It’s Mental Health Awareness Week and at BHSF Newhall Medical Practice, we recognise that many employees are dealing with grief which inhibits positive mental health. As awareness of poor mental health increases and the stigma reduces, what can you do to support a grieving colleague?
Sometimes it’s hard to know how to offer support to a grieving colleague. We may be afraid of saying the wrong thing, so we say nothing at all. What should you do or say? What is the correct etiquette in the workplace, and what can you do to ease the pain and transition for your colleague? If the bereaved person’s job involves activities where safety is an issue, they will need support to carry out their job.
Impact of returning to work
Returning to the workplace after the bereavement of a loved one can be stressful. Grief will affect a person and may impact on work in the following ways:
- Physically – feeling tired, lacking energy, finding it hard to eat or sleep, pains and aches.
- Emotionally – feeling sad, guilt, anger, anxiety, relief, loneliness, empty, happiness, numbness and shock.
- Spiritually – trying to find meaning in what happened, ‘Why me?’, ‘What did I do to deserve this?’
- Mentally – finding it hard to concentrate or make decisions, pre-occupied with thoughts of the person who has died.
Everyone’s experience of grief is different, so some of these suggestions may be appropriate and others not. If you’re unsure of how to best support your grieving colleague, the simplest thing to do is ask them to tell you. Just letting them know that you care and wish to help can be comforting.
Helping a grieving colleague
Suggestions of how you can help in the first few days include:
- Contact the employee as soon as possible after their loved one’s death. This contact could be a personal visit, telephone call, sympathy card or flowers.
- Attend the funeral, if appropriate offer your support.
- Ask them how they would like you to help.
Listen with compassion
The most important help you could offer is a willing ear. Allow your colleague to talk and express their grief in whichever way they need. This may include crying, fits of anger, laughing, expressions of guilt or regret. Compassionate listening may include:
- Concentrate your efforts on listening carefully and with compassion
- Look at the person rather than at your hands or away. Survivors often feel they are invisible to others
- Everyone’s experience of grief is unique, so let them grieve their own way. Don’t judge or dispute their responses. Criticising the way they express their grief is hurtful and will make them less likely to share their feelings with you
- If they don’t feel like talking, don’t press. Remember that you are comforting them just by being there.
- Sitting together in silence is helpful too
Talk with care
It is common for people to feel uncomfortable in this situation and therefore tempted to avoid any awkwardness. Acknowledge the person’s loss – even though you might feel uncomfortable and might not know exactly what to say, it is much better to acknowledge your colleague’s loss than to say nothing. This is not to say that you suddenly become a grief counsellor or that work ceases – a simple expression of acknowledgement may be enough.
- Let the bereaved person be your guide – even though you may think you know what they are going through, it is better to check first and allow them to tell you
- Try not to bow to the temptation to switch the subject quickly when the person talks about how badly she feels. No matter how uncomfortable.
- Nothing you can say will eliminate the other person’s grief, so don’t expect everything to be ok just because you have had a talk. All you can do is help soften it for a little while
- Be aware of your tone. In later conversations, you do not have to be continually solemn
Touching base later
Immediately after a death, the person receives a great deal of attention and support. But after a time, maybe a couple of weeks or months, other people move on with their lives. One of the worst things that colleagues do is seem to forget that the person has experienced such a significant loss. It is really important to be supportive for a number of months after a death.
- Continue to take the person to lunch, ask how they are doing, and offer support
- Remember there will be days in the year that will be particularly hard for your friend to bear, such as anniversaries, Christmas and the deceased’s birthday. Be sensitive to these times and offer your support.
- Don’t be surprised at changes in behaviour and sometimes in work performance. People are expected to take three days off for bereavement and then come back to work and perform at maximum potential right away. But grief comes and goes in waves. There are better days and worse days for the person. This is the time to be understanding and lenient. If you supervise this person, ask her what she needs. Is it a lighter schedule for a while? Or a heavier one so she can distract herself? Will she need some flexibility for time off for the bad days, or maybe go home early occasionally? Be understanding and allow the person room to breathe.
Approaches to avoid
Accept that there is nothing you can say to make them feel better about their loss. The key in active listening is not to pass judgment, nor make gratuitous suggestions. Approaches to avoid include:
- Telling them about your grief experience instead of listening to theirs
- Comparing their grief with yours or anyone else’s
- Giving them unsolicited advice about how they can best get over their loss
- Reasoning with them about how they should or shouldn’t feel
Comments to avoid
It’s a natural reaction to want to ease your grieving colleague’s pain. However, well-meaning words that encourage the bereaved to ‘look on the bright side’ can be hurtful. The type of comments that should be avoided include:
- ‘You’ll get married again one day.’
- ‘At least you have your other children.’
- ‘She’s lucky she lived to such a ripe old age.’
- ‘It was God’s will.’
- ‘You can always try for another baby.’
- ‘He’s happy in heaven.’
- ‘Be thankful they’re not in pain anymore.’
- ‘Try to remember the good times.’
- ‘You’ll feel better soon.’
- ‘Time heals all wounds.’
- ‘Count your blessings, you still have a lot to be grateful for.’
- ‘You’ve got to pull yourself together and be strong.’
- Avoid telling someone who has lost a loved one, ‘I know just how you feel.’
- Avoid making a fuss – most bereaved people want to be treated as normally as possible at work and do not want to stand out. Be sensitive and respect their wishes.
- But don’t avoid the bereaved person and act as if nothing has happened – something has happened and it is better to be open about this.
- Don’t expect the person to be back to normal quickly – people never go ‘back to normal’ because normal included the person who has died. In time they adapt to a ‘new normal’.
Work Place Matters
- Find out what support is available for your grieving colleague.
- Does your work have a bereavement policy? What leave are they entitled to?
- What other supports (such as EAP) are there, and how can they be accessed?
- Will flexibility be appropriate or available for your colleague to start back? For example, starting back on a half day towards the end of the week
- Is flexibility in their workload appropriate or an option?
- Would they like you to talk to other colleagues about their loss, and if so, what would they like to be said?
Lack of support at this time can be remembered with hurt for a long time.