Down the Rabbit Hole: Grief in the Workplace


Four days. That is the average number of days the majority of employers in the United States provide when an employee suffers the death of an immediate family member according to The Grief Index: The “Hidden” Annual Costs of Grief in America’s Workplace. A “generous” bereavement leave is defined as five days by some of the most profitable and high performing companies in America.

I put that out there for you, the reader, to simply think about for a moment.

Can you imagine facing the death of your spouse, a significant other, or a child—and then having to keep it together enough to also perform at work…sometimes mere days after this life changing occurrence happens?  

Now let me provide a different figure.

Two years.

That is the amount of time the average person needs to start feeling like themselves again after the loss of a spouse. And it is right before that, at about 18 months, that organizations typically lose their bereaved high performers. These individuals are on the cusp of recovery—and then they burn out. And Corporate America isn’t recognizing the correlation between the grief of a worker and their departure because the people in charge don’t understand the length of the grief cycle. Hint: It’s not four or five days.

The grieving process is not easy for anyone, and while some may classify themselves as high performers known for “doing it all,” know that it’s not a breeze for them either. Trust me when I say that I speak from a place of experience. I lost my husband unexpectedly—he passed from a sudden heart attack and my life changed, irrevocably, forever. I felt as if I had fallen down the rabbit hole—the sense of unreality that washed over me in the weeks and months after my husband’s death was something that I had never experienced before. While I was eventually able to overcome it—not get over it—finding normalcy took time. And that is something that I also believe that today’s businesses need to realize.


The Sheryl Sandberg Effect

The perfect example (and I mean that with all due respect to what she is going through right now) of a high performer who is currently dealing with grief in the public eye is Sheryl Sandberg, the Chief Operating Officer of Facebook and author of the Amazon Best Selling book Option B. After suffering the death of her husband, Dave Goldberg, Sandberg received much press about her transition back to work just two weeks after the fact. She has said that she will only work during the hours while her children are at school and travel schedules will be cut for the foreseeable future. Sandberg also has the support of her boss, Mark Zuckerberg, who has been verbal about helping her with anything she needs.

Of course, Sandberg is positioned in a privileged place where she has the ability to call the shots on how she manages her grief—she is worth a billion dollars and holds the number two spot at Facebook. But even with that, I don’t pretend to think that her journey will necessarily be a walk in the park. She’s simply in a different place than the rest of us, especially when considering the challenges that the normal worker faces and the fact that the 1993 legislation—the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA)—doesn’t classify bereavement leave as one of the applicable reasons for receiving 12 weeks of unpaid, job protected downtime. Add to the picture that we live in a world where we are being asked to spend more and more of our time at our offices and away from home, how exactly does grief work into that crowded picture?


The Cost of Grief on Modern Business

The death of a worker’s loved one isn’t the only thing costing American businesses, nor is it the only major life event that affects the productivity, attendance, and retention of high performing employees—divorce and chronic illness also rank high on that list.  

These are all events that allow feelings of grief to be created, and millions of people, both young and old, are impacted each and every year in our country. Now, when you also consider how frequently the working public faces a situation like divorce, the death of a spouse, or illness of a child, it is possible to start to understand the sheer magnitude of what happens when grief is present in the workplace.

And some of the numbers associated with this are startling. According to The Grief Recovery Institute’s 2006 survey, hidden grief costs U.S. companies more than $75 billion annually in lost productivity, lost business, and poor performance. This study, which involved more than 25,000 people, uncovered that which I was already very much aware of—when a person faces grief, they are not able to concentrate. In fact, a poll of business executives who had suffered the loss of a loved one readily acknowledged that they made decisions during their period of grieving that they would never have made under different circumstances.

The Grief Index went on to discover that 50 percent of respondents reported at least 30 days in which their value to their company was diminished. Another 20 percent reported they were impacted for substantially longer periods of time—they were out-of-pocket for longer than 30 days.  

Think about it.

That is 70 percent of the grieving population who feel their work was affected for 30+ days!  And the statistics become even more startling…

Recognizing the grief journey is transversed with equal amounts of support, friends family and especially the company and time in reflection, I applaud Facebook's announcement to have a bereavement policy of up to 22 days. Imagine the loyalty of an employee who is respected enough to have time off? Facebook was thinking of the employees, the payback will be in loyal, productive employees.

I firmly believe that companies need to begin to recognize the impact that grief is having on their workers and also come to the understanding that better resources and support systems need to be created because these people are not failing—they are being faced with life altering circumstances that are rarely addressed in an employee handbook. And leaders—this message for is for you—it impacts your bottom line and competitive edge. Like it or not.

This is where I want us to begin the conversation about grief and the workplace—because it is a serious discussion that has been swept aside or ignored for way too long. It’s time to address it.

What do you think? How has your employer handled a grieving employee? What has been your experience returning to work after facing loss?

Mary Ellen Wasielewski