When I lost my grandmother last year, I didn’t want to tell anybody at work. I was new to my job at Quartz, about a month into my role, and I felt like I hadn’t proven much of myself yet. I worried that I shouldn’t ask for support because I hadn’t earned it yet. I didn’t want to be the one who asked for undue help, and I didn’t want to be seen as someone whose grief would get in the way of good work.
Luckily for me, my managers couldn’t have been kinder: I was encouraged to take the time I needed to head home, attend services, and process the loss. Thanks to an unlimited time off policy, I wouldn’t have to worry about rushing back to work. I headed home with comfort and confidence, able to honor a grandmother I loved—one who could land a sixty-point word in Scrabble without blinking and loved Jessica Tandy’s charm in Fried Green Tomatoes—and process that we were now without her.
Our mortality rate, as the saying goes, is 100%. And yet I wasn’t alone in feeling hesitancy around sharing my loss. Employees worry about discussing grief at work: One recent study suggests nearly a quarter of workers aren’t comfortable approaching their manager about a loss they experience.
But we should be better by now at talking about loss in the workplace. Shouldn’t we? In just the last few years, we’ve weathered the peak of a pandemic, brought to light an ongoing opioid crisis, and more. We’ve endured loss openly and collectively. So why are having conversations about grief still so difficult?
“We don’t live in a culture that has taught us how to navigate interpersonal grief,” says Breeshia Wade, a loss expert and author of Grieving While Black. “So it makes sense that we aren’t equipped to navigate grief within an institution.” If we want to get better at talking about grief in the workplace, she adds, we need a culture shift.
AIRING OUT LOSS
Overwhelmingly, companies fail to give us the space we need to process loss. Just check these numbers: Grief experts advocate for taking up to 20 days off of work after the loss of a close family member. But most US companies offer just a quarter of that, with the average somewhere between 1 and 5 days. Only 3 states have mandated bereavement leave for employees. And according to one recent report, nearly a quarter of American employees take unpaid time off after a loss.
NO PUSH TO PROCESS
“Employers know how much money and energy they put into employee engagement. And yet too often they ignore one of the biggest opportunities for engagement that results in true work loyalty: supporting employees through loss,” writes David Kessler, a workplace grief specialist and author of Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief.
There’s an illusion, he adds, that people use bereavement leave to address their grief, when in fact, that time is usually used to take care of logistics. “For many people, the real grief comes after the funeral is over,” he adds. “[T]he real grappling with grief happens while they are also trying to go back to work.” Experts agree: We need to clear more places for processing.
“We frequently talk about this idea of disruption,” Wade, the author of Grieving While Black, says. To her, grief is one place where our work cultures should be disrupted.
One way is for managers to use their power to make more space for grieving employees. If they can do that, she says—for example, by lowering workloads, adjusting expectations, or permitting additional leave—they can shift bigger cultures in support of grief.
Wade adds that grief can compound when it meets experiences of marginalization. Grief can be harder and heavier when you’ve lived at the edges—perhaps if you’re in a racial minority, queer, or disabled. Both managers and companies need to better meet those needs. Failing to do so “is like telling someone to put on floaties in a pool that continues to fill with water,” she says.
Wade spoke further with Quartz about why we all need more inclusive cultures for grief. Read the conversation here.
COMING TO TALKS
While workplaces catch up on policies for processing, how do we get better about talking to our colleagues about loss? Asking a grieving teammate “How are you doing?” isn’t the right approach, according to Kessler. In a Quartz workshop last year, he offered better ways to offer support. A few ideas to start:
Skip the brightsiding. While well-intentioned, Kessler says that any statement that begins with at least—like “At least they’re at peace now”—can feel minimizing. Instead, Kessler suggests you say, “That’s heartbreaking; we’re here for you.”
Don’t dismiss their value. When a colleague needs to step away to grieve, they’re sometimes told, “Don’t worry about us, we’ve got your job handled.” But that can telegraph that the person in mourning isn’t essential. Instead, Kessler says, let the teammate know, “We’re going to all work together to cover your work, but no one does it like you.”
Let them use work as a distraction if they wish. Some colleagues may find comfort in keeping busy. With grief, “you’re not meant to stay in the pain 24 hours a day,” Kessler says. “Work [can be] a helpful distraction.”
As for “How are you doing?” Kessler says to add a time element when you ask how a teammate is holding up. Try, instead: How are you doing today? How are you doing right now?
For more of Kessler’s tips for having better conversations, read his suggestions in our recap here.
BLUEPRINTING NEW POLICIES
To find a more enlightened approach to grief on the job, look to how companies are taking on a similar subject: illness at work. For one, this year saw the launch of an initiative to support the weight of working with cancer. Led by Publicis Groupe, the global advertising agency, the Working With Cancer pledge seeks to make workplaces more supportive of people with cancer—a diagnosis people are often hesitant to disclose.
For Publicis’s part, they’re sharing their own commitments, including guaranteeing the job and salary of any employee suffering from cancer for one year and training teammates to provide peer support.
Perhaps that’s the goal: making work a space where we can be open with loss, too—and the assurance that we’ll be met with care when we get there.
MORE STORIES FOR TABOO TOPICS
🫂 Why we need a more inclusive approach to grief at work
💸 The high costs of grief illiteracy
🏃♀️ How to navigate the whole-self workplace
🔢 The five stages of grief don’t tell the whole story of dealing with loss
🤫 The secret to having more meaningful conversations
YOU GOT THE MEMO
Send questions, comments, and advice for talking taboos to email@example.com. This edition of The Memo was written by Gabriela Riccardi and edited by Anna Oakes.