Let’s talk about death and the workplace

Published Nov. 17, 2021, 11:38 a.m. by Sini-Maria Melanen

Now that millions of lives have been lost to the pandemic, death positivity in employer branding is more essential than ever.

It’s a harsh reality that emotions related to death and grief are often swept under the carpet. This is especially common at the workplace, where it’s not considered acceptable to show grief. However, the pandemic has made it harder for us to ignore death, loss and the need to mourn. So far, 5.10 million people have lost their lives due to COVID-19 and funeral homes have seen soaring demand for their services. People have also suffered from the loss of the lifestyle they once had while embracing ‘the new normal’.

We experience a sense of loss in many ways. We may grieve when we lose a loved one, our jobs or our co-workers due to reductions in the workforce. And although grief is usually associated with death, traumatic events can also be a trigger. Nowadays talking about work-related stress has mostly been normalized, but many of us still find it difficult to have workplace conversations with colleagues who may have lost a spouse, one of the most stressful life events.

It seems clear we should talk more about death and loss at work. Are employers prepared to meet the needs of employees who are struggling with grief? Death positivity is a rising movement that believes hiding death behind closed doors can do more harm than good for our society. Given the unprecedented human toll of the pandemic and related job losses and other upheavals, it may well be time to incorporate death positivity in employer branding.

The cost of grief

It can be hard to find ways to comfort someone who has been affected by death or loss. Many of us avoid discussing or even thinking about these unpleasant realities, so much so that when faced with their brutal reality, we don’t know how to act or what to say. But employers need to understand grief and how to support employees when they are experiencing loss.

There are social and economic costs when grief is not addressed properly. A lack of legally mandated bereavement leave can lead to workers taking unpaid leave or worse, returning to their desks immediately after a huge loss, with emotional turmoil resulting in reduced productivity. Even before the pandemic, grief was estimated to cost employers in the US up to USD 75 billion every year due to lost productivity. Employers now face the challenge of updating their employee support structures and employer branding to support workers in difficult times.

How to do it?

For employers, the first step in death positivity is acknowledging that some employees may be dealing with grief that they find hard to express. Supporting employees during traumatic and painful times is a positive way to stand out, and a great opportunity to break the silence around death and step into ‘grief leadership’.

Leaders should encourage a work culture that’s open about death and grief by sharing their own stories. Including death positivity in your corporate values might seem like a bold move, but it’s worth considering. Informing employees about the conditions for bereavement leave can make it easier for them to take the time they need to recover from grief and loss. If these standards haven’t already been established, it’s time to catch up.