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At some point those who have survived natural disasters, such as the fires currently ravaging eastern Australia,  begin to return to their former jobs. When every other aspect of life is chaotic, returning to work can provide a sense of order, normality and familiarity.  But it’s rarely an easy transition.

“People suffering from significant loss can lack motivation, be easily distracted, be slower at performing tasks and be more accident prone when they return to work,” says Chris Hall, Director of the Australian Centre for Grief and Bereavement.  No wonder, when you consider how grieving drains body and mind.  It’s known to cause ‘brain fog’, which undermines people’s ability to problem-solve and think clearly.  It also weakens the immune system, according to Hall, resulting in more coughs, colds and flare-ups of autoimmune diseases, such as asthma, eczema and arthritis.  Grieving people also experience an enormous, heavy fatigue and have trouble sleeping and eating.  A sense of meaninglessness commonly pervades activities that once seemed so important, such as work.

Exactly how do employees cope with the gruelling experience of grief once they return to work?  And how do organisations respond? These are the questions that Compassionlab, a group of academics based largely in the US, has been investigating since 1998.

“ A compassionate response from the workplace is critically important both for employee well-being and for the organisations in which they work,” says Jacoba Illius, Compassionlab member and Associate Professor of the School of Policy Studies and School of Business, Queen’s University, Canada.  “Employees who experience compassion in the workplace develop a stronger emotional attachment and sense of belonging to their work organisation.

Employees whose loss goes unacknowledged describe a lasting and powerful sense of feeling uncared for that leaves them questioning their loyalty to the organization,” says Illius whose research shows that lack of workplace compassion can lead to the resignation of valued staff.

The Compassionate Employer Recognition Program, an initiative of The Compassionate Friends Inc in the US and Australia, recognises employers who create a supportive workplace for their bereaved employees.  Positive practices that have been recognised include offering unconditional paid leave that does not involve using up sick leave or annual leave, providing funeral leave for the affected worker and any other staff members who want to attend, and contributing to funeral costs.

Many powerful acts of support cost nothing.  These have included co-workers donating some of their annual leave to the bereaved person, a company director offering his holiday house to the affected family for a break, managers granting time off on the anniversary of a staff member’s loss or simply creating a meal roster.

Did You Know?  Those companies that showed the greatest resilience in the wake of the Twin Towers terrorist attack in September, 2001, were found to demonstrate ‘compassionate leadership,’ which involved taking some form of public action, however small, that’s intended to ease people’s pain and inspires others to act as well. Compassionate leadership was rewarded with improved staff retention and loyalty, helping to maintain performance in difficult times. (Source:  Compassionlab’s research published in the Harvard Business Review, 2002.) 

“At the very least workplaces can acknowledge what is going on in some sort of public way,” says Jason Kanov, Compassionlab member and Associate Professor at the College of Business and Economics, Western Washington University. “This communicates that it’s okay and understandable that people may be feeling grief or a sense of loss.  It also reassures co-workers that it’s okay to devote energy to this.”

When it comes to taking action, be guided by the affected person, advises Chris Hall. “People who’ve experienced great loss can feel very disempowered by having major events happen to them.  Empower them by giving them choice about how they would now like to be treated,” says Hall. “Ask the person what his or her needs are. How they would like staff to be told, for example, or what type of support would they most appreciate. People show an enormous diversity of grieving styles, so don’t make any assumptions.”

Julie Dunsmore, bereavement psychologist and President of the National Association for Grief and Loss (NALAG), conducts grief education workshops for organisations.

One of the most common issues she addresses is how to make contact with someone in grief.  Not knowing what to do or say is an uncomfortable ignorance familiar to many.

Acknowledge that there’s been a major loss, rather than avoid the person – this just adds to the bereaved person’s isolation, advises Dunmore.  “Say something simple like, ‘I’m really sad to hear what happened.’  (Not – ‘I know what you feel’ or ‘at least you’re alive’).  Or, ‘I just don’t know what to say, but I want to be here for you.  I’ll come by later if you want to have a walk, or a coffee.’  And don’t be too quick to send a person home if they are struggling. Give the person an out instead, such as ‘We’d really value your contribution to the meeting, but if at any time you feel overwhelmed, just take a break.’  This can help the person feel valued and that they belong which is critical for reintegrating into the workplace.”

Dunsmore encourages reduced, flexible hours during the transition back to work, and where possible bereavement leave that’s much more than the standard two to three days, available over time rather than all up front.  “Grieving is a roller coaster ride, with major dips likely to occur well after the event.  At six to eight weeks, it’s really common for people to feel like they’re hitting the wall and just can’t keep going.  Some people actually leave their job at this point, because they’re worried about not contributing enough.  The eighteen-month mark is also really tough.  People come out of the cocoon that’s been helping them to survive.  They realise – this isn’t a bad dream, it’s my reality.”

So if you are involved in supporting a grieving colleague, think well beyond the first few weeks and months.

Linking workers into employee assistance programs when needed is good practice.  But don’t be too quick to hand the pain of grief over to professionals.  “People show phenomenal resilience even after the most horrific events,” says Hall. “Data gathered following the Twin Towers bombing shows that only 10 to 20 percent of people will need to see a mental health practitioner to help them cope with conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression and flash backs.

What the remaining 80 percent need most is a community of supportive people to help them cope, heal and eventually re-engage with life in a positive way.”


Compassionate Workplace Responses to Bereaved Staff

Allowing additional time off without loss of benefits.

Providing flexible work schedules and assignments.

Allowing leeway in job performance standards.

Fostering an environment of mutual support among co-workers.

Providing professional grief counseling, human resources support, or information regarding self-help bereavement support organizations.

Source: Compassionate Employer Recognition Program


Check your Organisation’s Compassion Capacity

Scope: what is the breadth of resources provided to people in need?

Scale: what is the volume of resources, time and attention that people who are suffering receive?

Speed:  how quickly are resources directed?

Specialisation: how well is support tailored to meet individuals’ needs?

Source: Compassionlab

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