When the professional and personal collide: grief and loss in the workplace



The past few months have been a very emotional time for my colleagues and I.

No sooner had a colleague lost a family member, then a well respected and much loved colleague passed away suddenly.

For many of us, shock soon gave way to quiet confusion and grief. At times we would return to normal, only for a trigger to see some of us crash once more.

It has not been easy to navigate between communal and individual grief, let alone do so in a ‘professional’ setting.

How do you, your manager and your team deal with not seeing your colleague – your friend – ever again, after working with them every day for so many years?

What do you say to a colleague who has lost a loved one?

A father?

A daughter?

A son?

How much space do you give, and support do you offer?

How do you show you care in a culturally sensitive way?

Grieving the ‘right’ way

Contrary to popular belief, grief does not occur in rigid, linear ‘stages’ [1]. It is highly personal, and as a result, the responses to grief in the workplace will vary[2].

For some, a sense of ‘normalcy’ at work is paramount. Grief overwhelms and belongs at home. Work becomes a sanctuary from the magnitude of the loss.

For others, overcoming grief is communal. Recognition of pain, hurt and loss by others is part of their healing.

For me, grief hits in waves. Sometimes, the waves are much closer together, and it is difficult to remain on my feet. Before I can let others into my grief, I need time by myself to pause, reflect, breathe, and steady myself, and eventually, I am ready for the next wave that hits.

In my mind, these highly personalised responses call into question the artificial space we, and often the organisations we work for,  create between the ‘professional’ and ‘personal’.

We are encouraged to litter our CVs with exemplary and meticulously crafted professional experiences demonstrating just how employable we are; permitting only facets of ourselves to shine through until much later.

Yet for many of us, it is the personal that transforms us, changes us in ways that the professional can not [3].

Most profoundly, we eschew the professional in our eulogies, turning instead to personal anecdotes imbued with words like ‘compassionate’, ‘full of heart’, ‘genuine’, ‘loving’ to comfort us.

Mentioning my deceased colleague’s organisational, leadership and managerial skills somehow seem so… limiting, diminishing.

Don’t get me wrong. There are very good reasons for some personal/professional divide.

After all, an organisation must exist beyond an individual.

However, equally, an organisation cannot thrive without individuals and all the experiences, professional and personal, that they bring.

In my opinion, the more we lose sight of the individual, the wider the divide we enforce between our professional and personal lives, and the harder it is to be resilient and adapt to change, both at an individual and organisational level.

Organisational response to grief

I am lucky that I work in a large organisation that has a very strong employee assistance programme (EAP).

Soon after we found out about our and our colleague’s loss, the executive team moved quickly to offer services to all employees who wanted and needed it.

For the colleague who lost a family member, the executive kept in touch with them and organised for a counsellor to come and speak to the rest of the team before their return. This provided a chance for the team to explore their own sense of loss and grief, and find ways to support our colleague upon their return. For our colleague, this meant that the team knew without having to be told what they needed, reducing their anxiety and helping ease their transition back into the work environment.

For the colleague we lost, the executive sent a site-wide comms announcing our loss and advising that a commemoration would be held on site. Once again, they organised for counsellors to come on site to help those dealing with the grief of losing their friend.  We are being given time to reflect, grieve and get used to life without them.

While not all organisations can afford an EAP, ultimately, what I have learnt from these experiences is that an organisation’s best response is in everything it has done prior to the grievous event.  

Its existing culture, attitudes, values and mission statement all help determine how successful it will be when grief finds its way into the workplace; i.e. the more an organisation values its staff, the more likely it is to know its staff [4] and be able to tap into existing channels and resources [5] to adapt its response to theirindividual grief. This, coupled with authenticity and empathy at all organisational levels, will go a long way in helping individuals and the organisation as a whole to grieve, heal and ultimately move on.

So regardless of the size of the organisation, and however wide the professional/personal divide, in moments like these, the professional must make way to the personal. 

For as Henri Nouwen says,

When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives means the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares.   




[1] Buglass, E 2010, ‘Grief and bereavement theories’, Nursing Standard, vol. 24, no. 41, pp. 44–47, <http://dx.doi.org/10.7748/ns2010.;,  retrieved 27 October 2015.

[2] Perreault, Y 2011, ABRPO, ‘When grief comes to work: Managing grief and loss in the workplace’, <http://www.catie.ca/sites/default/files/When%20Grief%20Comes%20to%20Work_e.pdf&gt;, retrieved 27 October 2015.

[3] This deserves an article of its own, but to give a more concrete example, the very personal chronic pain I have experienced over the past five years has taught more professionalism than corporate training ever could – I owe my time management, communication, creativity, focus and resilience to this experience.

[4] The following article points to a number of benefits from ‘knowing’ your staff: Claremont EAP 2014, ‘Getting to know your staff’, Wellness Library Health Ink and Vitality Communications, April – June 2014, <http://www.claremonteap.com/images/newsletters/2014_Q2_manager.pdf&gt;, retrieved 27 October 2015.

[5] There are many excellent free online resources that deal with grief in the workplace. See [2] and also Bowes, B 2011,  Legacy Bowes Group, ‘Workplace grief: Prepare to help staff, customers after death of a colleague’, 30 October 2011, <http://www.legacybowes.com/latest-blog-posts/entry/workplace-grief-prepare-to-help-staff-customers-after-death-of-a-colleague.html#sthash.l3ryuvSX.dpuf&gt;, retrieved 27 October 2015.



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