Dealing with grief in the workplace: Why bother?
In a fast-paced work environment, departures and loss are inevitable. Losing a colleague, whether through layoffs, firing, or quitting, can impact everyone in a team.
Of course, it’s difficult for the person who lost their job. But it can also bring up complicated and conflicting feelings (including grief, anger, confusion, and frustration) for the manager who had to let them go and the employees who stayed.
In these situations, employee grief can manifest in many ways and present symptoms at the mental, emotional, and physical levels. It’s essential for all leaders – from C-suite to HR to team managers – to be aware of what grief actually is and know the resources they have at their disposal to help employees navigate it.
This article covers a few steps HR leaders can take to feel better equipped to deal with the emotions of losing employees, whether to layoffs, firing, or quitting. This includes ways to help your managers prepare for periods of transition, setting up resources for employees who will remain with your organization, and advice for taking care of the person or people you’re letting go.
Why it's important to address grief in the workplace
Though people often associate grief with death, it is a feeling naturally triggered by any loss. When it comes to grief in the workplace, it’s likely that employees will feel a certain level of grief in situations where a colleague they worked closely with is let go or quits. A person they interacted with as a routine part of their work life is gone, potentially leaving a gap in their social life, workflow, and professional network.
Grief after a loss can be overwhelming and distracting, thus impacting the way employees can do their jobs. But if managers accept it as a normal and fair response to a transition, their workplace will feel more inclusive of emotional responses to emotional situations.
After someone has been let go or quit, uncertainty can cause panic, rumors, and stress. So to avoid prolonged issues with your team’s productivity or engagement and to alleviate people's concerns, it's in a leader’s best interest to provide as much certainty as possible. This could include creating a channel for transparent communications from your executive team, which would help your managers stay well-informed about the happenings at the business. Your managers will then be better equipped to pass reliable, timely information on to their team.
As you continue to keep your organization on track through crisis, you need people to stay engaged with their work and goals. Keeping both managers and the wider team informed is important - giving them as much transparency as possible can help with the retention of the employees who continue to work with your company. If people feel heard and taken care of in difficult situations, they are more likely to stay and trust leadership's decisions.
How does grief manifest in the workplace?
Similar to grief triggered by any other loss, grief after a layoff, firing, or quitting can lead to heightened emotions, behavioral changes, and cognitive function shifts.
Below are a few ways that grief might manifest for any employee. The better you understand how people are responding, the more likely you are to be able to help managers offer their direct reports the right tools, resources, and support.
When companies aren’t transparent about what’s happening during transitions (or can’t be for confidentiality reasons), it can lead to confusion, especially if the layoff or firing happens suddenly. The “fog of grief” that follows any major shift can cause employees to need days, weeks, or months to fully recover from losing a team member.
Lack of clarity can make employees wonder what exactly happened, asking questions such as:
- “Were they laid off or fired?”
- “Will other people be next?”
- “How does the company expect me to engage with that person now that they’re gone?”
In addition to confusion about exactly what caused someone to leave the company, it can also make employees feel confused about the future of their work or the organization. They might ask questions like, “Who is taking their spot? Who will do the tasks associated with their role? Is this a sign of trouble in the near future?”
Watching a colleague leave can make employees wonder if they’ll be next. This can lead to a mix of grief for their loss and their potential impending loss (and anticipatory grief). If employees aren’t given outlets to voice their concerns, this fear can cause them to speak up less.
When an employee is taken out of a team with no notice, the remaining employees can struggle to adjust to a gap in support (professional and social) and project management. It could lead to disorganized workflows if the person who was let go didn’t document their processes or communicate with the rest of the team about minute details or the status of current projects.
In general, losing someone who was part of everyone’s normal workday can hinder a team’s efficiency and productivity. The confusion and fear compounded can make it difficult to focus and work.
How to respond to grief in the workplace
Grief can make us feel disoriented, tired from being overworked, angry about losing a friend at work, and many more emotions we can’t predict or plan for. Compounding that emotional exhaustion with an absorbed workload could be a recipe for disaster. But it could also be an opportunity for managers to show great leadership in accommodating an employee’s wellbeing needs.
Before your team’s grief negatively impacts their individual performance and engagement, consider a few ways you can help everyone adjust in the short term and long term.
Below is advice from Culture Amp People Scientists Kenneth Matos, Sahra Kaboli-Nejad, and David Ostberg.
- Create a forum for them to grieve in. That might be a quiet conversation with a leader or the team as a whole – what’s important is that employees are shown that it’s acceptable to grieve publicly. Find time to take a moment to acknowledge that your colleague or colleagues are gone and that you miss them. This kind of gathering can be potent, as it gives people space to confront their own feelings, speak up about what might feel like a major loss, and also puts into perspective that a loss like this can impact anyone and everyone.
- Acknowledge how the loss has changed things. The hardest part of loss is when everyone around you pretends that nothing is different, even when you deeply feel and know they are. Pretending requires being silent about the past and pretending it never happened and has no bearing on what's happening today. That cognitive dissonance hurts more than the actual loss of the person in question.
- Conduct intimate stay interviews. Connect with your employees regularly for 1-on-1 stay interviews, especially after a major layoff or high-impact loss. When huge transitions happen, an employee’s commitment to their work, the company vision, and newly formed or reconstructed teams can shift. Stay interviews can give managers insight into what individual employees are feeling and allow them to proactively mitigate any intention to leave.
- Keep communication channels open. “Survivor’s guilt” drives feelings of loss, fear, and the added stress of the additional work the remaining employees must do. When it comes to layoffs, many workers who “survive” feel the need to fly under the radar because they fear rocking the boat, so they’re less likely to communicate about additional factors that negatively impact their motivation and commitment. This can lead to disengagement, skepticism, and resentment. As such, it’s even more critical for leaders to encourage feedback and keep conversations about the state of the org open and honest.
Next steps for supporting employees through grief
Dealing with grief at work can be difficult, but we believe that if you’re realistic about its impacts, you’re taking a great first step. Understanding that your employees are human, and exercising empathy through challenging situations, will help everyone in your organization manage their way through collective grief and loss.
To ensure your employees feel safe and supported during times of stress, transition, and crisis, acknowledge that there are repercussions to any employee leaving, but know that you can help everyone navigate the change.
As a next step, consider creating a system that your employees can use to express their emotions surrounding a layoff or firing. Feedback and communication will help you gather the information you need to better understand their feelings and, in turn, find the appropriate resources to help them.
Wondering if burnout is a symptom of your team’s grief?
Read about how to identify and address burnout.