Including Grief Management in Employee Wellness Programs

In our current economic climate, healthcare and employee wellness is on everyone’s minds—from the C-level on down to the entry-level employee. However, just how is wellness and health defined? What does it include? What conditions or situations does it address? Ultimately, the conceptual framework behind employee wellness is about much more than just the cost of insurance premiums, but rather what true comprehensive balance looks like in a worker’s life—and how it serves to benefit a company when it is realized, or negatively impact an organization when it is not.

In my professional life, I directly counsel with organizations about how they oversee one very specific component of healthcare—namely that of grief management. There should be little surprise to realize that the majority of companies do not see this as an important part of their employee wellness program. Few have any idea that this is something that should be addressed and managed, and even fewer have a plan for how to handle a grieving employee. This is what I hope to change—I want to create new awareness about why companies should be making grief management a part of their employee wellness program—it serves not only to benefit an employee, but also provide a return to the business.

So, how then, is an employee wellness program currently defined? It is an organized, employer-sponsored program that is designed to support employees (and sometimes, their families) as they adopt and sustain behaviors that reduce health risks, improve the quality of life, enhance personal effectiveness, and benefit the organization’s bottom line. Most oftentimes, these programs include exercise and nutrition programs, smoking cessation programs, stress management programs, and the like. They are designed to help improve the health of a labor force and assist employees in overcoming specific health-related issues. Sometimes, these programs are directly instituted via a formalized office setting, or they are delivered by a third-party provider. Employers foot the bill for these types of programs because when employee health and wellness are focused on—productivity and profits tend to increase.

So why is Grief Management a Foreign Concept?

Frankly speaking, the idea of a grief management program is not only a foreign concept in the majority of workplaces—but those organizations that have implemented such a program are considered cutting edge.

What’s more is that the need for this type of program is only going to increase. According to the Wall Street Journal, in an era when the median age of the workforce is rising fast, most employers’ bereavement policies and programs are stuck in the 1960s. Employers need to face and prepare for grief and end-of-life issues in the future, because guess what? Right now there are 76 million Baby Boomers that are growing older—together. Significant losses and grief are going to hit this generation, as well as their younger counterparts, like a tidal wave for the next several decades—when it becomes the Gen Xers’ and Millennials’ time to then grieve the loss of their parents and grandparents.

Unfortunately, there are conflicting messages in the modern workplace about grief—and even more confusion about how it is supposed to be appropriately handled. Why? In all honesty, for a variety of issues, but also because it is focused on a taboo subject. After all, we don’t like to address the topic of death in our personal lives. Why would we believe that Corporate America is any more comfortable with it?

The Need for Corporate Leadership

As much as employee wellness programs are typically a function of the Human Resources department, instituting a grief management directive is not something that can begin and end with the HR manager. Buy-in to this sort of program must come from the very highest levels.

After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, USA Today interviewed John Dasburg, the CEO of Burger King at the time, on the topic of grief in the workplace. Featured as the cover story, Dasburg was picked specifically for this article because of his firsthand experience with grief. He publicly shared his experience dealing with the loss of his six-year-old daughter, Meredith. The little girl died in a car accident 13 years earlier. He said, “No one can stand it, the pain is so intense. It has never gone away for me. You learn to live with it, you get accustomed to it, you accommodate it.”

However, the road for Dasburg was rocky—and one that many grieving employees of all ranks face. When the death of his daughter occurred, Dasburg was working in executive leadership at Marriott. In the weeks after Meredith’s passing, he gradually returned to work, trying to regain normalcy in his routine. But the sorrow wouldn’t subside, and he resigned a year later. He ended up moving to Minneapolis, and taking on the role of CEO at Northwest Airlines. He made this move just to escape the reminders of his daughter in his everyday life.

As tragic as this is, it was his boss, Marriott CEO Bill Marriott, who actually predicted that Dasburg would not last at the company—that he would have to resign and move on. Yet, nothing was done on behalf of the organization to try to help and retain one of their top executives. Now, I’m not calling the Marriott Corporation an uncaring organization—it’s quite possible that they simply didn’t know how to help.

And then, consider this story, recounted by Fred Lowe, the business manager for Laborers’ Local 777 in Southern California.   Lowe says, “There was a member in the police department who lost his wife. After her death, he would start disappearing for over an hour at a time after coming to work. Rather than try to get him some help, his supervisor began progressive discipline on him to try and straighten him out. He had been a solid citizen for 20 years at work! Any problem that isn’t a physical disability is seldom handled with grace.”

What this tells me? Leaders and managers need to better understand how to handle grief in order to help their employees face their new reality.

Healthy Employees = Healthy Business

According to the American Hospice Foundation, prior to 9/11, nearly eight million people in the U.S. were directly affected annually by someone else’s death in previous years. And half of those were active members of the workforce during their own personal grieving period. That’s a big number—so how can a business help?

Of course, I understand that the first responsibility of an employer is to the business. However, the health of a business depends on the health of its most valuable resource—its employees. Giving assistance to grieving employees yields valuable dividends that result in improved profitability, productivity, and retention. Moreover, a grief management program, implemented as part of an employee wellness program, will aid in developing employee loyalty and goodwill.

It is up to CEOs, human resources managers, union leaders, and other workforce thought leaders to work together in addressing this growing concern as they are in the best positions to establish and negotiate compassionate programs and policies. If this is left unaddressed, reports show that grief can cost employers $300B per year. That number is only going to rise as the Baby Boomer generation ages. Now is the time to begin developing a new dialogue surrounding grief in the workplace—and think about it as a part of managing employee wellness, and not the big elephant in the room that no one wants to acknowledge.

For more information on how I can help you institute a grief management plan that pays dividends to your organization and contributes to a comprehensive employee assistance program, visit

Mary Ellen Wasielewski