, but why should companies care? What has this to do with business?

“At a time of such vulnerability, an unaware or insensitive response from management can be deeply alienating, and slow down the ability to focus on work effectively again,” he argues. “Other staff may also notice and be affected by the quality of care they observe for their colleague at such a time. After all, it might be them next.”

Similar considerations come into play when companies are implementing redundancies. “The start of motivating those who stay is the way you treat those who are leaving,” he says. “You can get a blinkered managerial attitude that you can make some people redundant and that those who remain will be pleased that they’ve survived.”

What this ignores is that those who remain may care about those who go, especially if they have worked together. And they will draw their own conclusion that “if the people who go are treated very badly, then when I’m no longer of interest to them they will treat me like that.” That’s not a recipe for good morale.

Ignoring the emotional side of redundancy and of how it is handled can have devastating results. In one big British company facing privatisation years ago, a new manager called the engineers together and told them bluntly that half of them would be losing their jobs. The distress caused by the brutality of the announcement led one engineer to take his own life within days.

On a less shocking level, the worker who has recently lost a partner, parent or child may find it far tougher than others to face the emotional upset of redundancy. It’s as though we have a set amount of psychological strength which can be sapped by a series of blows, says Charles-Edwards.

He believes line managers are particularly important in handling grief of all kinds at work because it is they who are most likely to be close to the workers affected. Training for managers in dealing with grief is especially beneficial, he argues.

“It makes good business sense to learn the appropriate humane responses to help staff feel valued and supported at difficult times in their lives,” adds IHF training officer Breffni McGuinness. “International research has found that mishandling such situations can have wide and long lasting implications in terms of lost productivity and unnecessary staff turnover.”

The first of David Charles-Edwards’ workshops, organised by the IHF and Ibec, is held today for an invited audience, and the second, organised by the IHF for HR managers, union representatives and those with a supportive role for staff in the workplace, takes place tomorrow morning.

For more information on tomorrow’s workshop, contact Iris Murray at tel: 01-6793188.