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The Death and Dying Series Part Two: Grief in the American Workplace

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Can you imagine "getting over" the death of someone you love deeply in four days? That's the average paid leave given by American businesses according to "Grief Index: The 'Hidden' Annual Costs of Grief in America's Workplace." The truth is there is no "getting over" the death of a loved one in either our business or private life. Rather, it takes time for us to find a new normalcy and to restore our ability to function effectively.

Grief can take its toll in all areas of our lives. In terms of the workplace, "Grief Index" provides an eye-opening perspective on the mental, emotional and financial costs of grief incurred by American businesses. It estimates that one in four employees is grieving at any given time. Defining grief as "the normal and natural emotional reaction to the change or end in any familiar pattern of behavior," the study estimates an average annual cost in lost productivity, lost business and poor performance of more than $75 billion for all grief-inducing experiences. $46.9 billion is attributed to the death of a family member, colleague, friend, or animal companion alone.

Consider the following findings from the "Grief Index" study. Among the 25,000 participants:

  • 85 percent of management-level decision makers indicated that their decision-making ranked from "very poor" to "fair" in the weeks or months following the grief incident that affected them.
  • 90 percent of those in blue collar and other physical jobs indicated a much higher incidence of physical injuries due to reduced concentration in the weeks or months following the grief incident [compared to their ability to concentrate prior to the major loss].
  • When study participants were asked if their reduced ability to concentrate affected them for any period of time beyond any allowed bereavement time, in the case of the death of a loved one, 75 percent indicated that reduced capacity affected them significantly beyond the allowed leave.
  • Asked to estimate the amount of lost days they believe were the direct and immediate result of their reduced focus, 50 percent reported at least 30 lost days in which their value to the company or business was dramatically reduced, and may well have contained significant negative consequences in the form of poor decision making, poor supervisory skills, reduced sales ability and increased workplace accidents and injuries. An additional 20 percent reported being affected for substantially longer than 30 days.

In these stressful financial times, it can be challenging for a grieving employee to acknowledge their vulnerability and loss for fear of losing their job. Yet the denial of our grief in order to carry on as expected is far more dangerous than acknowledging that grief is typically a devastating experience that is best healed with time, compassion and reduced expectations of productivity. When we suppress our grief, it expresses itself in other ways such as depression, anger, addiction, substance abuse and physical illness. Consider a very dear friend of mine, with no prior history of heart disease, who suddenly needed heart bypass surgery just five months after his mother died.

The love that connects us is powerful, profound and for most of us, our most treasured possession. So, when someone we love dies, it is quite normal to be torn asunder. Just as our physical resources are diverted to the healing process after a serious illness or injury, so is our mental and emotional energy redirected to the grieving process or the avoidance of this natural process, whether we like it or not.

Grief is an equal-opportunity employer -- whether you are a CEO or an assembly line worker, when you are grieving you are a human being with a broken heart. While there are predictable responses to grief, each of us will have our own unique journey through the grieving process. Grief has a life of its own and cannot be neatly compartmentalized on your calendar.

Until now, we have been living in a culture where grief is largely misunderstood, unsupported and silenced by the taboo against talking about or dealing with death in our country. Grieving has been largely a private matter that isolated us from others. The good news is that things are beginning to change in this regard.

There are more and more grief counseling services being made available. If you can't find any in your community, consider calling Good Grief Center for Bereavement Support . They offer free support to any part of the English-speaking world over the phone toll free at 1-888-474-3388, as well as through their website. If you or someone you love is grieving, consider taking any of the following actions:

  • Give Good Grief a call.
  • Check out the services of The Grief Recovery Institute -- the authors of the Grief Index.
  • Find out if there are private grief counseling and/or support group services available in your community.
  • See if your employer offers any proactive or responsive grief services.

Some of the specific services you might ask your employer about include:

  • Grief education programs or literature for the person who is grieving, their family, and/or business colleagues.
  • Referral services for confidential counseling (paid for or not by the company).
  • A support network of employees/mentors who have faced a similar personal crisis.
  • A flexible conversion plan that allows workers to convert their vacation or personal time to cash, which is then used to offset lost income for co-workers who take time off to deal with a crisis.

If these services are not available through your employer, but you think any of them would be a good idea, suggest them to your Human Services department. Good Grief Bereavement Support also has a program called "Grief in the Workplace" that will work with your company to develop a customized program that fits the culture of your organization.

Remember, grief is normal and if you think you need some help and compassion, you don't have to be alone in your grief. But you do have to reach out for help. You might be surprised by the resources available.

Please share your thoughts and any information about wonderful grief support services in your company or community below or send me an email so I can spread the word.

For more by Judith Johnson, click here.

For more on death and dying, click here.

My other posts on the topic of dying and death include:

The Death and Dying Series Part One: How Do You Relate to Death

Overcoming Our Fear of Death

What Do You Think Happens When We Die?

Facing the Holidays When You Have Lost a Loved One

More About Carrying Your Grief Through the Holidays

Death and Dying Quotes: Reframing the Conversation

How to Handle Family Dynamics Around a Dying Loved One

Honoring the Memory of a Deceased Loved One

Opening a Dialogue About Dying and Death

Talking to Doctors About a Terminal Diagnosis

Why We Need to Talk About Death and Dying

The Importance of End of Life Preparation

7 Tips for Talking About Health and Money With Elderly Parents

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To learn more about me, visit my website, www.judithjohnson.com or my Facebook page "Tending to Your Ending."

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