Grief shouldn't be a taboo subject in the workplace

We owe it to each other to create an environment in which we can talk about loss.

It’s often said that there are two universal experiences – that of being born and that of dying. But there is a third that remains largely unacknowledged, especially within the workplace: grief.

Whether it be a partner, parent, sibling or friend, loss and grief don’t always wait until you’ve passed 50 before making their presence felt.

Numbers are hard to come by (which speaks volumes in itself), but according to one study roughly a quarter of US college undergraduates have lost a significant person in their life in the past 12 months. By the age of 40, I had lost all my grandparents, my father, my aunt and a good friend of the same age – and I’m not unusual.

In the past few years, several younger colleagues have also lost grandparents, parents and even siblings. And while I thankfully don’t have first-hand experience, with around 6,000 children under 18 dying each year in the UK, even this horror isn’t as uncommon as we’d hope. Not that there is a league table of grief – no one person’s loss diminishes another’s.

Much of our handling of a colleague’s grief focuses on the immediate event, providing time off for funerals and the admin of death. However, while the loss happens in an instant, the resulting grief can last and last.

It can make its existence known at any time – triggered by a date, a memory, the familiar shape of a stranger’s head on a crowded train or a myriad of unforseen situations. All of which can bring the full force of grief, just as strong and disabling as the day the loved one was lost.

Considering all this, in an office of 200 people, on any given day the chances are there will be a handful of your colleagues trying to conceal their sadness. They could be taking their anger out on someone, or simply be struggling to engage with their work, even though it might be months or years since their loss.

Just look around you – do you know who they are? Probably not. Because the truth is that, as focused as we are on gaining a better understanding of mental health in the workplace, for some reason grief isn’t often talked about.

Whether it’s our own fear of mortality and social awkwardness in the face of tears and pain, or the relentless pace of everyday life – all too often, we forget the lasting impact of grief.

I’m not proposing a uniform approach to "managing" grief – different individuals will want the situation at work to be handled in different ways. Some may want it communicated to colleagues; others not. I chose to dive into work, leading a pitch only a few weeks after my father’s death (something I now know severely held back my coming to terms with the loss). Others will want time to themselves or time with family and friends.

So what’s my ask of you this Mental Health Awareness Week? To actively make grief an open conversation in your business. Whether that is asking bereaved colleagues how they want to be treated on their return to work or broadening the definition of sick leave, to legitimise saying: "I just can’t be in the office today, I’m struggling with my grief." I wonder how many 24-hour bugs or sudden migraines coincide with anniversaries of losing people.

But my biggest ask is to acknowledge that grief exists in your business right now, so please don’t ignore it.

Andrew Waddell is chief operating officer at Proximity London

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