Grief: Addressing the elephant in the office

May 15, 2017

Cake, balloons, a champagne toast. These are just some of the ways we might celebrate a colleague’s birthday, engagement, or pregnancy at the office. But what do we do when a member of the team experiences loss or grief?

Jointly signing a sympathy card or sending flowers might sound familiar. Because of the fear of making our grieving coworker feel uncomfortable or upset when they return to the office, or simply because it’s hard to know what to say, oftentimes this life-changing event is swept under the rug and avoided.  

It’s no easy task to navigate these situations, particularly in the workplace. But there’s an increasing number of resources available to equip managers and teams to support their grieving coworkers. As organizations look to empower employees through the good times and the bad, these measures are becoming more important than ever.  

After the sudden death of her husband, Sheryl Sandberg opened up about her experience with grief, isolation and adjusting to a new normal, option B. It’s the name of her new book with Adam Grant, Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy, that explores how people overcome tragedy and even find happiness once again.  

She’s candidly shared her observations of how friends and colleagues acted towards her after her husband’s death, and the ways in which we can all improve our interactions and gestures towards someone who has experienced loss. She, too, even admitted that, “I have learned that I never really knew what to say to others in need. I think I got this all wrong before.”

In this interview about their work, Sandberg and Grant share some of the helpful findings they encountered, included below. What would you add to the list?  

  • Above all, acknowledge your colleague’s pain. Continue to acknowledge it so they don’t feel alone. Ask “How are you doing today?” versus “How are you doing?”
  • Instead of asking your colleague what they need or what you can do, remove the burden and simply do something! Bring them lunch. Take on part of a project so they don’t feel overwhelmed when they return to work. Invite them to coffee. These simple gestures go such a long, long way.
  • When your colleague returns to work, help them recognize that they can still contribute. Don’t write them off because they’re sick or grieving. While letting a grieving co-worker “off the hook” and not expecting them to contribute may be well-intended, it can also hurt their self-confidence at a time when they’re struggling to get through the day.

In addition to Sandberg and Grant’s insights, here are additional resources that you may find helpful:

  • This post on Modern Loss outlines ways that managers, human resources and co-workers can rally around a team member and help lift them up during a difficult time.
  • On the flip side, this article by Sabina Nawaz shares ways for those experiencing grief to transition back into work after losing someone they love.

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Becky Sennett

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