CAL MARITIMEHow to Cope with Loss, Grief, Death & Dying - Professionally & Personally
© 2002 Kirsti A. Dyer, MD, MS All Rights Reserved. E-mail: email@example.com
The California Maritime Academy - CSUM California State University, Maritime
SOC 210. Dying: The Final Stage of Living February 7, 2002
Introduction - Grief
& Loss in the Workplace
Grief and loss occurs both at work and home, but these two realms can be difficult to separate. Serious illness and death in the family commonly affect a person’s workplace performance. Typically, the grief response results from a personal crisis—divorce, fire, work- related or auto accident; sudden death—heart attack, stroke, suicide, accident, homicide; chronic or terminal health problems, or job termination—layoff, or dismissal.
Each person’s experience of loss and each grief response is unique. However there are some common feelings and symptoms often experienced by the grieving. These include: sadness, betrayal, anxiety, fear, mistrust, irritability, guilt, anger, tension, depression, and loss of confidence. Grieving people often develop physical symptoms such as abdominal pain, headaches, insomnia, fatigue, changes in appetite, increased drug or alcohol use, restlessness, absentmindedness, and poor concentration. These emotions and symptoms of grief response can significantly impact a person’s ability to function.
Thus, grief can upset workers and hamper the work environment. Unfortunately, most businesses cannot afford to halt production, sales or services to accommodate the grief response. Instead they continue on in the mode of "business as usual."
When an employee experiences
a loss or an illness their ability to deal with the grieving process can
become even more prolonged if the person does not feel aided by his/her
manager, supervisor or employer. Those who feel cared for and supported
are more likely to have improved recovery.
Death in the Workplace
People go to work expecting things to be business as usual. At the end of the day, they go home to their families. The last thing anyone expects is for a co-worker to die in the workplace, either from natural causes, or as a result of a tragic event.
When a death occurs in the workplace, the normally orderly environment can quickly turn to one of chaos. If the death occurred as a result of an industrial incident, fire, murder, or similar tragic incident, workers have to deal with additional concerns in addition to the shock, the death of a coworker and the loss of safety in the work environment. Workers and management may be concerned about how and why the incident occurred and what sort of steps are being taken to ensure that another accident will not happen and/or the security is being increased to protect them from future acts of violence. Death in the workplace may result in feelings of anger, guilt, unease, fears for personal safety plus the pervasive need for someone or something to blame.
Workers who witness a fatal accident should consult with their employer to determine what arrangements the employer may have in place for conducting an immediate critical incident debriefing or short-term counseling services.
After a death in the workplace,
some families who have lost loved ones at work, may wish to see the site
of the death or offer thanks to co-workers who helped their loved one.
Similarly, having direct contact with the family may be helpful for some
workers. Others may avoid contact with their co-workers family due to the
painful memories it may cause. In addition the family will likely appreciate
the management contact them promptly. Management should also be available
to answer any questions, or to give help to the family, particularly in
the early days following the death.
Coping in the Workplace with Significant Loss
Management and co-workers may not appreciate the hardship that grief can cause, particularly in the workplace. The grieving worker may find it helpful to send a letter to their workplace informing their supervisors of the loss and allowing them to pass the information on to colleagues. In doing this the bereaved can let people know what is happening and avoid having to tell and retell the story of their loss over and over again everyone in the office.
A death of a family member or close relative occurs and workers are given a few days to two week off at the most for "bereavement leave" to deal with the immediate issues surrounding the funeral. This may not be sufficient time to make funeral arrangements or for the bereaved person to begin to process the grief. The worker is expected to return to work with the grief still fresh. There is also the implicit, societal expectation that after two weeks one should be "over it" and back to normal.
In contrast, another major loss occurs such as the diagnosis of a major medical condition, the breakup of a long-standing relationship, the death of a friend, or the loss of a cherished pet, but these losses do not meet the criteria for bereavement leave. Thus no time (other than "personal days") is available to take off. People are expected to show up keep functioning—business as usual. There is no time to grieve.
What To Do if You Suffer a Significant Loss:
Benefits of returning to work
For some people returning to the workplace is an overwhelming burden on them in addition to their grief. They may need extra time off. Once back at work, some workers experience reduced work performance caused by:
Furthermore, grieving workers may also worry they have or will develop a reputation for wasting time, taking too much sick leave, being bad tempered, unreliable, unstable or receiving special treatment.
Grieving workers often worry
that they will lose their job from reduced work performance or because
of extra time taken from work. They may be tempted to resign for fear of
failure or to reduce the dual stressors of work and bereavement following
Guidelines for Dealing with Co-workers & Grief
Acknowledge the coworker's grief. Let them know you recognize the magnitude of their loss. However, rather than worrying about finding the best words to use, it is much more important to connect with the grieving person. A sincere expression of sympathy, "I'm sorry for your loss," will let them know you care.
Many people are uncomfortable with public displays of emotions. displaying their emotions publicly and may furthermore feel uncomfortable responding to other’s public emotions especially feelings of grief. Those who find tears or expressions of strong emotions unsettling instinctively avoid a grieving coworker; this avoidance makes the coworker feel even more isolated in their loss. One way of handling the coworker whom recently experienced a loss is to write a note or send flowers expressing sympathy rather than sharing the sympathy face-to-face in a conversation at the office.
It is also important to listen to the grieving coworker. Listening requires a little more emotional energy, but it can be very valuable to the bereaved. Each time the person has a chance to tell the story, the loss becomes more real. In addition he/she gains a bit more perspective, which ultimately helps to lessen the stress of the loss.
When Co-workers Experience a Personal Loss:
Workplace Specific Changes
Many times, significant life or work changes contain elements of loss that can be overwhelming and very devastating. Events specific to the workplace include downsizing, reduction-in-force, layoffs, mergers and promotions; these can all potentially produce grief-like responses as workers adjust to the change. The lives of the survivors and the victims of work changes will be transformed.
The victims of work changes must cope with social, interpersonal, and financial adjustments. Those who remain must deal with changes in supervision and reporting lines, loss of co-workers, additional or redesigned work, and uncertainty of their role and value to the company. All of these issues can heighten the sense of loss. Both groups have encountered changes that will forever change their lives, causing them to go through transitions. Workers often feel that the change "happened to them," rather than being their choice or something that was within their control. How people react frequently depends on the individual, their previous work and personal experiences along with their history of past losses. Most worker's reactions to the workplace event will be more about the secondarily associated losses than about the actual change itself.
Ways of Coping with Downsizing or Restructuring
See Part 2 for Guidelines for Managers and Supervisors
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