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The death rate in the United States is holding steady at 100 percent. Nevertheless, the grieving process is the last thing most employees want to talk or even think about.

“It is normal to talk about normal life events in the workplace, such as graduations, vacations, awards or other good news,” says Russell Friedman, executive director of the Grief Recovery Institute in Sherman Oaks, California. “But God forbid if the topic is sad. Then everyone shuts up.”

Employees often must deal with fear along with their grief.

“It’s almost universally unsafe to communicate the degree to which you are distracted by grief at work,” Friedman says. “People are afraid others will accuse them of slacking off or not carrying their weight. They’re afraid they’ll lose their job.”

Grieving in the workplace, if not handled properly, can create a toxic situation.

“You can’t avoid grief and go around it or over it,” he says. “You have to go through it. The time you deal with grief is when you are awake, and that’s when you are at work. Workers can’t park their grief at the office door.”

Bereavement takes a toll on employers as well as workers. “The common denominator of people who grieve is the inability to concentrate,” Friedman says. “Concentration goes up and down like a roller coaster.” 

This lack of concentration can result in lost productivity, poor judgment and accidents. In a pioneering study called the Grief Index, the Grief Recovery Institute surveyed 25,000 grieving workers and concluded that grief associated with the death of a loved one costs U.S. businesses $37.6 billion annually. Among the other findings:

  • Eighty-five percent of management-level decision-makers indicated that their decision-making ranked from “very poor” to “fair” in the weeks or months following the grief incident that affected them.

  • Ninety percent of those in blue-collar and other physical jobs indicated a much higher incidence of physical injuries because of reduced concentration in the weeks or months following the grief incident.

  • When study participants were asked if their reduced ability to concentrate affected them for any period of time beyond any allowed bereavement time, in the case of the death of a loved one, 75 percent indicated that reduced capacity affected them significantly beyond the allowed leave.

  • Asked to estimate the amount of lost days they believe were the direct and immediate result of their reduced focus, 50 percent reported at least 30 lost days in which their value to the company or business was dramatically reduced, and may well have contained significant negative consequences in the form of poor decision making, poor supervisory skills, reduced sales ability and increased workplace accidents and injuries.

  • An additional 20 percent reported being affected for substantially longer than 30 days.

“It is generally acknowledged, and confirmed by our study, that the death of a loved one is the loss event that has the highest probability of affecting people’s ability to function in the workplace,” Friedman says.

“Much of the impact, beyond the apparent response in the time immediately following the death, is masked and then computed in other areas: alcohol and drug abuse; stress, depression and other mental health diagnoses; physical accidents and injuries. The manifestations of grief can and do have long-term implications, which our study participants indicated had comparable long-term, deleterious effect on their function at work.”

An ounce of prevention

The best time to plan for bereavement is before it happens. However, many employees are reluctant to discuss grief and death-related issues.

“Preplanning for funeral and bereavement services is a superb idea,” Friedman says. “However, not everyone in our society is willing to listen to a talk on the subject, because there is so much misinformation and so many people are terrified with by the topic. This means a good HR person will have to use language that encourages people to participate.”

Jeanne McGill, CSA, CPC, owns Midwest Funeral Preplanning Consultants in Minneapolis. She presents seminars to encourage employees to preplan and to walk them through the process. As the baby boom generation ages, she says, it makes sense for them to come to grips with the reality of their own death or that of their parents.

“I have identified 63 decisions that must be made at the time of death,” she says.Death can be a sorrowful, unpredictable and emotional time for everyone. Your family may be grieving at the very moment they are being asked to complete some very difficult tasks on your behalf.

“I always say that a funeral is not a day in a life; it’s a life in a day.”

Although many local funeral homes are willing to speak to employees about preplanning, McGill encourages using someone such as herself, who has no incentive to sell products or services.

“Planning for the end of your life means sharing your life story,” McGill says. “You’re helping your family participate in the celebration of your life without worry or guilt about whether they’re doing the right thing.”

Advanced planning can ease the grieving process when it occurs, Friedman says.

“If someone has a heart attack and you bend down and say, `I’ll take a CPR class and help you tomorrow,’ it does them no good,” he says. “The same is true with grief. If you say, `I’ll figure out what to say and get back to you tomorrow,’ it will be too late.”

HR professionals also should make sure each employee clearly understands the company’s bereavement policy. Friedman encourages putting more thought into the policy than just simply following legal mandates.

“If you break a leg on the job, you get six weeks of time off and reduced responsibilities,” he says. “But if your mother dies, you may get three days of bereavement leave. That’s pretty absurd. Expecting someone to be back at their desk and being productive while they are grieving makes no sense. Lots of businesses now provide one week or longer. Is it enough? I don’t know.”

No two employees grieve in exactly the same way or for the same amount of time, experts caution.

“The No. 1 thing employers and employees need to know is that one size does not fit all,” says Natalee Williams, business office manager, EAP, for Intermountain Healthcare EAPin Salt Lake City. “Everyone grieves in their own way. Employers need to respond to and acknowledge that.”

EAP assistance

One growing trend is to offer grief counseling as an option in employee assistance programs.

“A lot of companies fall into the trap of thinking that because they already provide insurance to employees, why should they pay more to have a grief therapist come in?” Friedman says. “Although counselors are good at what they do, most are not grief experts and don’t have the best information on the topic. Grief is a needle that must be threaded delicately.”

Through its EAP, Intermountain Healthcare offers individual counseling, face-to-face bereavement sessions and onsite support in case of a death.

“It’s a growing thing right now,” Williams says. “Mental health has become much more expensive for employers to offer with their premium, and an EAP can fill a big niche. We are both preventive and reactive, and we offer services to spouses and dependents through age 26.”

Like Friedman, she cautions employers against rushing employees back to work while they are grieving. “We don’t set limits, such as `three visits and you’re done,’” she says. “When employees are ready to come back, they will be happy, healthy and productive.”

Being flexible with bereavement time gives employers intangible rewards, Friedman says. “I have never heard of a griever taking advantage of their boss when they are being treated well.”

Friedman offers a few more simple tips for creating a healthy work environment for grievers:

  • Be human. “What grieving people want and need is to talk about what happened and their relationship with the person it happened to,” he says. “Don’t be a therapist; just be human.”

  • Cut some slack. “People need to have time to get refocused, take a break, take a walk or make a call,” Friedman says.

  • Create a safe place. “Grieving people tend to isolate, because our society isolates them,” Friedman says. “They need to feel they are in a safe environment in which they can share their feelings.”

  • Don’t judge. We all feel like we will be judged,” Friedman says. “We need to create a nonjudgmental environment where people can ease back into the work mode.”

Perhaps the worst thing an employer can do is to do nothing.

“Ignoring grief only makes it worse,” Friedman says. “Acknowledging it and creating a safety zone restores productivity gradually over time. People need time for re-entry into the human atmosphere. Just be human, just be honest, and remember you’re not a therapist.”