What do you do when a colleague loses a loved one? I wondered after reading the moving interview with State Secretary Paul Blokhuis. Among other things, about the loss of his daughter, and how his colleagues in the cabinet had supported him.
Last year, the trade union CNV conducted research into grief in the workplace. His conclusion was that grieving employees often get stuck. For example, more than a quarter of those surveyed said they went back to work too soon after the loss of a loved one.
Of the people who lost a partner or a child, 73 percent were found not to function well for a longer period of time. And 23 percent of them said they had burned out from the combination of work and bereavement.
Many people think of the five stages of grief counseling by the Swiss-American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross: denial, anger, struggle, depression and acceptance. However, this is not about the loss of a loved one, but how people deal with their own impending death. Kübler-Ross formulated the phases primarily on the basis of her work and conversations with terminal patients. Subsequent research did not provide empirical support for her model, however.
Mourners swing for months between deep sadness and positive emotions
Authoritative grief researchers, such as George Bonanno, head of the Loss, Trauma, and Emotion Lab at Columbia University, strongly advise against using this model or other “stage approaches.” According to Bonanno, people differ greatly in dealing with loss. The duration of mourning also varies. For example, about 10 percent of people experience great difficulty in coping with a loss and function poorly for more than six months.
However, the majority appears to be resilient and resumes daily life after a few days or weeks. In their studies, Bonanno and colleagues did not see phases that people go through, but that mourners often experience a swing between deep sadness and positive emotions for months, such as cherishing fond memories or enjoying simple distractions.
What can you do as colleagues to help? Some advice from grief research.
– To work generally has a positive effect on mourners. A fixed rhythm, contact with colleagues and setting and achieving small goals help people to pick up life again.
– As a colleague you have to make room for sadness. By listening and realizing what loss does to someone. For example, people who mourn are often tired and less concentrated. This can last for a long time, while colleagues are often preoccupied with deadlines and urgent tasks after a few days of compassion.
– Leaders appear to have an important role. Practical: think of days off and returning to work. For example, offer someone to be picked up by colleagues on the first working day. But also emotionally: by being available to the grieving, showing patience, listening and helping.
– Mourning researchers advocate that managers follow a training in this area. In the next ten years, about half of our colleagues will have to deal with a loss. It’s good to be prepared.
Ben Tiggelaar writes weekly about personal leadership, work and management.
If your colleague loses a loved one
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