Why the workplace is a grieving place

by Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D.

Editor’s note: This article is excerpted from the Introduction to Dr. Wolfelt’s new book “Healing Grief at Work: 100 Practical Ideas After Your Workplace is Touched by Loss”. The book explains why creating a culture of compassion
is so important in the workplace and offers ideas for mourners as well as for coworkers who want to help them. Includes a special section for human resource personnel and mangers on compassionate (and productive) policy-making.

If there’s been a death in your life, you get three days off work—and it had better be a biological, nuclear family member. Then it’s chin up, carry on, back to work…

Imagine that living your life is like driving a car. Inside this car are seated all the various parts of your self—your family self, your physical self, your spiritual self, etc. Depending on where the car is going at any particular moment in your life, a different self needs to be in the driver’s seat.

If you are reading a book with your child, your parental self is in the driver’s seat. If you are grocery shopping, your task-oriented self is in the driver’s seat. If you are playing a sport, your physical self is in the driver’s seat. And so on.

At work, your work self is in the driver’s seat. In a culture like ours where work is so highly valued and so much of our self-worth is tied up in our jobs, we tend to think of our work selves as one of the most important drivers in the car—sometimes the most important driver in the car. So when your work self has to concentrate on driving, all the backseat selves typically understand that it’s time to hush up and maybe even take a nap.

But now—a death.

When someone you care about dies, a new and very high maintenance driver climbs into the car. Its name is grief. It may be sad and it may be angry and it is, without a doubt, relentless. And it wants to be in the driver’s seat all the time, especially in the early weeks and months after the death.

Grief is not only taking over the car, it’s affecting all the other selves in the car. It’s causing your emotional self lots of distress. It’s giving your physical self various aches and pains. It’s rendering your cognitive self unable to concentrate. It’s making your spiritual self question whether you ever want to go to work again and the very meaning of life.

And it even has the nerve to wrestle for the steering wheel with that work self of yours. During the workday, your work self is trying to drive and concentrate on the road, but it’s having a hard time because that grief self is always either grabbing the wheel or squirming right there in the passenger seat, protesting and demanding your undivided attention.

So, whether you want the workplace to be a grieving place or not, reality suggests that it is.

The misconception about grief at work

There’s a misconception about our feelings and work and it goes like this:

When you’re at work, you should be able to corral all your strong emotions, stop paying attention to them for eight or so hours, and concentrate on whatever it is you do to earn a living.

The workplace is a sacred space—sacred not in the spiritual sense but in the capitalistic sense. Check your emotional baggage at the door and put on your work hat. Especially in for-profit work environments, the workplace is for concentrating on tasks that grow the bottom line—and little else. Even in seemingly compassionate, human service-oriented businesses (I think of hospitals, daycare centers, nursing homes), the day-to-day processes and procedures allow little time for complex emotional and spiritual issues.

If you’re in love, that’s fine—but don’t be using the workday to yearn for your soulmate. If you’re upset about a financial problem at home, that’s fine—but don’t dwell on it from 8-5. And if you’re sad over a loss in your life, we’re sorry—but you’re going to have to grin and bear it while you get the job done.

The truth is, we can’t turn our emotions on and off like that. We’re just not built that way. And to be healthy human beings, we need to pay attention to our emotions and give them expression—even during the workday. In fact, I have this theory that our emotions are our souls talking to us. Our emotions and our “gut instincts” tell us whether we’re doing the right thing or the wrong thing and whether we’re living our lives in alignment with our values. When you feel joyous about something, it’s probably something you’re meant to do. When you feel uncomfortable about something, on the other hand, it’s probably something you’re not supposed to do. And when you feel sad about something? It’s your soul telling you that it needs your time and loving attention.

Did you know that the word courage comes from the French word for heart (coeur)? Your courage grows for those things in life that impact you deeply. The death of someone you care about engages your heart; now you must muster the courage to mourn, even in the workplace. And so when you feel strong feelings at work—whether they’re strictly related to your work or not, I maintain that your feelings are telling you they need your immediate attention. When you’re grieving and working at the same time and your grief feelings start to overpower everything else, you need to take a break and focus on your grief for a while. This book gives you many ideas for doing just that.