These days, it’s hard not to notice the many faces of grief in the world at large and in the workplace. Whether linked to a shared societal event or a personal loss, the feelings we experience when we lose something or someone we value are intense and pervasive.
But unlike years ago, when grief was an off-limits topic at work, it’s now become a business issue with an underestimated impact. Long before the pandemic claimed more than 1 million lives in the United States, the Society for Human Resource Management estimated U.S. business losses related to grief at more than $75 billion per year.
At the same time, our awareness of collective grief has grown. From 9/11 to Sandy Hook to the murder of George Floyd, such losses hold our attention, hijack our bodies, and change our lives. Simply put, grief has become a larger and even more important management issue.
The neuroscience of grief
From a brain science perspective, grieving is actually a form of learning. University of Arizona Associate Professor of Psychology Mary-Frances O’Connor explains that after we experience something as difficult as, say, the death of a spouse, our brain gets busy trying to sort out how to carry the absence of that person while also trying to work through many habits that now must change. Those of us who’ve lost someone close know what it’s like to pick up the phone to call that person out of habit and then remember we can’t. Our brains eventually learn not to do that, but it takes time and a great deal of discomfort and energy.
At the same time, our brains interpret grief as trauma and handle it with the same fight-or-flight processes that help us survive. This response causes the body to pump stress hormones, including cortisol, into our bloodstream. Normally, we experience temporary spikes of cortisol each morning to get us going, but the hormone abates as the day wears on. When we’re grieving, though, there’s a constant presence of stress hormones increasing our heart rate and blood pressure. Elevated cortisol in people who are grieving has been associated with increased cardiac risk, reduced immune function, and decreased quality of life.
The process of grieving involves several regions of the brain. The limbic system and prefrontal cortex help us regulate emotions, remember things, and organize and carry out tasks. The flood of neurochemicals and hormones released in these regions can cause a constellation of symptoms, including sleep disruptions, appetite changes, anxiety, and exhaustion. As a result, grieving people often experience behavior changes, brain fog, and difficulty concentrating or problem-solving.
But these symptoms do change over time, thanks to neuroplasticity. On a daily basis, the brain creates new connections and retires others in response to the normal stress levels (eustress) that enable us to learn and grow. This lifelong ability to alter neural connections helps us adapt to injury, loss, and other major life changes.
Healing can occur with proper support, ample time, and the right environment. Because we spend so much time at work, it can be a powerful setting to enable or stifle healing. Often, managers and colleagues are unsure how to support grieving employees. Unfortunately, this makes it easier to turn a blind eye to them or to misinterpret performance issues. Below are some practical ways to address grief so you can support employees while they heal.
Review and expand your bereavement leave policies
In the absence of a federal bereavement policy, many employees must rely on their state legislature or employer to provide space and time to grieve. Systemically, this policy gap disproportionately affects the lowest 10% of wage earners in the country, who rarely get time off to grieve.
Even when paid bereavement leave is offered, it can be quite restrictive based on the kinds of relationships deemed important enough to qualify for leave. This can exclude people with nontraditional families or those from cultures that don’t have the same concept of “immediate family.” One alternative is to develop a policy in which the bereaved employee gets to decide whether their loss requires time off.
Make it OK to not be OK
It’s important for managers to model sensitivity and compassion toward loss. When the news serves up a collective tragedy, for example, make the time to bring it up in meetings. Consider sharing your own feelings, and allow time for others to speak freely about theirs. This sets the tone and communicates a routinely caring environment. If you can, extend options for rest or extra breaks for anyone feeling affected by larger world events.
Keep in mind that some losses, when shared, won’t seem like a big deal to you. Maybe your colleague just dropped off her only daughter at college. Telling her to cheer up because at least there’s less laundry to do might be well-intentioned and seem light-hearted, but it could minimize the profound loss your colleague is feeling. Simply listening can help ease the isolation of someone who’s suffering.
For some leaders, addressing grief at work can feel foreign and uncomfortable. But just like other management skills, offering empathy and extending compassion in the workplace can be learned. It can help to spend time reflecting on your own journey with grief and loss. By tuning into yourself, you’re better equipped to tune into others.
While even the most compassionate environment can’t take away loss, employers can do plenty to remove the fear that work and income will soon become an additional problem for grieving workers. This can go a long way toward helping people attend to the impact of their loss and ultimately heal.
Author: Berta Garcia Bustamante