The Challenges of Employee Grief
At one time or another, every organization has to deal with grief and loss in some capacity. If an employee experiences a death in the family, a serious illness, a traumatic or life-changing event - it is next to impossible to keep those feelings out of the workplace. Expressing sympathy may be easy at first, but it can be difficult when that staff member returns to work following an absence. You're likely to feel unsure of what to say or do. Loss impacts the person directly experiencing it, and it also can be challenging for you.
Effective leaders have empathy… the ability to understand and respond to others, to see the world from someone else's perspective, to step into their shoes. Perhaps you believe that work and personal life should be separate. You may have been told to keep a healthy distance from employees. Be careful, because the work environment has changed.
Work is more than a job and a paycheck. It is a place where people spend 30, 40, 50, 60 or more hours together a week. Good leaders know more about their employees than just the work they do. And employees expect some compassion from a boss and co-workers. They need personal validation. Being impersonal signals disinterest and a lack of caring, and is as risky as being overly involved. Certainly it is important to balance your concern for employees without getting too deeply into their lives. It requires good judgment and tact.
In his book, Primal Leadership, Daniel Goleman describes empathy as the key to retaining talent. Although a positive relationship with a boss is not enough to produce worker productivity, it can significantly contribute to it. And the absence of sensitivity can lead an employee out the door. At the same time, you need to strike the right note in your interpersonal relations with your staff. It is important to be approachable and friendly, yet fair and firm.
It may be that you are worried about saying the “wrong thing,” for example:
Those statements minimize a person's pain and convey a lack of interest on your part. The impact is negative and potentially damaging to your relationship. So how should you handle the situation? It is important for the employee to feel supported by their co-workers and by you. This will aid in their recovery.
1. Express your condolences and be understanding. An emotional wound is really no different than a physical problem. Think about how you would respond if your employee had a broken ankle or a surgical procedure.
2. Acknowledge their grief and listen to their story if they want to tell it. Be patient. Refrain from interrupting. Nod appropriately. Maintain good eye contact and display interest in your facial expression and posture.
3. Expect them to be different and sad. Be concerned without becoming a therapist. Don't get into the counselor role. Avoid giving advice or probing for details. Simply expressing concern is greatly appreciated and often enough.
4. Recognize that the person's performance may be diminished temporarily and offer the appropriate assistance. It may be time off, some degree of job sharing for a period of time, or guidance to community resources.
5. Be caring but objective. The office is a place of business. If your employee becomes too self-revealing or rambles, manage the time by gently redirecting the conversation to a close. For example, “It sounds like you’ve gone through a lot and it will take time to heal. Let me know if I can help in any way. You’re an important member of our dental team and I want you to continue to feel better. Welcome back. (Pause) I’ll let you get back to your patients now.”
6. If productivity and/or office behavior doesn't improve over time, it's important to follow-up. Meet with the employee informally and talk about your observations. Seek mutually agreeable solutions to improve performance.
7. Respect confidentiality. Some subjects are not matters of public discussion in the workplace. These include situations such as your employee's psychological struggles.
In today's increasingly complex world, even rock-solid workers are likely to have times when their lives are affected by a personal crisis. At some point, you probably will be faced with an employee's grief. The skill and humanness exhibited by you, the leader, will be important in the final outcome.
Dr. Haller provides training for leadership effectiveness, interpersonal communication, conflict management, and team building. If you would like to learn more contact her at email@example.com
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