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Grieving at Work

Grieving at work– don’t let it be a cause of burnout

There are a multitude of articles out there around work/life balance.  

  • How to be a powerhouse professional and be a mom…
  • How to find a company culture which fits your lifestyle…
  • How not to become a workaholic…
  • How to climb the ladder, while still maintaining relationships outside of work…

I could go on and on.  

However, a topic which I feel like should get more focus is maintaining work/life balance while grieving. 

Over the past couple of years we as a planet have been grieving.  Grieving the life we had pre-pandemic, grieving the loss of connection with others, grieving the job we had before massive layoffs, grieving the job expectations as we transition back, grieving broken relationships, grieving unexpected change of plans and for millions grieving the loss of loved ones. 

Some of these are pandemic-specific, but some are not.  Some were things we faced pre-pandemic and pushed through, but now it just seems harder to push.  Our mental, emotional and physical stamina is weak.  Our coping skills are all used up…

So what is the answer? 

How do you grieve at work?  How do you find the balance between pressing forward and giving space for healing?

The truth is, we can’t just press through and ignore our grieving while at work. 

We shouldn’t have had to ignore it pre-pandemic, and we absolutely can’t do it now. 

There are two key questions to answer:

  1. How do we personally grieve in a way which promotes a work/life balance that is sustainable for our unique personalities?
  2. How do we help other people grieve in the workplace?

How to grieve at work

It’s important to remember that there is no ONE right way to grieve.  Everyone handles grief differently. Allowing yourself the freedom to find your own grief path is key. 

Finding a professional to help walk you through your journey.  

Grace Mackey is a Psychotherapist and the owner at Elevate Therapy Wellness in Austin, TX.  I reached out to her to get her perspective on how she approaches this with her clients.  She said:

“When we are experiencing grief, burnout can happen much more quickly because our mental, physical, and emotional bodies are more vulnerable to depletion. Our bodies hold grief and when we are carrying that load around, we don’t have as much room to handle the day-to-day, let alone the stress that comes along with work.”

She went on to provide these three tips. 

1. Recognize how grief is happening in your body

Our physical bodies respond to grief in many ways: we may experience aches and pains that won’t go away, changes in digestion and appetite, we may feel more run down than usual, we also may feel more emotional. In identifying where grief lives in our bodies, we first need an open, compassionate awareness as we look at the grief and make space for it. As we make space for the grief, we can allow it to be there without letting it take control. It has a voice, so let’s listen.

2. Ask for support from trusted people

When we are grieving, we need support. We, as humans, are not meant to go through life alone and when we’re struggling, we need help. Make sure you ask people you can trust and feel comfortable with. You don’t have to tell them everything you’re going through. You can simply let them know you’re grieving and ask for help. Help may look like asking for advice on a task at work that you’re having a hard time making a decision on. *Decisions are harder when we’re grieving, be careful not to judge yourself on this. It may also look like asking for help outside work. Life tasks can be demanding and take more energy than they otherwise would. Try grocery pickup or delivery? Find ways to create more time for sleep and rest.

3. Create Boundaries

Boundaries can mean so much even if they may look small. Setting boundaries around work may look like:

  • Turn your work notifications off at a certain time and sticking to it. That ding or little dot of a notification piques our mind’s curiosity so that work energy stays with us.
  • If you’re asked to do something outside of your normal scope of work, speak up and say no. I realize this is not always possible but this is an invitation to really look at what is ok for you to do and what is ok for you to say no to.

In addition to Grace’s tips, I recommend taking a look at your internal operating system using the Enneagram.  

If you’re not familiar with the Enneagram, it’s a personality framework and self-development tool based on 9 core types. The types not only focus on strengths and weaknesses but emotional and behavioral patterns in times of stress and in times of flow.  Becoming aware of these patterns of stress and of flow can be key in fully processing your grief and the signs your body is giving you to slow down and/or press forward.  Below are some behavioral patterns to be aware of when grieving, these will match and maybe exaggerate your behaviors during burnout.

Type 1: Extra critical, more outwardly emotional, more pronounced perfectionist tendencies, envious and won’t slow down. To encourage healthy grieving, make sure you take time to feel the feeling, but find the joy in each day. Exploring the new possibilities on how life can look now.

Type 2: Aggressive, more direct, pick fights or arguments, keep pressing through the pain. To encourage healthy grieving, journal your feelings and allow time alone to process them.  Ask yourself, what’s hurting most?

Type 3:  Removing yourself from the action, numbing out, create more work and problems than needed to avoid confronting the feeling. To encourage healthy grieving, schedule in time for no work. During this time engage in an activity that allows you to connect with your body.  Exercise, meditation, bath, etc.

Type 4: Extra moody, numbing the pain by seeking attention from others, withdrawn and have a hard time seeing the good in anything. To encourage healthy grieving, feeling dump daily and bring facts around those feelings– validating them, and taking positive action out of them.  Consider beginning a daily gratitude journal.

Type 5:  Scattered, anxious, extra isolating, not satisfied with anything. To encourage healthy grieving, try not only focusing on understanding your grief, but feeling it. Try to put feeling word language around it. 

Type 6: High energy, followed by a crash, becoming a workaholic, doubting yourself and others around you. To encourage healthy grieving, focus on the immediate things you can do now to make small improvements in your life, rather than trying to figure out the future.  Bring your focus to the day, rather than the week, month or year.

