Coping with Grief in the Workplace

We are supporting our partner at Hospice UK with their Dying Matters 2024 week from 6th to 12th May.

This year’s theme, ‘The way we talk about Dying Matters’, focuses on the language that we use, and conversations we have, around death and dying.

We've prepared a guide on conversations you may need to have , or be part of, in the work place around terminal illness, death and grief. Starting with...

Coping with Grief in the Workplace 

You may be planning to return to work after recently experiencing the death of a loved one or receiving a terminal diagnosis of a family member. Some questions you have could be:

How do I inform my manager or HR department that I’m grieving?
Will I be able to cope with the demands of my work whilst coping with grief? 
Will my coworkers treat me any differently when I return? 
How much compassionate leave can I take from work to care for a terminally ill family member? 
Will I have to quit my job to care for my terminally ill family member? 

This guide offers practical advice to help you cope with your grief when returning to work after the loss of a loved one.

The four sections in the overall guide are:

1.    Coping with overwhelming emotions at work (you are here)
2.    Informing your boss or manager about the death or terminal diagnosis of your loved one
3.    Talking with coworkers about death or terminal illness of a loved one
4.    Bereavement leave provisions in the UK 


Tips for reading these guides:

-    Take a break if you feel overwhelmed and come back to the guide later.
-    The advice shown here are merely suggestions that you can choose to implement as you see fit. There is no right or wrong way to do things, only what feels right to you. 
-    Remember that you are not alone in your grief and you can ask for support every step of the way. 


Section 1: Coping With Overwhelming Emotions 

Emotions you may feel after going back to work after the death of a loved one
Grief can bring up expected and unexpected emotions. Grief-related emotions can come up at unpredictable times - including at work. Keep in mind that this is completely natural and nothing to worry about. Take a look at the list below. You may have already experienced some or all of the emotions listed. 

-    Anxious or worried
-    Numb or feeling like you are going through the motions
-    Disinterested in your job or project you are working on
-    Wanting to leave your current job or make a career change
-    Irritable or lacking patience 
-    Fatigue, sleepiness or drowsiness at work
-    Unable to focus or concentrate 
-    Not meeting the same productivity goals as before/falling short of your daily targets
-    Making more mistakes than usual 
-    Memory loss or forgetting things
-    Feeling overburdened by the quantity of work
-    Letting your mind wander more than usual 
-    Relief or happy to be back at work 

Terminal Illness and Anticipatory Grief
Anticipatory grief is feelings of grief and loss that occur before the death of your loved one. These feelings are common when someone is living with a terminal illness. Although you haven’t lost your loved one yet, your feelings of grief that you feel currently are valid and real.


How To Cope With Grief At Work


Grief is unpredictable and can affect you weeks, months, or even years after the death of your loved one. Many things can trigger feelings of grief - a memory, a place, a song or even a smell. These triggers may occur at the most unexpected times. For instance, just before an important meeting or presentation. It’s also not unusual for you to experience a sudden wave of grief at the workplace. Here are some practical tips on what to do if this happens.

1.    Remind yourself that this is natural 
You are human and not a productivity machine. Accept that your productivity, focus and motivation will likely be affected following the loss of a loved one. Healing takes time and it will likely take a few weeks or even months to get back to your usual routine at work. Take it one day at a time. 

2.    Find a private place
It’s always a good idea to find a quiet, private place where you can go to gather your thoughts and ground yourself. This could be an empty conference room or office. You could speak to your manager about possible private spaces you could use when overwhelmed. 

3.    Keep communication open with your manager or HR rep 
Your direct manager or HR manager will be able to support you during your return to work. Remember, it’s never a burden or inconvenience to your managers when you ask for support. Plus, they’ll be able to support you better when you have regular chats with them about how your transition back to work is going. Refer to Section 2 of this guide for tips on talking to your manager about bereavement. 

4.    Take breaks
While you may want to jump back into work, we recommend starting slowly and taking plenty of breaks during the work day. Talk to your manager about possibly taking a longer lunch break than usual. 

5.    Take time off work
You have the option to take bereavement or compassionate leave from work. You can ask your direct manager or HR manager about your workplace’s policy regarding bereavement leave. Refer to Section 4 to learn more about bereavement leave allowances in the UK. 

Another option is requesting flexible working hours. This could help make your transition back to work easier as well as allow you to take care of any personal responsibilities you may have at this time. 

6.    Go easy on yourself
According to research, grief and loss affect the brain much like trauma does. Grief can cause changes in memory, behaviour, sleep and body function. Losing a loved one or caring for a terminally ill family member can be traumatic, so you should take the appropriate time to heal just as you would after experiencing other forms of trauma. Remember, your mind and body need time to heal so be kind and gentle with yourself during this transition. 

7.    Don’t make big decisions 
You’re not yourself when you’re grieving. This is why you should refrain from making big career changes during this time. If you do want to quit your job, look for a new job, or make a career change we suggest waiting for a few weeks before taking the plunge. You could also have a chat with a friend or mentor about this decision just to hear what they think. 

8.    Get support 
Sometimes having a chat with or listening to people who are going through the same experiences as you can be very helpful. Many workplaces have support or counselling groups for grief and/or terminal illness or your HR manager can recommend a group in your area. We’ve provided more options for bereavement support in part 4. 


Ready to read more? Here are all the parts of this guide;
1.    Coping with overwhelming emotions at work (you are here)
2.    Informing your boss or manager about the death or terminal diagnosis of your loved one
3.    Talking with coworkers about death or terminal illness of a loved one
4.    Bereavement leave provisions in the UK