Do you know someone grieving at work?

By Susan Goldie, our End of Life Strategy National Lead


170,000 people die in Australia every year, leaving grieving family and friends behind. That means that easily 1,000,000 workers or more can be affected by the death of someone close to them.  And that doesn’t even consider all those workers who are supporting someone they love leading up to death.

That adds up to a significant percentage of the entire Australian workforce:  possibly 10% at any time.  As our population ages, the numbers will only increase.

One of your colleagues could be going through a difficult time like this. As their colleague, manager, or a member of HR it can be difficult to know how to support those coping with death – but there are simple ways that you can help.

Recognising grief

The first step to helping a staff member who’s dealing with grief or supporting someone at end of life is to recognise what they’re going through.

We can feel uncomfortable bringing our personal lives to work and we often try to hide whatever’s happening at home. But the dramatic shift in work life caused by covid means that, instead of thinking about whether to bring our personal lives into the workplace we are now constantly dealing with our working lives in our personal space.

Of course, we should ideally be able to be our authentic selves at work and that means that distress and difficulty can sometimes affect us during working hours.

Workplaces should endeavour to create a compassionate culture where workmates and managers are alert to another person’s distress. And when it comes to being compassionate, this needn’t be fuzzy or vague. Compassion simply means:

  •  noticing someone’s distress and feeling empathy
  •  motivation to take helpful action to alleviate that distress
  • Having a few simple tools which can help.

Supporting your employees

For managers, this can start with being an authentic leader, sharing a little of your own vulnerability and demonstrating that you too have a personal as well as work life. This helps create a space where staff feel more comfortable sharing their struggles where appropriate.

As a manager, HR professional or business owner, you’ll almost certainly encounter a member of staff going through a period of distress or grief at some point. You don’t need to reinvent the wheel to help them – just be compassionate, be genuine and take time to listen.

Be comfortable with emotion

Many people don’t ask a workmate what’s wrong because they feel uncomfortable or don’t know what to say.  Sometimes feeling empathy for another person’s distress risks getting emotional as well.  We can feel embarrassed.  It’s important to get comfortable with your own emotions and that of the other person.

Make time to talk

A throwaway line at the end of an email isn’t always enough. Make unhurried time to sit with a staff member or colleague.  Show that you are concerned, perhaps by sharing that you have noticed the other person struggling and you are worried about them.  Invite them to talk about what’s going on if they feel comfortable to do so.  An unhurried, non-judgemental conversational space might just be the right moment for the distressed person to express emotion and respond to your open questions about how you or the organisation can offer simple support during tough times.

When someone who’s in distress shares what’s going on, often simply listening, and letting them feel heard is all they need.   Grief is a normal experience and feeling acknowledged during tough times can sometimes make all the difference to our effectiveness at work.

Supported employees are good for business

Being there for your employees while they’re grieving or supporting someone in end-of-life is the right thing to do. But it’s also good for business.

After all, if your organisation can’t accommodate the ups and downs of people’s lives, your workforce will be less engaged and less productive. Your employee turnover may also be higher.

If you’re not sure how to talk about death and dying, you’re not alone – most Australians have low ‘death literacy’. We don’t know how to speak to people who are suffering or what to expect when grief engulfs us. But we can learn.

There are great online resources available from us here at The Groundswell Project Australia and from other organisations. I encourage you to do a little reading or get in touch to make these conversations easier – and to make sure you’re prepared to talk about dying and death with someone at work who needs support during tough times.