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How to navigate grief in the post-pandemic workplace

This article was originally published in the World Economic Forum's The Agenda blog. You can read the original article here.


Two years ago, our relatively stable lives and structures were upended by the pandemic. We collectively went through incredible amounts of grief and pain, and we have had limited opportunities to process it all over the last two years. 

As a result, all of that grief is locked up inside the offices, teams, and workplaces of every organization across the country, and maybe even around the world. That build-up of grief is leading to burnout, endless fatigue, loss of focus, and changes in employee engagement– all of which are negatively impacting companies and organizations. The great resignation, which took place throughout the pandemic, is a prime example. 

Employees resigned by the masses over the last year as a result of burnout, endless stress, and the dramatic blurring of lines separating work and personal life. These factors caused many to deeply contemplate the values they want to maintain in their lives, and how they want to live and work moving forward. 

​​Workplace culture played a crucial role in their choice to resign. Employees operating in toxic work environments, or in environments in which they felt uncared for contributed to larger numbers of employees resigning.

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How many people have lost someone to COVID-19?

Since the beginning of the pandemic, there have been over 5 million deaths so far worldwide due to COVID-19. With these deaths, we often forget about those who are left behind to grieve. To quantify just how many people are impacted – there are roughly nine close family members who are left to grieve following one COVID death. 

When we look at Canada, there have been roughly ​​36,005 deaths due to COVID. This translates to 324,045 close family members who are grieving the death of a loved one – this does not include close friends and non-blood relatives. This figure also does not include those who are grieving the loss of celebrations and other forms of connection.

Toxic work environments are driving the Great Resignation

As of December 2021, there were approximately 7.7 million workers in Canada. If we assume that all 324,045 people who are grieving are workers, that implies that 4.2% of all employees in Canada have been grieving the loss of a close family member or loved one. As stated above, the lines between home and work are so blurred right now, that it is virtually impossible for this grief to not have an impact on productivity.

So let’s talk about productivity. As of December 2020, Canada’s total Gross Domestic Product - the universally accepted measure of productivity - was 16.70 billion USD. All else being equal, if 4.2% of workers have had their productivity compromised as a result of their grief, that means that up to 684.69 million dollars of productivity and business growth has been directly affected by grief.

Data published by MIT Sloan in January 2022 indicated that a toxic workplace was far and away - by a factor of nearly 3X - is a leading contributor to the Great Resignation. Every single day, millions of employees are working in these unhealthy and toxic work environments. Overlaid onto this are the aforementioned grief statistics. Millions of workers are grieving, while also managing the stressors that come from a toxic work environment.

These toxic work environments leave employees to feel uncared for, harassed and discriminated against. All these factors have led to their choice to resign, which lead to immense losses for employers. These losses have been widely cited across a number of studies as losses in productivity, losses in employee engagement, decreased retention of staff, and the associated costs of labor replacement – particularly poignant in a labor market that is experiencing a skills and job shortage rarely seen before. 

The value of building a compassionate company culture

To quote Peter Drucker, “Culture Eats Strategy For Breakfast”. Data shows that investing in the retention of disengaged staff is far more cost-effective in the long term when we compare the cost to retrain and replace workers. According to Gallup, it costs a company “$9,000 a year to keep each disengaged worker.” This short-term loss has long-term benefits when we learn that it “requires one-half to two times the employee's annual salary” to replace them. This means that if a worker’s annual salary is $50,000, it could cost employers “between $25,000 and $100,000 to replace them,” instead of working to retain and reengage.

It is more cost-effective to reengage employees and create a space that fosters safety, compassion and the opportunity for vulnerability. This will help to retain their talent, as well as increase recruitment opportunities for the future. For example, when employees feel cared for, they’re 60% more likely to remain at a company for three or more years. These same employees are “90% more likely to suggest their company as an exceptional place to work” to others.

How to support grieving employees

To ensure workplaces retain their talent and continue to grow, they need to implement a grief-literate and human-first approach within their organization as to how they can best navigate grief in the workplace.

To best navigate, support, and address grief in the workplace, employers need to provide the necessary support and resources to their leaders and team members. First on the list includes the implementation of a comprehensive bereavement leave policy. This policy should provide paid time off for employees that is longer than the current 3 paid days allotted for full-time employees. This policy would also integrate various religious perspectives to allow for all the diverse funerary practices and ceremonies in the world.

Employers will also provide ongoing support for grieving employees following a grief event. This can include an increased allotment for their yearly benefits such as therapy, counselling and even massage therapy.

Finally, organizations need to ensure that their team leaders are provided with grief training. This allows them to best navigate their team’s grief and to have better, human-first conversations with employees.

To ensure your organization has an effective post-covid recovery, a grief literacy approach must be implemented that puts people first and humanizes how people are allowed to navigate grief.

How will your workplace choose to address grief with its employees? 

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