Type 7: Getting hung up on the details, critical of yourself and others, have a harder time trying to find the positive. To encourage healthy grieving, lean into the tried and true routine of your day while allowing space to just turn your brain off of activity to engage with how the pain feels in your body. This might be helpful to do with a close friend or family member.

Type 8: Withdrawing, become more passive-aggressive, cynical of the future. To encourage healthy grieving, spend time with those closest to you to avoid isolation. Find someone you trust who you can be vulnerable with and express all the feelings around the grief. 

Type 9: Increased anxiety, doubting yourself, adding in more action than rest. To encourage healthy grieving, ask yourself what you need.  What does your heart need, what does your mind need, what does your body need?  THen share those with someone you trust to help get those needs met.

Next, let’s talk about how to help people grieve in the workshop as a leader or a co-worker.

Create a space that is empathic.  

This shouldn’t just be when someone is grieving.  Having a workplace that promotes empathy in everything is going to set the tone for an open and welcoming atmosphere to an employee who is grieving.  If they already know work culture supports empathy, they’ll be more likely to share their grief, and not keep it bottled in while at work. This might include something like having a policy around time off for grieving or regular staff check-in regarding work-life balance. 

Adam Grant, Organizational Psychologist, Author and Professor at the Wharton School of Business says this:

Research shows that companies with assistance programs that provide financial support or time off in a crisis—when an employee’s house is destroyed by a tornado, or when he or she has to care for somebody who is very ill—actually see dividends. People feel they belong to a more caring company. They take pride in their company as a “human” place to work and are more committed to it. There’s a real case to be made for organizations to step up.”

Don’t ask what the employee needs, offer the solution.  

This is where we can, again, pick up the Enneagram tool.  If you understand your employees’ and/or co-workers’ Enneagram type you can have a leg up on knowing what they need so you can be proactive in the grieving at work process.  Below are some examples:

Type 1: This type will just try to push through and continue powering through lists and their normal life.  To help this type, consider transferring things off their normal list to someone else who they trust.  Also, request they join you in a break once or twice today.  Activities which would be helpful for a Type 1 are things that would get them into their body like a walk.

Type 2:  This type will try and fill their life during grief with everyone else’s needs to help them cope with their own.  To help this type, consider just doing things for them without even asking.  Simple acts of service like making sure their desk space is tidy.  This type doesn’t like to have to share their feelings in the moment, they don’t want to be the ones to ask for help or be a “burden”.  Offering notes of encouragement is helpful and comforting, rather than a direct conversation.

Type 3: This type will try and pretend their grief doesn’t exist at all at work, and you might not even notice a difference. To help with this type, consider pushing back deadlines encouraging them to slow down, but not taking away their work completely.  Ask direct questions about feelings, instead of open-ended.  But ask if they’re in the middle of the task.

Type 4: This type will have a hard time pushing through and getting out of the grief spiral. To help with this type, consider making a point to touch base with them daily for a feeling dump and letting them know their thoughts and feelings are valid, then asking them what some of the highlights of their day were to help with increasing their gratitude instead of their grief.

Type 5: This type will withdraw even more than normal, and will become more easily irritable and scattered in their work.  To help with this type, consider providing the direction and focus for their day for them as they transition back into work.  Also, inviting them out for a quiet walk once a day.  Reminding them they don’t have to talk, but getting outside and into their body will help to get back to balance.

Type 6: This type will be very focused on doing tasks to ensure something like that never happens again.  They will have increased anxiety and get lost in the doing. To help with this type consider validating their feelings, but providing facts around them to help them not feel so bad.  Give them someone to trust during this time, who validates and helps fix.

Type 7:  This type will do everything they can to ignore the feeling- using humor and diving into to anything new or exciting.  To help with this type, consider offering to help structure their day with new and exciting tasks, but also with time to slow down and process within their more normal tasks.  Providing them opportunities for focus will be helpful.

Type 8: This type will begin to assert more control over everything around them and withdraw. To help with this type, consider offering times where they can release their pent up energy.  Whether that be through venting, a walk, or some heart rate accelerating activity.  To help them feel in control, provide as much information as possible about any of their work-related tasks, things that might have happened while they were out, etc.

Type 9: This type will become more anxious and begin to procrastinate and withdraw.  To help with this type, consider listening to where most of their anxiety is coming from, and proactively do things in that area to ease the stress. Provide a comfortable and organized environment for them to work.

I want to be honest with you.  As in anything I put out, I want to make sure I’m being as authentic as possible.  I don’t want to put something out and try to help people with something that I don’t have first-hand experience with myself.   

I have had to experience grief and finding work/life balance more times than I would like to admit. 

  • Going back to work after 3 weeks following the traumatic delivery of my first son.
  • Going back to work after 3 weeks following the delivery of my second son who surprised us with a Down Syndrome diagnosis.
  • Working while in the midst of an ugly divorce and custody battle.
  • Working through broken friendships and partnerships
  • Maintaining my business after learning my dad was diagnosed with Dementia. 
  • And most recently: learning that my son who has Down Syndrome now has Type 1 Diabetes

Grief is hard.  It hits you in times you don’t expect.  We all want to ignore it, but It’s important we actually do the work to grieve as much as we do the work to get back to “normal”.

“We bereaved are not alone. We belong to the largest company in the world– the company of those who have known suffering.” – Helen Keller

For more work-life balance tips, check out my new book, Unlock Your Potential at Work: A Beginner’s Guide to Using the Enneagram