Support for grieving employees makes a difference
Workplace grief costs U.S. businesses over $75 billion per year in reduced productivity, increased errors and accidents, according to the Wall Street Journal. Yet, how employers react to a worker's loss can make or break how workers feel about their jobs. Experiencing compassion at work can change the way people see the entire organization.
Indeed, many companies don't handle workplace grief all that well. Tears at the office don't always go over. Some managers find it downright disruptive, especially if it drags on for months. Often, like so many other things in a work environment, it boils down to the integrity of the person you work for, your direct boss.
The key, initially, is acknowledging a loss, says Ligia Houben, a certified grief counselor and author of Transform Your Loss. “Managers really shouldn't go on like nothing has happened.'' Yet, a friendly “How are you?'' may inevitably lead to an outpouring of emotions or resentment at the question.
Houben says the better way is to say, “If you need me, I am here for you.'' She believes a positive workplace experience can help. “If the boss and co-workers can show understanding and solidarity, the person will feel in a better place.''
As an employer, a challenge is that individual workers react to loss differently. Some prefer to come to work. Others want to cope with a loss in private.
Claudine Sada, a Creole translator with Miami-Dade County, feels fortunate to have a supportive workplace to go to, rather than sitting home alone crying over the loss of family and friends in Haiti. Initially, a boss may need to reduce an employee's workload. Sada's supervisor temporarily has shifted some of her responsibilities. “They accepted the fact that I couldn't function well.''
Colleagues have been considerate in ways she never could have expected. They have bought her lunch each day. They have given her envelopes of cash to buy medicine to send to sick relatives. County Commissioners have helped her get her nephew from Haiti enrolled in public school in Miami. “They have made me feel like they are my second family,'' says Sada, a 10-year county employee.
Less friendly workplaces may not tolerate time off for funerals. Bereavement leave is not required by the Fair Labor Standards Act or the Family and Medical Leave Act. Many small businesses offer no paid leave.
At least initially, showing concern needs to take precedence over worker productivity, says Miami-Dade County HR director Angela Maher.
“There's a lot of stress in the workforce, everyone is trying to do more with less. It's easy for managers to get caught up in mission and goals of organization and not be as compassionate with employees as they should be''
Creating a compassionate workplace had been on the agenda at Jackson Health System even before the Haiti disaster. In December, Houben, the author and grief counselor, had conducted a seminar at Jackson on coping with workplace grief. The message: encourage communication and let the bereaved express their feelings.
“I'm roaming the halls and giving workers permission to cry,'' said the Rev. Patricia Wilson, director of the Jackson's pastoral care services.
Clearly, outreach and sensitivity during an employee's time of grief set a positive tone for everyone in your workplace. Cruise line giant Royal Caribbean jumped into action when learning of the Haiti disaster; about 200 crew members on its ships are Haitian.
Immediately after the earthquake, Royal Caribbean gave employees phone cards to help them get in touch with family members and it installed Skype on all its ships, said communications director Cynthia Martinez.
It also sent grief counselors onto ships and encouraged phone-in sessions. For crew who wanted to go home to Haiti, the cruise line coordinated travel for them and offered “compassion leave,'' for as long as needed.
Even more, it advanced funds to those who couldn't afford to take time off, Martinez says. “Many of our employees, even those who weren't affected, have told us they are extremely appreciative.''
Send your comments and ideas to Cindy Krischer Goodman at cgoodman @MiamiHerald.com.