Professor emeritus, dr. philos
Spesialist i klinisk psykologi
Klinikk for krisepsykologi, Bergen, Norge
Every year, large and medium-sized businesses will inevitably experience an employee who becomes seriously ill, dies, or loses someone close to them. The health consequences of such a loss are significant, with increased physical and mental ill-health being widespread among survivors.
Research shows that parents who suddenly lose a child, for example, have ten times as much long-term absence (>3 weeks) as others, while expected deaths result in five times as much absence (Wilcox and colleagues, 2015).
The text was published in Norwegian language in Dagens Næringsliv 2. April 2023.
It is essential for managers to understand that how they respond to employees who are mourning can have a significant impact on how those employees cope in the aftermath. Unfortunately, not all managers are equipped to deal with such situations. A woman who cried on a difficult day after the sudden death of her father was told by her manager, “If you are so sad that you have to cry at work, you can stay home.” Such an unsympathetic and cold approach to a grieving employee increases the chance of absenteeism and sick leave.
Managers and middle managers are put to the test when employees experience loss and grief. It is not easy to know how to respond to mourners, as grief is experienced so differently, and it is easy to make mistakes. Just as our heads of state and politicians convey the grief and care of the entire nation and become symbolic figures in national disasters, managers in businesses are given similar functions when death strikes employees. Leadership consists of informational leadership, caring leadership, and motivational leadership.
The role expansion that takes place can be very demanding for managers. It requires caring leadership because the way in which a leader behaves has a significant impact on those affected. Leaders have great signal or symbolic value and signal the company’s understanding and recognition of the situation that a bereaved person is in. Leaders must read the situation and formulate employees’ concern for those affected and at the same time ensure follow-up and support in the short and long term. Managers should not be afraid to make contact early after a death. Most people appreciate early contact. What is painful is when early promises of follow-up and support are not followed through. Good care leadership requires the ability to convey consideration, warmth, and ensure professional help if required.
A caring climate enables mourning in parallel with a gradual resumption of work. There is no contradiction between grief and work. Work can provide necessary breaks in grief, but there must be room for reactions and breaks in everyday work. Grief takes time, and reactions can catch the bereaved by surprise when they least expect it. It is in these situations that a bereavement-friendly working environment makes a big difference.
In the realm of information management, it is the manager’s responsibility to ensure that employees are informed about what has happened. However, when dealing with sensitive situations such as the death of an employee, conflicts may arise between the wishes and needs of survivors and employees. For instance, in the case of a suicide, managers must decide how much information to disclose and how to communicate it while respecting the family’s wishes. Similarly, when an employee loses a child, managers must navigate how to convey the information to the workplace and how colleagues should relate to grieving parents.
Effective dissemination of information requires tactful communication with the family to ensure that information is handled in a compassionate and appropriate manner. Furthermore, managers must also provide motivational leadership to encourage employees to make new efforts, especially during times of grief. However, it is important to recognize that grief takes time, and employees must be allowed to adapt gradually to their work tasks.
Work can serve as a form of therapy for those who have suffered a loss. It can provide a sense of stability and belonging that can help individuals regain their footing and establish a new identity. The resumption of work can also provide breaks from grief and confirm the individual’s value as a productive employee. Good leadership from managers who demonstrate care and understanding towards the bereaved can contribute to renewed meaning in the workplace.
In conclusion, managers have an essential role to play in supporting employees who are mourning. Providing a caring and supportive environment, reading the situation, and ensuring follow-up and support in the short and long term are essential components of good care leadership. A bereavement-friendly workplace can help employees cope with their grief, enabling them to return to work and gradually resume their duties with reduced capacity taken into account in words and actions.
The Norwegian text can be read in Dagens Næringsliv