Slowly but surely

5 tips for moving through grief at work

How to navigate grief and set healthy boundaries with coworkers
5 tips for moving through grief at work
Illustration: Mary Long (Shutterstock)
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In March 2020, the personal and the professional crashed into each other overnight. With a lightning-quick transition to remote work for many across the globe, employees scrambled to set up home offices amidst kids, pets, and life—or immediately next to a significant other in a tiny studio apartment.

These drastic changes were accompanied by another feeling—grief. Each of us was grieving. Most of us were grieving the loss of life as we knew it, and many of us were grieving the loss of the lives of family and friends.

While the height of the pandemic was a single (very long) moment, the ups, downs, and traumas of our lives continue. I hope we have fostered greater awareness of the invisible struggles of our friends and colleagues. But although we may have achieved a version of a new normal in our workplaces, the question of how best to support our professional colleagues through difficult times remains.

As a leader, I experienced significant uncertainty and grief while trying to “keep it together” at work. Within 18 months, my husband and I lost 10 family members. I started to feel like I could not catch my breath between the phone calls that notified us that another person we loved was gone. I realized there wasn’t a playbook for managing deep personal challenges and grief professionally. Here are my five tips to guide you as you move through grief in the workplace or help you understand what others may be going through.

When colleagues ask you how you are doing, answer honestly

In my experience, I was so grateful to know that when my colleagues asked how I was doing, they truly meant it. So, identify people you work with who you are sure are concerned about your well-being, and let them know what state of mind you are operating in for that day. Having a safe listening ear will lessen your burden throughout the day.

Recognize that grief can show up in a myriad of ways

Assess and recognize that your energy levels may not be where they usually are. This is a time to give yourself grace. I landed in the emergency room after I could not determine what was depleting my energy. The only symptom I had was that my energy was extremely low. After several tests, the doctor could not find anything wrong. Diagnosis—stress. I know where the stress was coming from. It was not from the demands of work but from the demands of grief. I had not allowed myself enough time just to be. I continued to be a human-doing and not just a human being.

If you have the choice, align yourself with tasks and assignments your energy will allow. Ask your manager to move some things off your plate temporarily that may be too taxing at this particular time of your life and career. This may equate to the amount of work you must do or who you are performing the work for (certain clients).

Ask for the help you need

Start with the company you work for. Inquire with human resources about the benefits that are available to you. These may come in the form of a coach or other employee benefits, like counseling through your Employee Assistance Programs.

If you need help with your daily tasks, share that with your manager if the relationship supports a candid and vulnerable conversation. This conversation can sound like this:

“I want to ensure that I continue to show up with excellence, and not just showing up. To make sure that happens, this is what I need right now.

“Here is what I need to be successful at this particular time.

Weave your experiences into conversations where appropriate

This can help with the healing process when you can verbalize your experience. It can also be the start of healing for someone else who, unbeknownst to you, may be experiencing something similar. I used many coaching sessions—1:1, group, and webinars, to share my personal experiences of grief. It was extremely helpful for many people and is directly related to burnout, thriving in work and life, and others.

Bonus tip for managers: be proactive in showing concern

Some employees won’t feel comfortable initiating this conversation, so managers must check-in. This level of genuine concern can help boost a grieving person’s mood and open the door to empathy and connection. Also, understanding how someone is doing can differ significantly from how they seem to feel. As a coach, I often remind people they must always do their best, but their best is contingent. Humans can only do their best with what they have been given. So, when employees do their best while experiencing grief, they will likely show up differently. This is the perfect time for managers to operate in their emotional intelligence—to be self-aware and other-aware.

We are all vulnerable and intrinsically connected to each other’s health and well-being. In so many ways, it’s impossible—and we shouldn’t be expected—to compartmentalize our lives on demand. Let that inform how we respond to and navigate personal losses in the workplace for ourselves and others.

Robbie Green is head of working parents & caregivers, North America, and executive coach with Talking Talent. Robbie is a certified professional coach with over 25 years of experience guiding her clients through life’s transitions to make the most of their personal and professional lives.