Why we need a more inclusive approach to grief at work

Bereavement and loss can trigger feelings of profound marginalization. Here’s why we need to create a more inclusive culture for teammates who are grieving.
No need to be alone.
No need to be alone.
Photo: Mario Tama (Getty Images)
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“I’m searching for memories. I’m collecting the evidence that the Korean half of my identity didn’t die when [my mother] did,” writes Michelle Zauner in Crying in H Mart, her memoir on grappling with the grief of losing her Korean-born mother to cancer. The grief, to Zauner, comes not just from losing her mother, but from losing her connection to her mother’s culture too.

In many ways, our grief intersects with our identity, says Breeshia Wade, a grief expert and the author of Grieving While Black. Loss can compound experiences of marginalization, such as being from an underrepresented racial group, being queer, or being disabled. If we want to better support those who are grieving in our lives, including in our workplaces, identity should be a core component of our considerations.

Our workplaces already struggle to support most employees who have experienced loss—but they can especially fail to hold up people at the margins.

Wade spoke to Quartz about why inclusivity should be central to our conversations around grief at work, and how we can better meet the needs of others who have experienced loss, no matter their background.

Quartz at Work: Why are we still so bad at talking about grief in the workplace? One study suggests nearly a quarter of employees aren’t comfortable approaching their manager about a loss they experience. Why does grief persist as a taboo topic?

Breeshia Wade: We struggle to talk about grief in the workplace because we struggle with our relationship to grief within ourselves. And if we’re struggling with grief within ourselves, of course we replicate that in our actions, and it informs our relationships and the culture around us.

We don’t live in a culture that has taught us how to navigate interpersonal grief. So it makes sense that we aren’t equipped to navigate grief within an institution. Ultimately, workplace culture is an extension of societal culture, which is made up of individuals. So if [we as] individuals are struggling to reconcile our relationship with grief, we set the standard, inevitably, that talking about loss is unacceptable.

When loss compounds other traumas, like the experience of marginalization, the result can be profound. Why is that? How do compounding traumas make the experience of grief different from our traditional notions of loss?

Why do we grieve in the first place? We grieve because we’ve experienced loss, and that loss was significant enough to have a profound impact on our being. The reason that feels so profound in the first place is because we’ve loved. Within love, you have joy, [which is] equally powerful.

The thing about systemic trauma is that it is built on the extraction of joy. Ultimately, [marginalization is a] daily, continuous act of intentionally extracting our experiences of joy and connection and love—with ourselves in terms of feeling safe within our bodies; a sense of pride and self-love based on how we are reflected in the media; and a sense of safety for our loved ones, whom we’re watching navigate the systemic violence that we are experiencing ourselves.

The compounding trauma is really based on the death of joy and love. When there is an additional loss [in your life] like losing an immediate family member, that traditional loss is compounded by all of the other systemic losses that preceded it and will proceed [from] it.

So why should we think about inclusivity when we talk about grief at work?

From an employer’s perspective, what makes someone good at a [job or] skillset stems from who they are. To ask for people to not bring their whole selves into the workplace not only impacts professional outcomes and productivity, it causes a split within the person who is required to only bring half of themselves to the table. In my opinion, it’s a form of institutional violence to expect someone to make that split.

When I think about folks who experience marginalization and are more palpably encountering the reality of impermanence, they’re consistently making that split, and their experience of institutional violence is often greater. Instead of being cut in half, maybe they’re being cut into four or five pieces.

One example is just showing up in an office in a corporate environment, and feeling the need to blend into what it means to be a professional there. The culture itself wasn’t built upon the consideration of African Americans or queer people or disabled people [and other groups at the margins]. For myself in particular, I have locs, and I have friends who had locs in college. But [after college, those friends] chose to cut them off so that they could get a job. That’s another form of splitting, too.

How can we make people feel supported at work to grieve?

By creating an environment of openness and an environment that welcomes people’s best, full selves. When significant losses occur, the culture [shouldn’t] have to shift to compensate. If the culture is already there, then when life happens and when loss is experienced, the workplace is already safe.

People [should get] that invitation to explore their grief. Not everyone is in the position to be able to take the time to grieve and heal amidst their obligations.

It’s up to our broader culture to change. It’s up to institutions to shift the way that they allow employees to navigate grief, inviting individuals to practice self-care. And an organization that limits their ability to do so is like telling someone to put on floaties in a pool that continues to fill with water. You know, the body can only float for so long. We can only work so much to survive, until the only thing we’re doing is barely surviving. The idea of [recovering] feels almost impossible.

With that in mind, how can managers better meet the needs of employees who are grieving?

I want to say, “Be compassionate,” but I want to be more specific about what compassion means. Compassion isn’t a theory. It’s not just a feeling. Compassion is an action.

I understand that managers are bound by company expectations, and I understand that managers are often victims themselves to the institutional culture. At the same time, we frequently talk about this idea of disruption. Everybody wants to disrupt until it’s time to disrupt, right?

[Managers need to take] the agency that they have within the bounds of their institutional power. Perhaps [they’ll choose] to lower the workload or adjust the expectations for that particular grieving employee, or allow for more unofficial time off. While no one can control the whole system, we all play a role. In order to disrupt that system, it’s incumbent upon us to figure out what risks we’re willing to take in order to break the rules.

To read more from Wade on inclusivity in grieving, see more of our conversation in The Memo. This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.