Grief in the Workplace
By Lance Decker, Certified Grief Recovery Specialist
Lately, I have noticed some interesting behaviors at my workplace. Let me first set the stage for you with the conditions surrounding this. I live and work in the Houston, TX area and my company has been adversely affected by the recent drop in oil prices. We realize most of our income through the supply of steel products directly to drillers. When the drilling slows or stops, so does our business. To illustrate this, when I started with this company back in December of 2014, there were approximately 1920 drilling rigs working in North America. Today there are less than 500. As you can imagine the business has suffered greatly. Fortunately, the company has good cash reserves and does not seem to be in any financial difficulty. That said, however, the company is smart about manpower and costs during an “oil bust” time period and has started a series of mill closures and reduced capacity to match the current demand. As this occurs, the company also is reducing overhead employees, many with seniority.
So, you may ask, “Why would you be bothered? You still have a job.” This is exactly the question in my mind as I feel my morale, and that of the other employees left behind, decline. First, inside even large companies, there is a building of community. It is natural for people to get to know others and invest feeling and emotions in others within the workplace. There’s a funny description of men and women within the workplace that become close called an “office wife” or “office husband.” While quite odd, I have had this odd relationship occur within my own work experience. Regardless, people build bonds within the workplace. Unfortunately, in difficult times, companies reassess the usefulness of every position and every person filling them. People (real people, not numbers) are laid off and relationships are lost or reduced by those leaving as well as those left behind. The familiarity of the workplace changes. There’s an empty desk. Familiar patterns of coffee or water cooler talk are disrupted. This is nearly the text book definition of grief. “The conflicting feelings cause by the end of (or change of) a familiar pattern of behavior.” It is conflicting because, well, I retained my job, but my friend lost his or hers.
I see symptoms of grief everywhere. People are distracted for days following a layoff. There is a fear, a discomfort, that perhaps this round of layoffs are not quite over. People gather in small groups and compare the lists of who was let go. In addition others take on the work of those no longer employed and try to figure out what they were doing and what priorities were most important for that departed person. There is a fear of what the future holds and a bit of paralysis before work begins slowly to return to a new normal.
In addition to the lost relationships of a layoff, as the company continues to evaluate the future, there is an expectation of new layoffs. Tensions grow and production decreases. Having been distracted by the stress of the situation, employees are more prone to accidents. The hopes and dreams of people are jeopardized. The expectations of raises and promotions are vanishing. The security for which we all work is undermined. In response, people who are still working are distracted, cannot sleep, and have steeper highs and lows of activity. I observe demoralization in some and scrambling in others. I see political rivals pressing for position and recognition.
So, what can we do in the workplace to relieve this stress, to recover from loss, and get back on task? Perhaps the first step is to recognize that there is grief for those still working. Managers have to allow employees to move through grief by being a listening ear, by being human beings, and by giving accurate information. It is my experience that managers feel the same way during these periods. If a manager can relate his own feelings of loss and fear about the future, then the employee can see his or her manager in a new light. Managers naturally receive more detail about the business and future plans, so, when appropriate, a manager can give hints of safety or the lack thereof so employees can plan for the immediate future. Understanding where we stand can help us find a level of understanding of our individual situation and give new hope either within the current job or in searching for a new one.
Grief does in fact expand in businesses that are shrinking. It is vital to companies in this position to recognize the symptoms and humanize the experience that all too often is a numbers game. Employees that remain need not only time and space to process the loss of friends and security, but they need caring managers that open up with their own feelings and listen to those of their employees left behind after a layoff.