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Grief in the Workplace

workgriefWhen I was moving up through the ranks of the tiny IT world in Saskatchewan I had the opportunity to work for some heavy hitters in the industry at that time: EDS, CGI and IBM to name a few.  Working for the big dogs there was always a common mantra: Always be professional.  Three simple words that are so very complex because “being professional” doesn’t always come naturally and it’s not always common sense.  Professionalism is truly a skill that needs to be learned and I see very few University graduates that come into the industry with any hint that they understand what it means to be professional.  That’s OK because no matter what your degree tells you, when you enter the work place for the first time you really don’t know anything at all… but that’s a topic for a different post.

Part of being a professional, especially as a consultant, you had to have a separation of your personal life and your professional life.  If you’ve got problems outside of the office, they stay outside of the office.  Your clients pay a lot of money for your services and they should get every penny’s worth while you are working.  That’s what I was told and it did make sense.  When I pay for something I expect it to work as advertised all the time otherwise I feel a bit cheated.  That certainly applies to things like electronics or computing hardware but this can never apply to people.

As some of you know, I recently lost my wife and it has been devastating for me.  It’s one of those things that you don’t think about and can’t possibly comprehend until you go through it yourself.  I work for a great company and they were incredibly supportive.  My clients were also very understanding and supportive and as a result I am still employed today.  Other people are not always so lucky.  I had a lot of time away from the office after my wife died and after about a month of not working I started to work a few hours each day from home but I think it was almost two months before I could put in a full work day.  Even then it wasn’t a typical 8 hour day.  I would be awake at 4:00 AM and I would work for an hour or two, then something would distract me and I would be away from the keyboard for a few hours… sometime around midnight I would have had a full 8 hours of work and this cycle would repeat each day slowly getting better as time went on.

I’ve heard tales of companies that allow employees one or two weeks of bereavement leave and anything beyond that they need to apply for short or long term disability.  I can tell you first hand that this practice will do nothing but exacerbate the problem and create even more stress for employees.  Imagine a situation like mine where you have lost the love of your life and you are having to deal with funeral arrangements, life insurance, medical people (organ donor program, the coroner, various doctors and administrators), federal pension paperwork, three separate tax returns, emotionally supporting your children, etc… then your employer tells you, “Hey I know you feel like like you’ve lost pretty much everything and we feel really bad.  We know you have no idea how you’re going to pay all the expenses but we just wanted to let you know that if you’re not back at work in a full capacity by next week you’re not getting paid.”  Really?  In what twisted world does this make any sense at all?  Well, it’s the same world that tells us we need to be professional at all times.

As I said, this is not my situation at all.  I am incredibly fortunate to be associated with a group of people who are not only professional but they are human and compassionate.  They understand the value that I bring to the organization and our clients and even though they may not be able to comprehend what I’m going through they do all that they can to help me get back to full working capacity.  Well over a year and half after my wife’s passing I still struggle every day to focus and be productive.  Some days it’s easier than others but I’m still working to find a new normal in my life.  It isn’t be easy to sort things out and it will take time but with the support of my employer, co-workers and understanding from my clients I have found a way to be productive again while still coping with grief and regaining a life.

Here are a few tips for employers in dealing with employees who are coping with grief:

  • Remember that your employees are a valuable part of your organization but don’t treat them like inventory.  They are people with feelings and even if you can’t understand you need to be aware of that fact.
  • A show of support will earn a respect and loyalty that the can never be matched by a pay increase.  People will have a tendency to remember those who go above and beyond what is expected expecially when their life has been turned upside down.  When your world crashes down around you the people who help you get the pieces back together really stand out.