Grief in the Workplace: A Growing Epidemic

“Grief” by definition may not qualify as an “outbreak of a disease that spreads quickly,” but it’s silently contributing just as much damage to the workplace, and will continue to do so.

And no one’s talking about it.

One of the things that I have always found fascinating about Ancient Egypt is the fact that these people struck a creative balance between living and dying. Living in the sense that their culture is still extensively studied today, thousands of years later. Dying in the sense that, well, they kinda lived to die, and they were proud of it.

When was the last time you had a candid conversation with someone about death?

I know. Morbid, right? Oh, you want to talk about death? Let me just run away real quick, weirdo.

But here’s the situation: the most common thing about life is death. As Gandalf said, “it’s a journey we must all take.”

On October 30, 2022, my beloved golden retriever, Jenny, passed away. It was sudden, and the wound her departure left behind went deep. Very deep. But what do you do when you grieve? Some people like to stay busy and not think about it. Others wallow in their misery. Most people, I think, try to ignore it.

And that’s where the problem with the workplace starts.

After Jenny passed, I took a week off from work. Upon my return, I was numb. My mind was hazy. My short-term memory was practically non-existent. If I’m being totally honest, I feel like I have struggled at work ever since Jenny’s passing. How much of that is a direct result of her loss versus my growing occupational disinterest, I’m not totally sure.

Everyone was kind. Jenny and I had a bond that expanded beyond the universe, so I think a lot of people were actually afraid to even talk to me for fear of summoning the waterworks. But the real issue is that there weren’t any corporate resources available for how to handle and manage my grief. For all the time and effort and money that companies pack into benefits, you’d think there’d at least be something helpful.

Instead, it seems that the remedy for grief in American culture is to take a week off and then…you’re fine? How does this not make sense? And why are we not talking about this?

In 2021, my Uncle Dan passed away. He had been sick for a couple years, and it was very sad to lose him. For some reason, I actually had the audacity to review my company’s bereavement policy to see how many days I was qualified to take off. How odd is it that when weighing work against grief, the first thing we do is open the rulebook to make sure we’re not doing anything illicit? The answer should have been “take the time that you need,” which is essentially what my boss had said. But you can understand why there’s an issue here. We experience a loss and our first inclination with work is to…make sure we’re following the rules? What in the what?

For the record, my company generously gives three whole bereavement days for aunts and uncles. Yeah, at some point a group of people in HR collectively sat down and created tiers for grief. I can’t even.

Needless to say, there’s nothing listed in the rulebook about pet loss.

And so…I went back to work after my weeklong departure. I told my boss that she would need to dictate things to me, as my mind wasn’t operating clearly. At one point, I very nearly requested that she include me on more meetings because I felt the structure was helpful.

Yes, I nearly requested more meetings. Grief is a bitch.

And that…is it. There were no resources or guidance or help. Just like how a company will call you family one day and then cut you loose the next without notice, you’re ultimately on your own.

What’s shocking is that I’m not sure companies are even aware of how grief negatively affects productivity. Look, I wasn’t trying to be useless in the wake of Jenny’s loss, but it was extremely hard to focus. Strictly speaking as an employee, what are you supposed to do? What is the company supposed to do? That’s where there’s an opportunity.

On February 4, 2023, I brought home Jodie, a fourth generation golden pup who happened to be a half-niece of Jenny. But grief doesn’t end there. Over the months, Jodie has certainly helped me heal, but bringing home another dog doesn’t suddenly erase your pain. I’m still grieving Jenny, and that’s a wound I’ll always sport.

After months of struggling with anger and extreme mood swings, I decided to seek out help and found PetCloud, a community for pet loss. I have been attending weekly online support groups, taking courses to educate myself on grief, and learning strategies to numb the pain of losing Jenny. It’s okay to miss your pet. It’s okay to be sad. It’s also okay to let go of the pain.

In my job hunt, I have noticed that companies are now offering perks such as pet insurance and pet-friendly offices. This is a good start, and I hope that resources for understanding grief will be there one day as well. Not just for pets, but all kinds of grief. The thing about grief is that it doesn’t discriminate. You could grieve over the loss of a pet or family member, but you can also grieve over the ending of a relationship. Maybe you lost something that’s valuable to you. Maybe your car or home was repossessed. How do you handle such intense emotions? By going to work and putting your head down? That’s not very productive for anyone.

It’s okay to talk about this.