Grief is a universal human experience, yet workplace culture is often inhospitable to people suffering profound loss.
Death is widely considered a taboo subject, but managers need to understand the three phases of mourning and the most helpful response in each, according to an article co-authored by Sally Maitlis, Professor of Organisational Behaviour and Leadership at Saïd Business School, University of Oxford.
The article, published in the July-August 2019 issue of the Harvard Business Review (HBR), highlights how most managers are prepared to celebrate births and birthdays, but when it comes to death, they tend to fall silent and avert their gaze.
As well as highlighting the benefits of managers acknowledging grief at work, the authors describe three phases of mourning, and the best way for a manager to respond during each phase in order to support the grieving member of staff and fulfil their role as a manager.
- The void: Be present in moments of loss
Acknowledging someone’s loss without making demands is the best a manager can do in the immediate aftermath of a death. In general, it is good to let the griever take the lead, ignoring the impulse to 'fix' that drives most managerial actions. Death is unfixable. Instead, managers should be present and support employees by managing the boundary between them and the workplace.
- The absence: Be patient with the inconsistency a loss generates
Even when the return to work has been handled sensitively, managers can’t assume that everything will go back to business as usual. The person in mourning will continue to be in the grip of intense confusion and exhaustion. Grief will destabilise their focus, consistency, and drive. Managers therefore need to be patient with possible inconsistency in energy and performance.
- The new beginning: Be open to its growth potential
There is no timeline for the emergence of hope and resolve after someone has experienced loss. When signs of them appear, however, managers can nurture such feelings through affirmation, and a gentle interest in new meanings that the individual might be making about life and work.