Grief and the Workplace

David Knapp

“Take as long as you need,” the memo read.  My boss’s signature followed.

When I met with the administration board of the school I was teaching at and explained that Ruth’s death was imminent, their hearts were breaking, as was mine.  After a long silence, one said, “Take as long as you need, Dave; we will cover your classes.” I had no clue what that might mean.  All I knew was that I was hurting and needed to go and have a good cry.

So, I was relieved of my administrative duties and the heavy teaching load I maintained.  For three weeks following Ruth’s funeral, I cared for personal matters, communications, and my four children.  However, by the beginning of the fourth week, I felt nearly useless, so I approached the board about picking up the class load again.  Reluctantly they agreed but said the administration duties would continue to be handled by someone else.

I had no idea how much I needed to learn about grieving till I was in the middle of it.  Even though I “needed something to do,” my grief influenced more of my life than I thought.  I soon saw that my creativity was severely hampered.  Plus, my ability to make complicated decisions was often stalled.  Fortunately for everyone, including the students in my classes and me, I was teaching courses I had taught before and didn’t need to develop new material creatively.  Had I insisted on taking the reins back with my administrative duties, some very poor decisions may have developed from my limited abilities at the time.

An article on grief and business posted on the website concluded: “Researchers completed an intriguing study that illustrates just how profound and widespread the effect of negative personal events can be and how your brain reacts to grief.  Three finance professors from major business schools tracked the performance of 75,000 Danish companies in the two years before and after the CEO had experienced a family death.  Financial performance declined 20% after the loss of a child.  Fifteen percent declined following the death of a spouse, and almost 10% after the loss of any other family member.”

Each work situation is different, and none is perfect when a severe loss occurs.  If you are the boss, you often have no choice but “to take as long as you need” after a loss.  Some have even been known to “schedule” a time to grieve at a later time.  Ignoring or “stuffing” one’s need to acknowledge grief long-term is seldom a good idea.

The sad truth is that many HR directors and bosses downplay the need for grieving time away from the workplace and overlook the financial challenge it can bring to the businesses they lead.  Education and awareness about grief can go a long way in helping both the workers and the business bottom line.  Something as simple as having a list of grief counselors or web links for those grieving can be a step in the right direction.

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