Are we equipped to support staff, colleagues and peers who are dealing with loss and grief? – Birds on the Blog
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Are we equipped to support staff, colleagues and peers who are dealing with loss and grief?

In workplace settings across the world, each and every day there are members of staff balancing work whilst navigating their way through an experience of loss and grief.

Let’s think about what’s happening out there …

  • A teacher notices as the children from his class are entering the classroom that one of the children is accompanied by a grandparent, which isn’t a usual occurrence. After settling the child at a table, the grandparent approaches the teacher to explain that the child’s father died in a car accident on his way home from work yesterday. The family hasn’t yet told the children and they want to keep their routine normal today. The teacher is left to hold that news and the grandparent walks away.
  •  In an office, a manager is preparing to go to a meeting that he’s already a few minutes late for. One of their team knocks on the door and asks for a quick chat. The manager asks if they can come back later which they agree to do and they walk away. The team member was going to tell his manager that he’s been diagnosed with bowel cancer.
  •  In an online networking meeting, one of the group in a breakout room becomes visibly upset and shares that they are going to have to make some significant changes and perhaps soon give their business up after being diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease. The group falls silent, and the timer shows that there is just 1.36 minutes left before the breakout room will close and all participants return to the main room … who will be the first to say something?
  •  A trainee solicitor is about to go into a meeting with a client who is dealing with a divorce. Her husband had decided to end their marriage suddenly and without warning. Just a few hours prior, this client discovered that her husband had been unfaithful to her on multiple occasions, and she is extremely distressed on arrival for the meeting.
  •  At a hotel, as customers are busy coming and going for their afternoon tea, the waitress notices an elderly woman crying at her table. She is alone and when the waitress brings over her tea, the woman explains that today is her wedding anniversary and she and her husband came here each year as it was their favourite place to stay but he now has advanced dementia. Just last week, the GP had arranged for him to be transferred to a care home so his needs could be met and she is feeling the isolation and loneliness desperately.

This offers us the tiniest snapshot of what people go through each day and, in every walk of life yet, how often are we prepared to respond to and manage the conversations in those instances?

Research tells us that 1 in 3 managers do not feel adequately trained to deal with conversations when team members are dealing with loss and grief. If this is the picture at a senior level, what training are we offering our more junior workforce who have front facing jobs?

All too often, ensuring that we have the skills to respond and support in these situations is something we look to do after something has happened. Of course, we shouldn’t knock the fact that this means people are learning and want to improve but do consider the difference that being prepared would make both to the person sharing the news and the person responding.

So, what are just a few of the things we could do to strengthen our practice?

  • If it is a planned conversation, ensure you have blocked time out before, so you can prep and after, so you don’t make the person feel hurried if they start opening up and the meeting overruns.
  • Ensure even the smallest of teams who have front facing roles have communication skills training on how to respond to those experiencing loss and grief.
  • Understand the difference between empathy and sympathy. Empathy allows us to walk alongside the person and it will soon gain trust; whereas sympathy, whilst coming from a place of good intention can create a hierarchy.Let’s look at that in a little more detail: If we offered an empathetic response to someone telling us that their 32 year marriage has ended it would be “I can’t imagine how you are feeling.” If we offered a sympathetic response, we might say “I am so sorry to hear that” …. The latter is more about telling the person how we feel about their bad news as opposed to finding out how things are for them.
  • If someone is following rituals that align to a culture that you are not familiar with, take the time to find out about that culture, read about it, ask about it, speak to people from that community. This is another way we can demonstrate an empathetic approach to our support.
  • Take time to understand the physical impact of grief. It is so much more than emotions. People can experience symptoms including altered appetite, altered bowel patterns, altered sleep patterns, increase in pre-existing addictive behaviours whilst others will experience a general physical pain that they find difficult to explain and many of us will experience a decreased immunity which will see an increase in coughs, colds, viruses. By noticing the physical impact of grief, we can perhaps better understand how it is affecting the person more widely.

With less than a third of the workforce feeling that their managers have the skills to support them adequately, this is an area that remains poorly addressed and few people realise that bereavement costs the UK economy £23 billion a year, which is a staggering amount.

On top of this, we should also factor in the cost of staff having to take time away from the workplace because they are stressed and not able to cope with how loss and grief impacts them even when they are not personally affected by that loss – the teachers seeing distressed children, the front of house staff watching helplessly as customers share their stories, the manager who feels they have let their team member down, and the list goes on.

Loss and Grief have always been taboo subjects. Meghan O’ Rourke is quoted as saying:

“To mourn is to wonder at the strangeness that grief is not written all over your face in bruised hieroglyphics.

And it’s also to feel, quite powerfully, that you’re not allowed to descend into the deepest fathom of your grief – that to do so would be taboo somehow” 

We often associate loss and grief with a death, but it can take on so many forms. It might be the breakdown of a long-term relationship, it might be loss of a job, it might be a long-term change in physical or mental health, it might be a family member making an international move.

There are so many reasons that we might experience the emotions of loss and grief. Without creating workplace cultures that allow for open conversations with staff skilled to facilitate discussion around this subject area we will continue to see staff retention, job satisfaction and emotional wellness impacted.

So, whatever our problem, whether that be managerial, group leader, those with front-facing roles, now is the time to bring conversations around loss and grief to the forefront and ensure we offer much more consideration to improving our advanced communication skills across settings … what are you going to do today to bring about a change?

About the Author Michelle Smith

Michelle has over 20 years' experience as a registered nurse in Palliative care and Oncology. More recently, Michelle has held Senior positions in well-known Third Sector Organisations Macmillan Cancer Support and Sue Ryder. Michelle also has specialist experience of Community Engagement, Service User Involvement and Peer Support. Michelle is now using her experience and skillset in nursing, coaching, mentoring, debriefing, facilitation and senior leadership to work alongside organisations co-designing and developing solutions to strengthen emotional support in the workplace and enhance workforce retention. Michelle has a network of associates with varied backgrounds including mental health first aiders, counsellors and clinical nurse specialists who support in delivering training that suits each organisation individually.