Grief can have a significant impact on almost every aspect of someone’s life. With that being said, it’s not always easy to determine whether or not an employee is going through the grieving process. Grief can interfere with thought processes, wreak havoc on concentration levels and disrupt sleep patterns, but bereavement leave is not unceasing, and therefore many employees will have to return to work whilst processing their loss. While appearing to be coping, some individuals will struggle with grief over the longer-term and if not managed appropriately in the workplace, this can lead to undue stress and mental health problems. Employers need to be vigilant to the hidden signs of distress that may indicate an employee is struggling more than they may be letting on. Every individual will experience grief in a different way, however experts believe that grief is a reaction that typically progresses through seven distinct stages. Not everyone will experience all seven, and they will not always move through in chronological order, but making yourself aware of these stages of grief and the warning signs for each will allow you to better manage your bereaved employee.
The Seven Stages Of Grief
- Stage 1: Shock
The first stage of grieving is shock. This is our body’s way of protecting us from the inevitable pain of a loss. In most cases, shock is short-lived, but in some cases, this stage can last significantly longer. Be hyper-vigilant with staff members who seem unaffected by a recent loss, those of the ‘return to business’ mindset. This may be a coping mechanism, or it may be that they are still in shock from the death of a loved one.
- Stage 2: Denial
Similar to the first stage, denial is a mental state of shock. Subconsciously, we refuse to accept the reality of a loss, again, to protect ourselves from the pain. This is a normal stage of the grieving process, but one that is not healthy to stay in for too long. Prolonged denial can develop into feelings of anger, depression and anxiety, and this is a stage we should be attentive towards.
- Stage 3: Anger
As reality sets in, your employee will be faced with the pain of their loss. It’s entirely normal to feel frustrated and helpless and often these feelings will manifest in anger. This can be directed towards those around them, a higher power, or towards life itself. It’s a natural reaction, and one that will pass over time. This is one of the easiest stages to spot: individuals may be short tempered and resentful, and they may lash out at those around them.
- Stage 4: Bargaining
Bargaining is a state of confusion, where individuals will look for ways to argue or reason their way out of the pain of the loss. This is a desperate plea for a reversal to the bad news, and can also be a sign of manifested guilt. This is often a mental battle, one that is hard to spot from the outside, but a stage that can have a profound effect on mental-wellbeing. Be conscious of your employee’s demeanor – are they distracted or seemingly absent in meetings? Keep the conversation around grief open where possible, ensuring they have a sounding board in the workplace for occasions when they are willing to discuss any confusing thoughts.
- Stage 5: Depression
Depression is a stage of deep, indescribable sadness. The depression detailed in this framework is not the same as clinical depression, however, grief can lead to a diagnosis of clinical depression if not managed and therefore it is key that you are aware of the signs that may indicate your employee is going through this stage. They may describe, or allude to, a sense of hopelessness and emotions will be unpredictable.
Basic daily tasks can become difficult to complete and levels of hygiene may take a dip. It’s also worth noting that feelings of depression do not only occur in the initial period after a loss, these can be experienced for years afterwards, especially around significant dates.
- Stage 6: Testing
Testing is where we begin to engage in situations that we would have previously avoided because of the pain. This is the stage where we will move away from the darker emotions, and back into the happier aspects of life. Your employee may be laughing more, making connections with others and actively engaging with your team.
- Stage 7: Acceptance
Acceptance is often seen as the final stage of grief, where an individual has healed. Unfortunately, it is not this simple. Acceptance comes from working through the initial shock, denial, confusion, anger and sadness and reaching a stage where you have processed the painful truth of losing a loved one. Often, they take comfort in memories of their loved one, whether that be with photos on their desk or through keepsakes such as Ashes Memorial Jewellery.
Death still remains a taboo subject, but being vigilant to the stages of grief that follow can only help employers cope with bereavement more comfortably. It’s important that we educate ourselves and not shy away from bereavement. Every single person will experience grief at some point in their working life, and therefore it is key that employers know not only how to manage it, but how to spot it. This will be vital to the wellbeing, happiness and productivity of staff.