Grief, mental wellbeing and the workplace

The untimely death of Jack Merritt and Saskia Jones, two young professionals dedicated to the rehabilitation of criminals, has left many pondering the nature of forgiveness in the face of violence. Their families and friends are in distress as are many of us, not related to them, but who nonetheless lament such senseless loss of life.

Less discussed in the press is the impact of these deaths on their work colleagues.

The incident reminded me of a friend Darius, who told me how his young 26 year old colleague had suddenly dropped dead due to a burst aortic aneurysm. The team was left stunned but as the line manager of this young man, my friend was devastated. He described in some detail how at the funeral he could not bear to look at the grieving parents nor the young wife who was in shock, and how he had taken it upon himself to ensure his family had the right support going beyond organisational policy prescriptions.

It also reminded me of another friend Natalie, who employs her daughter in her business. When her ex-husband, her daughter’s dad, recently passed away after a long illness, she found it challenging to handle her daughter’s grieving in the workplace even as other similar young employees watched her for any signs of favouritism.

Then there is second-hand grief in the workplace. The grief being experienced by colleagues who may have returned to work having lost a baby they much looked forward to, or an elderly parent who had long been unwell, or another loss which changes the shape of their life.

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We spend nearly a third of our life — or more — at work or thinking about work. We bring our whole selves to work. And yet when it comes to grief and trauma, there is still a strange uncomfortable silence in workplaces.

It need not be that way.

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Employers need to rise to the challenge. Proactively. Or events will force them. Here are the three key tools.

Culture: While the culture of an organisation cannot be fixed or built overnight, a culture that works on high trust and accountability will enable a situation where those who grieve their family or friends or colleagues will not be mistrusted. Equally such a culture will tamp down on gossip, and discourage stigmatising of those who take time off to grieve or work on their mental wellbeing.

Policy: Along with the right culture, workplaces need compassionate and clearly articulated policies to support bereavement and mental wellbeing. In Natalie’s case, she ended up creating a bereavement support policy in response to her daughter’s bereavement support needs. The policy was communicated to the whole team so they could stop worrying if Natalie’s daughter was going to be given unfair time off or otherwise treated favourably.

Support mechanisms: This is the tough part. Employers need to think this one through because grief and mental illness can strike anyone at any time. It is worth considering how to enable channelling of grief. Some may want to be of service to the colleague’s family as happened in case of my friend Darius, others may want to fund causes related to the late colleague or family member’s death. Employers may want to enlist pastoral support, and allow conversation and whatever comes with it. Charities such as Mental Health At Work and Mind in the UK can be valuable partners not just at such times, but as partners in embedding awareness of mental hygiene and wellbeing practices into the organisation’s culture.

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What happens though when someone in your workplace is having a mental breakdown?

When do you speak up? To whom? Is it your place to intervene?

These are thorny questions but to the last one, my view is that the answer is “yes”. Especially if you hope others will help you when you are having a hard time in life.

Your employer’s policies should tell you how to raise concerns and seek help in confidence and without stigma.

Both compassion and good governance require that workplaces, employers and board directors support workers or executives having a mental breakdown. It is complicated of course since it can be about their capacity to work, any misconduct arising from the stress, or disability arising from such a situation. Legal advice may be required so as to the right thing by the employee needing help but also protect the others in your workplace.

The former Lloyds CEO António Horta-Osório’s experience of a very public breakdown and how he built his life back up and then changed his organisation is instructive and inspiring for us all.

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Every bereavement or trauma however is an opportunity to make meaning.

Remember my friend Darius and his young colleague who died suddenly?

I asked Darius what his last conversation with the deceased young man was.

Darius recalled he and the young colleague had been the last ones to leave the office that late evening. The young colleague had been complaining of back pain all day. In hindsight everyone learnt that to be a sign of an abdominal aortic aneurysm.

“I told him you should go home. You have been in pain all day. This work will still be here when you come back. Go home and rest.”, Darius said.

“Isn’t it good that your last words were not something to the effect “I want this on my table by 8am”?” I asked.

Darius looked puzzled.

Then it dawned on him.

He had been reminded that in the last exchange with his colleague he had been reasonable and kind. He had been reminded of how crucial it is to keep hold of our kindness towards others even at the end of long tiring work days.

He told me a few days later that the painful memories of losing his young colleague had now been associated with the last conversation having been a kind and humane one.

And that, he said, mattered as he slowly made peace with the loss of a promising young life.