Working Through Grief
Managing Your Return to Work After Loss
"Getting back to normal" after a devastating loss can't be rushed – and returning to work while still grieving can be a particularly challenging time.
Chances are, you're still processing your emotions and feeling anything but "normal."
If you've suffered a bereavement, or a long-term relationship has come to an end, you'll likely be sad, anxious, angry, frightened, or distracted by countless other thoughts. You may even feel guilty for being back at work.
And, when you do see your colleagues again, some may avoid you for fear of "saying the wrong thing." Others, with the best of intentions, may try to pretend that nothing has changed.
In this article, we look at how grief can impact your work, and we explore strategies for managing this difficult period.
This article outlines how to cope with your own grief in the workplace. To learn how to support one of your people through his or her grief, see our article, How to Manage a Grieving Team Member.
How Grief Affects Your Work
Returning to work can be an effective way to bring some stability back to your life. However, you'll likely still experience a range of emotional, mental and physical symptoms.
According to psychologists Margaret Stroebe and Hank Schut, grief can trigger two responses in those affected:
- Loss-oriented activities and stressors that are directly related to the loss. These include denial, anger, thinking about the loss, and experiencing sadness.
- Restoration-oriented activities that are about adapting to the loss. These include adapting to a new role, managing changes, and connecting with family and friends.
You may flip between these states when you return to work, and this can negatively impact your performance. For example, you could experience:
- Concentration problems, which can lead to mistakes.
- Difficulties controlling your emotions, which can overwhelm your ability to work.
- Overconfidence (feeling you're fine when really you're not), leading to poor decision making.
- Reduced morale and motivation.
How to Manage Your Grief At Work
Managing your grief can help you to feel more in control, and it can also reinforce the idea of work as a reassuring constant at a turbulent time.
Let's look at some ways to get the job done while still being kind to yourself and accepting your need to grieve.
Communicate With Your Manager
Closing yourself off from people and carrying on regardless may sound like a good short-term strategy for working while grieving, but, eventually, strong feelings will break through. So, it can help to let other people know a little about what you're going through.
First, talk to your manager, in whatever way feels right – in person, over the phone, or by email. Let him or her know what has happened and what you need right now – time off to make arrangements and to be with your family, for example.
This will help him to judge how to support you, and to plan for any "compassionate leave" that you might need. Let him know about any important or urgent tasks that need to be completed, or who he can contact to arrange a later completion.
Try to include the date when you think you'll return, who is best placed to do the work, how people can reach you – if you want to be reached – and the circumstances in which they should do so.
Get Support From Colleagues
What and how much you tell your co-workers is your decision, but bear in mind that they can be a welcome source of strength and willing support.
However, some people feel unsure about how to respond to grief, and they'll likely not want to intrude or to upset you by asking how you are. So be honest. Just saying, "I'm not feeling good right now," can show them that you need support.
Our article, Asking For Help, examines approaches you can use for getting the support you need from your boss or colleagues.
Of course, you may not be ready to talk about your loss with other people, however friendly they are. In this case, it's fine to tell them that you simply need to take some annual leave, for instance. And when you return, consider asking a trusted colleague to act as a "go-between," so that you can avoid unwanted conversations in the short-term.
For example, if you're leading a presentation, you could ask her to let attendees know that you appreciate their thoughts but you don't want to discuss personal matters during the session. She can look over your work for a while, too, if you need reassurance that your grief isn't affecting your performance.
It's essential to get the right support. Your colleagues will likely be sympathetic and act with the best of intentions, but they're unlikely to be trained to give you specialized support. Talk to your HR department or a medical professional about accessing appropriate counseling services, if necessary.
Know Your Rights
It is important to allow yourself space to grieve, however tempting it might be to rush back to work. If you don't take leave now, it may be harder to take it later.
Compassionate leave allowances vary around the world.
In the U.S., Oregon is the only state to guarantee paid bereavement leave. Elsewhere, under the Fair Labor Standards Act, organizations don't have to give you paid leave to deal with a loss.
However, most employers will provide some form of compassionate leave for the death of an immediate family member. The period of absence is usually limited to a few days.
In contrast, the U.K.'s Employment Rights Act 1996 gives people the right to "reasonable" unpaid time off for dealing with an emergency involving a dependent, including bereavement.
Ask your HR department what your organization's policy is. Some might go so far as to support you when a more distant relative, or even a neighbor has died, if the relationship is significant (for example, when a grandparent has raised you). But, if there's not much leave available, you could ask about the possibility of working from home.
Concentrate and Organize
Work demands your attention, but grief can take you out of the present moment and steal your focus.
You might find that you forget things, so a To-Do List will be vital. Include everyday tasks that you usually don't need help to remember, including meetings – and getting lunch! Make a detailed checklist for important deadlines, and ask your ally to double-check it.
Use centering and affirmations to help to keep yourself calm, and consider keeping a "distraction diary." Open a file on your desktop or use a notepad, and, every time you feel distracted, jot down a two- or three-word explanation of your thoughts. This can help you to "download" your emotions and worries, and to get back to the task at hand.
Occasionally, use "positive procrastination" – tidy your desk, water the plants, talk to your colleagues – to briefly take the pressure off. This way, you'll return to your tasks refreshed. But take care not to lose momentum altogether – use The Pomodoro Technique to keep you on track.
Find a Sanctuary
Sometimes, work may feel too much. You might be suddenly overwhelmed by your emotions and need to hide away somewhere to process them, and your tears, in private.
Identify some place you can retreat to – before you need it. This could be anywhere from a stairwell on another floor to an empty office, a patch of grass behind your building, or your car. Don't be afraid to use this safe space.
Chances are, you've already faced testing situations at work and overcome them. Grief can feel in a different league, but your resilience can still help you through.
In her 2017 book on work and grief, Option B, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg describes how psychologist Martin Seligman's /community/BookInsights/LearnedOptimism.phpresilience research helped her to recover from her husband's death.
Seligman identified the "three Ps" of grief and other emotional setbacks:
- Personalization: believing that you are to blame for your loss.
- Pervasiveness: believing that grief affects every part of your life.
- Permanence: believing that the aftershocks of your grief will last forever.
Seligman points out that none of these beliefs will endure forever, no matter how powerful they feel right now.
If you're unsure how resilient you are, or what you can do to build this trait, try our self-assessment quiz.
It can help to consider the idea of post-traumatic growth, too. There can be truth in the idea that "what doesn't destroy you, makes you stronger" – at work as much as in the rest of your life. But this understanding will likely take some time to unfold.
Returning to work while still experiencing the emotional and physical effects of grief can be an enormous challenge. But work can also offer some much-needed stability, or a sense of normality.
You can take steps to manage your return that both acknowledge what you're going through and minimize the negative impact on your and your team's performance.
The following steps can ease the process:
- Communicate with your manager.
- Get support from colleagues.
- Know your rights.
- Concentrate and organize.
- Find a sanctuary.
- Develop resilience.
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