Birthday cakes, gift
cards, free lunches, snacks, movie tickets, and other perks are generously
bestowed on employees to celebrate life’s happy moments. This is an improvement from the
industrial approach to management, but can we go deeper for our work-family members? Life’s
darker moments hold the greatest opportunity to exemplify a genuine and caring 21st century
workplace culture. One which fosters empathy and camaraderie. Employee turnover is highest
when employees take leave, claim FMLA, or use PTO. According to Global Studies
, 79% of
employees report their reason for quitting was simply due to feeling unnoticed (lack of
appreciation). Appreciation for your employees is best demonstrated as an act of kindness in
moments that really matter, like the loss of a family member. Acknowledging that someone
great is gone, instead of ignoring the uncomfortable aspects of grief, is a valuable way to embed
empathy into your workplace culture.
Recently, while working with a mid-sized (500+ employees) tech company, I asked what they
were doing to support employees during the negative life moments. The HR Director replied,
“um, nothing really”. Once realizing how crappy that sounded, another executive countered her
by saying he sent an employee a t-shirt and card after a miscarriage. I later learned that the
employee he was referring to had been with the company for over 5 years, so it’s safe to
assume that she had a couple of company swag t-shirts in her collection prior to getting one as
a get well gift.
Even in the largest and most notable companies, where a variety of employee amenities and
benefits are offered, the concept and practice of empathy is often neglected. Perhaps you
haven’t come across such extreme examples of indifference in your workplace, but you may
have participated in signing a generic condolences card or chipping in for some flowers.
|Image via Getty Images / Westend61|
often don’t know what to say or do when a person experiences a loss, so we either stay silent or
we resort to what we have seen everyone else do before us. We go along to get along because
the topic of death and grief is uncomfortable. Uncomfortable, but inevitable. In fact, it sometimes
isn’t until someone in upper management experiences a devastating loss that policies change.
Such was the case with Chief Operating Officer of Facebook, Sheryl Sanberg, who lost her
husband suddenly back in 2015. This prompted Facebook to initiate a bereavement policy
which included up to 20 days of paid leave in the event of a family member’s death.
At most organizations, when an employee is experiencing a negative life event, things usually
play out like this:
Allen is an engineer at a big tech company. Allen leaves work abruptly
because he received some bad news about his mom. Later, he contacts his manager to inform
her that he won’t be in tomorrow because his mom has passed away. The manager utters a
typical and clinched response, “Take all the time you need.” But the manager doesn’t mean it.
Per policy, Allen only has 3 days of paid time off. The manager then immediately spreads the
news to the team via email. The team members subsequently circulate the news all around the
department. However, the most important department that should be alerted of this news,
Human Resources, is unaware that Allen has experienced a traumatic life event. Allen has lost
someone great in his life and no one at work seems to care. Upon Allen's return to work, he
struggles with feelings of confusion and major depression. Allen has become a disengaged
employee who will always remember how his company treated him during this difficult time in
Don’t let this be the experience of your employees. It is actually during times of trauma or
negative life events that an employer can show up for an employee in an innovative way. Even if
your company is unable to offer 20 days of leave, there are other small, but very impactful and
actionable empathy based best practices that support employees processing grief or trauma.
In the words of the great Maya Angelou, “at the end of the day, people won't remember what
you said or did, they will remember how you made them feel.” Your employees will not forget
their feelings being unacknowledged during loss, caregiver stress, illness or burnout . You can
change this by creating better policies and a company culture that directly address the process
Grief at work can show up in many, not so obvious, ways. For some, going back to work could
be a helpful distraction that allows them to cope. For others, they may not feel ready to go back
to work but need to due to career and financial obligations. In both instances, the individuals are
silently suffering and often times put being professional at work above just being human. The
grieving employee may appear to be uninterested in collaborating with others, miss deadlines or
even express unintentional negative emotions towards customers and co-workers. Accept this
and plan for it.
