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Grief shouldn’t be a taboo subject in the workplace

By Andrew Waddell

Mental health is finally being more openly discussed at work, but grief is often still left out of the conversation. Our chief operating officer, Andrew Waddell, explains why it’s so important we don’t ignore this poignant issue.

It’s often said that there are two universal experiences – that of being born and that of dying. But there is a third that remains largely unacknowledged, especially within the workplace. Grief.

 

Whether it be a partner, parent, sibling or friend, loss and grief don’t always wait until you’ve passed 50 before making their presence felt. Numbers are hard to come by (which speaks volumes in itself), but roughly 22-30% [1]of college undergraduates have lost a significant person in their life in the last 12 months. By the age of 40 I had lost all my grandparents, my father, my aunt, and a good friend of the same age – and I’m not unusual. In the last few years, several younger colleagues have also lost grandparents, parents, and even siblings. And whilst I thankfully don’t have first-hand experience, with around 6,000 children[2] under 18 dying each year in the UK, even this horror isn’t as uncommon as we’d hope. Not that, crucially, there is a league table of grief – no one person’s loss diminishes another’s.

 

Much of our handling of a colleague’s grief focuses on the immediate event, providing time off for funerals and the admin of death. However, whilst the loss happens in an instant, the resulting grief can last and last. Choosing to make its existence known at any time – triggered by a date, a memory, the familiar shape of a stranger’s head on a crowded train, or myriad of unforeseeable situations. All of which can bring the full force of grief, just as strong and disabling as the day the loved one was lost.

 

Considering all this, in an office of 200 people, on any given day there will be a handful of your colleagues trying to conceal their sadness. They could be taking their anger out on someone, or, simply be struggling to engage with their work even though it might be months or years since their loss.

 

Just look around you – do you know who they are? Probably not. Because the truth is that as focused as we are on gaining a better understanding of mental health in the workplace, for some reason grief isn’t often talked about. Whether it’s our own fear of mortality and social awkwardness in the face of tears and pain, or the relentless pace of everyday life – all too often we forget the lasting impact of grief.

 

I’m not proposing a uniform approach to ‘managing’ grief – different individuals will want the situation at work to be handled in different ways. Some may want it communicated to colleagues, others not. I chose to dive into work, leading a pitch only a few weeks after my father’s death (something I now know severely held back my coming to terms with the loss). Others will want time to themselves or time with family and friends.

 

So as more businesses are recognising the importance of openly discussing mental health, I just ask that you make grief part of the conversation. Whether that is talking to bereaved colleagues about how they want to be treated on their return to work. Or broadening the definition of sick leave – to legitimise saying ‘I just can’t be in the office today, I’m struggling with my grief’. I wonder how many 24-hour bugs or sudden migraines coincide with anniversaries of losing people.

 

But my biggest ask is to acknowledge that grief exists in your business right now, so please don’t ignore it.

 

[1] Balk, D. E. “ Death, Bereavement, and College Students” (2008)

[2] Dr Wolfe, Ingrid "Why Children Die" (2014)