By Lyndie Dawson-Clarke, Business Growth Manager, Total Group
One of the most difficult things as a manager is knowing how far to wade in when having conversations with work colleagues about personal matters. Often managers feel uncomfortable that they have overstepped the mark, some are not sure if they are legally allowed to ask or say certain things, and so many simply ignore or avoid having difficult conversation for fear that things will get excruciatingly emotional. “Best not to go there” becomes the motto. But what if someone is clearly in emotional pain? And specifically, what if they are deeply steeped in grief? After all, they are not just an employee or a colleague, they are a human being
Based on my own experience as a manager, an employer and an employee, and as someone who has been almost paralysed by grief, I am compelled to share what to say, what not to say, and how to best support someone in the workplace who is grieving.
In September 2015 my world changed forever when I received a call telling me my beautiful 24 year old son, a central cog in my little family had gone. My whole world went into a tail spin and it has only recently slowed to a place where I can think clearly and take my experience and learnings to help others..
Grief comes in all shapes and sizes; basically grief is loss. It happens to us all but to varying degrees. Think about where loss has affected you – the loss of a marriage, divorce, a relationship within the family, a family pet … it is a loss where emotions are involved. Grief affects every person differently and people will respond uniquely. I remember being told that you grieve as much as you loved. So in my case, I grieved heavily. I grieved for the dreams I had for my boy, for his heart, for his amazing conversations and stories that he would share with me from all around the world, and I grieved for the woman I once was before the emotional earthquake that left a massive crack in my heart.
A grieving person turns up at work because somewhere deep down they need to find out if they can ever be a functioning member of society again. Often people don’t have the financial capability to grieve at home, so they grieve silently in a stressful corporate environment – while they may be emotionally adrift, working keeps their house afloat. Warning bells: others can read this as ‘business as usual.’ Indeed, I returned to work, probably sooner than I should have. How in the world did I think that I would be able to function with clarity, handle the pressures of change management, and learn a new industry with grief in tow? I was a Senior Manager responsible for a large team and a significant portfolio. I sat at my desk with a massive issue on my hands thinking “in the big picture this is irrelevant.” It was hard for me to even imagine that for the company and my team it was very relevant. I pretended to care.
People froze when they saw me. A work collegaue who had never had children said “At some point Lyndie you will have to build a bridge and get over it.” He was intent on continuing with the organisation’s restucture plans and asked me “to justify my role.” Hello? I was still trying to justify my life! Comments like this sent me to the ladies toilets to cry my eyes out.
For most people who did acknowledge my devastating loss, their way of dealing with it was to talk about themselves: “Oh I know how you must feel, I lost my …… and I have never got over it.” But no one’s experience around grief is the same; it is different in every situation. Talking about their grief silenced mine. Back I went to the ladies’ loos.
As I tried to re-enter normality, I stepped up networking and social functions, only to experience people avoiding me or shuffling away quickly, leaving me on my own. Grief can inadvertently turn you into a social pariah.
On reflection, I realised that most of us are ill-prepared as Managers when grief comes to be part of one of our team’s existence. So this post is to share my top ten tips regarding what you can you do if someone in your team is suffering yet wants or thinks they need to be at work.
- First and foremost, respectfully acknowledge the loss. You don’t have to say too much, but just acknowledge the situation.
- Say the name of the person who has died, or has left the marriage, or the name of the animal that meant so much to them etc
- If you don’t know what to say, say “I don’t know what to say….” the grieving person will still continue the conversation for you.
- Ask questions rather than talk at them about your own experiences.
- Be of service to them. Rather than “how are you?”, try “what would make it easier for you here?” or “how could I help you?”
- Don’t send them home because you don’t know what to do. Probably, neither do they, and there is a risk that they may put themselves in a dangerous position going home.
- Check in with what support networks they have at home.
- Don’t change their job, just relax your expectations regarding their productivity for a while. Grief is exhausting; it affects memory retention and plays havoc with sleep.
- Don’t expect them to take too much time off if they don’t have the money to support themselves. (For me, I still had my mortgage to pay, and the bills to meet, and a daughter to support. As a solo parent I could not afford to take time off.)
- And later on down the track, don’t forget about it. Because they sure won’t have. Keep checking in, and be genuinely interested in how they are coping.
It is now 2 years since my world changed, and incredibly I actually have moments of sunshine in my life again. I can even reflect back on who I was as a Manager before my loss. How would I have been if it had happened to a work colleague? Well, to be honest, while I would have instantly felt sorry for them, and while I would have expressed how sorry I was, I would also be thinking about the loss of sales and the distraction that grief brings to the business. In other words, sadly, I would have turned it into being about me. Hence, while I have been broken, I am now a better, more empathetic manager for it.
There is a practice in Japan called kintsugi where broken objects are repaired with gold; repairing the breakages makes the object more valuable. It is a metaphor about the essence of resilience in that traumatic events allow people to learn and grow, and become even more precious and unique.
To my son Matthew – thank you for helping me grow everyday. I hope others can learn from our experience.
Lyndie Dawson-Clarke, Business Growth Manager, Total Group