Every traumatic experience is different and every person is different, however, a common
thread in the grieving process is spirituality and religion. In helping companies help grieving
employees in times of loss, and for the healing process that follows, rarely do I see them
honoring the person’s religion or spiritual beliefs. It is understandable that a company might
have to trend a fine line between caring and being too personally invasive. However, nearly 80
percent of Americans say they practice some type of religion or spiritual belief. Empiricalstudies
of many groups dealing with major life stressors such as natural disaster, illness, loss of
loved ones, divorce and serious mental illness show that religion and spirituality are generally
helpful to people in coping. Leading expert in the psychology of religion and spirituality, and
former American Psychological Association Handbook Editor-in-Chief, Dr. Kenneth I.
Pargament, says that there are scientific reasons to be more sensitive to religion and spirituality.
Employers should recognize a persons’ spiritual, cultural and religious beliefs as it relates to
personal life events.
Grief is never over, people move forward with it, not past it. However, it is in management’s
power to adjust workplace policies to help. Make time off for grieving periods more flexible and
based on the situation rather than a standard set of days.
|Image via Getty Images / erhui1979|
Healing from grief may take more
days than a company can reasonable offer, but employees may need the space to ease back
into a full workload schedule. Offer wellness checks even several months after an employee’s
negative life event. Proactively prevent rumors and misinformation in order to protect employee
privacy. Set expectations during on-boarding of the bereavement policy and make sure policies
specific to life events are readily available to minimize confusion with the employee and within
the team during the immediate aftermath. Reevaluate the need for corporate blank policies that
steer clear of honoring the individuals’ beliefs. As a practice, require managers to communicate
with HR immediately after becoming aware of any negative life incident. Create a plan that will
automatically go into motion so the company can offer support.
I’ve gained unique insights from years of partnering with companies to send care kits when
employees need it the most. If your organization or team decides to send a gift, my advice is to
focus on products and resources for healing or positive coping. Helping someone gain a positive
outlook even after a negative life event has been shown to promote better coping skills, reduce
depression, and improve overall physical health. Be mindful that any care packages or gifts
should be sent to the home for employee privacy. Here are some meaningful tools that are
known to help with mental health for people experiencing trauma.
Therapeutic journaling is the process of writing down thoughts and feelings about
personal experiences. Promoting optimism and emotional expression has been found to be
good for mental health and recovery from traumatic life events. A staple wellness tool in our kit
is our Notebook of Positive Aspects. It’s a small journal that allows one to write down their
thoughts and feelings when they are ready.
Small Succulent Plant:
Counterintuitively, sending flowers is not helpful to recipients’
emotional healing process. Plants, on the other hand, are longer lasting, represent life and bring
positive energy. Studies have proven that indoor plants improve concentration, productivity (by
up to 15 percent), reduce stress levels and boost your mood
When someone we know is grieving we often times feel as though the matter is too
serious to encourage laughter or smiling. In many cultures, humor and laughter are used to
remember loved ones. Laughter can be medicine for the soul. Ask questions about the person
who has passed and listen to funny stories if shared. Death can also be a celebration of life.
Open When You Need a Little Strength Envelope:
|Image via Getty Images / FangXiaNuo|
This one is my personal favorite. “Open
When” letters are simple, heartfelt little reminders that can encourage anyone of any age or
background. I have even seen grown adults burst into tears upon reading one. If sending a
personal note, avoid overused words like, “sending my condolences”. Instead, offer thoughtful
words that express your appreciation for who they are or what he or she has done for you and
the company. And because its an envelope, you can include a little trinket. Here’s an example of
a handwritten note:
Dear Allen, Although we all grieve differently, being human is one thing we have in common.
Our trials, our sorrows, and our grieves develop us. We believe in your strength and we send
our hearts to you and your family. Warmly, Your TechCo Family
Social support has a very real effect on our health, including our longevity (Ozbay et. al, 2007
Our physical and mental health generally improves when we feel like part of a community and
declines when we feel isolated. Grief can be isolating for both the griever and co-workers
because people do not know how to respond to the event or connect when the person comes
back to work. Employees don’t always want to leave their company in order to process grief or
trauma, but sometimes they are unable to continue if they hold feelings of being unappreciated,
neglected and unnoticed by their boss or team, compounding their despair. Building a company
culture that supports employees through painful moments in life requires all managers and team
members to follow empathic, situational based policies that support healing. Sometimes our
greatest leadership opportunities are in the last place we look, such as when someone great is
gone, because that’s when we’re called to care for each other as human beings.