Beyond 'I'm sorry': Employers need to manage grief, trauma in the workplace

As deaths from COVID-19 in the United States recently surpassed 850,000, it is critical to look back to the milestone more than seven months ago when deaths reached 100,000 and many reflected on their tremendous, palpable grief. We should also look ahead to solutions created now to change the future. 

The number of lives lost to the virus continues to rise, yet for many, management practices in  organizations across many industries have not adapted to employees’ emotional needs. Few are unaffected by grief during this pandemic. In July 2020, researchers made a COVID-19 bereavement multiplier that helps to show how many people are impacted by loss of life. They estimated for every 190,000 Americans who died during the pandemic, 1.7 million would have lost a close relative. 

That means, conservatively, there are 7 million Americans coping with the death of a close family member, not including the more than 5.5 million people who have died globally. It is undeniable that grief is impacting all workplaces. 

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I see that firsthand. While managing staff in the Bronx at Montefiore/Einstein hospital as a program coordinator, before I moved to Chicago mid-pandemic in 2020, I would join daily calls from hospital leadership listing employees who had died from COVID-19. 

Each name felt like a dagger — someone who was named and remembered for a few seconds before we had to move on with our workday. Somehow the limited resources we had available to process our grief would go unmentioned. The fact that our institution was even taking time to acknowledge those who died was unusual practice for a large medical facility. 

In Chicago, I’ve had colleagues lose loved ones suddenly — directly as a result of the virus, and indirectly from violence catalyzed by conditions of the pandemic. My uncle died a week before a colleague told me she couldn’t pay for flowers for her sister’s funeral. 

The Grief Recovery Institute Educational Foundation projects the cost of workplace grief at $75 billion annually, from government data and 25,000 interviews. Specifically, the loss of loved ones costs workplaces $37.5 billion in annual productivity. Good employee management is often measured by workplace output and satisfaction, and grief is a prevailing threat to both. 

Research identifies what employees view as supportive behavior from managers while grieving, but there is a lack of uniform training in management when faced with bereaved employees. Prolonged grief may be prevalent among those who lost someone to COVID-19, further stating the need for effective grief responses. 

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Companies would be better prepared to help manage grief in the workplace if there were education on what employees most need during bereavement. Two of the recurring needs identified are communication and accommodation. Employees are often confused about available leave and the emotional response they will receive from a supervisor when they disclose their grief. For many employees, antiquated leave policies offering a few days of paid time off  — already a resource disparity among companies — and simple acknowledgements of a death will not heal grief-stricken workers.

Changing these policies is possible, as evidenced by temporary changes in federal policy. In 2020, the U.S. Department of Labor created Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA), which required eligible employers to extend paid sick, family and medical leave to employers through Dec. 31, 2020. 

Several states and cities expanded local paid sick and family leave in response to the pandemic, including New York State and Chicago. However, paid sick and family leave expansions are limited to select state and local jurisdictions. The House passed the Build Back Better Act in November 2021, which would include the establishment of a national paid family leave program, although opposition is expected in the Senate. 

Some will argue that companies, small and large, do not have the resources or responsibility to address bereft employees. However, like the pandemic itself, grief is not a living being that sympathizes with indigent resource structures and failed systems. 

Structurally, leaders and organizations need to normalize bereavement leave. Most companies offer one to three paid days off, and this may be conditional on the deceased’s relationship to the employee. For example, the loss of an immediate family member (spouse, child, parent) provides more time off than the loss of an extended family member (aunt or uncle, grandparent). This doesn’t take into consideration relationship closeness, complicated grief, or other relationships that can be just as salient as family ties, such as friends. 

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Institutional benefits must match what they ask of employees and communicate how to use them. I didn’t know I was eligible for bereavement coverage until one of my direct reports asked for their bereavement approval. 

Outside of human resources policies, managers need training on managing grief in the workplace alongside other leadership practices. Simply checking in on bereaved employees and providing space for them to speak about their loved one can build a better team dynamic. 

Too often, some managers fall into the toxic positivity trap of trying to get employees to see adverse or traumatic situations as a positive experience, a way to grow. Grief has many manifestations and it doesn’t need to be productive or transformative to be valid. 

Bereaved employees also should be met with understanding when there are natural productivity lulls or lowered engagement. During performance reviews, managers can reflect on the personal challenges their employees have faced, especially during the pandemic. If they aren’t aware, they need to question how to facilitate an environment in which employees can share loss without fear of retaliation or critique. 

The omicron variant has contributed to a surge in cases once again, and the SARS-CoV-2 virus is likely to remain active across the globe over time, becoming endemic like the flu. The chronic stress and losses of the pandemic haven’t subsided, making workplace responses to grief important. 

Without adapting management practices to make space for grief, U.S. companies will face more turnover and productivity loss. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than 4.3 million people quit their jobs in October 2021 for a multitude of reasons. It is possible that unaddressed grief could expand the number of employees leaving their jobs if management doesn’t meet their needs. That would be one more pandemic loss to mourn. 

Amber Gipson-Fine is a project manager for COVID-19 clinical trials at Rush University Medical Center, a public health activist, and Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project.