What to Say (and Do) When You Don’t Have the Right Words

By Erica Jenkins

Advice on handling grief and loss in the workplace from UT Knoxville faculty members Laura Wheat and Laura Miller

Someone Experiencing Loss

Set Communication Expectations
Let your supervisor and co-workers know your preferences about discussing your loss.

Ask for What You Need
Someone who hasn’t experienced your type of loss may not understand the adjustments your loss requires. Talk honestly about your needs.

Give Yourself Space
Grief doesn’t happen in linear stages. It occurs in roller coaster cycles that vary in intensity over time. If you need to step away for a minute to process feelings of grief, give yourself that latitude.

Don’t Avoid Your Grief
When we process grief, we can overindulge in coping mechanisms including food and substances to avoid the intensity of those feelings. While painful, it’s in your best interest long-term to experience and process your grief.

Supervisors

Acknowledge the Loss
Let employees know that you understand they are experiencing a life-changing loss. This can be a powerful way to open the door for additional conversations.

Take Initiative
Ask how you and the office can support them and talk about what accommodations, if needed, are possible within UT policy.

Check In
Grief is a process, and it’s important to check in with employees occasionally to understand where they are and if their needs have changed.

Follow the Leader
Your employees may view work as a safe place to escape from grief. Have a conversation where you ask about their preferences.

Keep Your Door Open
Depending on the type of loss, the grief may take a long time to work through. Make it clear that your door is open for conversations if employees need to discuss situations with you.

Offer Flexibility Within UT Policies
Loss may require employees to work out new routines. If you can, be flexible if employees need to leave early or come in late.

Don’t Wait Until It’s Too Late
Don’t wait until employees have accumulated fireable offenses to address performance issues. Monitor behaviors, and if patterns emerge, open conversations so that there are opportunities to discuss issues.

Address Performance Empathetically
Don’t start performance conversations with grieving employees with evaluation statements such as, “I’ve noticed that performance is noticeably suffering.” Start with open-ended questions and give employees opportunities to address issues first.

Co-Workers

Recognize That Loss Comes in All Forms
It’s not unusual for people to associate loss with a death. However, loss can come in many forms, such as divorce, loss of a pet and a child going to college. Each form of loss can result in grief.

Acknowledge the Loss
It’s important to be supportive by recognizing when something significant happens.

Open the Door for Conversations
If you’re comfortable with your co-workers, let them know that you’re a safe place to talk.

Offer Distractions
There will come a time when it may be nice for people in grief to get away from the office. Don’t be afraid to invite them to lunch or give them something else to focus on.

Pay Attention
If you notice changes in your co-workers’ behavior, don’t be shy about asking if there’s anything you can do to help.

This is Part 4 of 4 from our first series of stories about grief and loss. Read parts 1, 2, and 3.


Erica Jenkins HeadshotErica Jenkins  Contact
UT System Administration

Erica joined the UT System Office of Communications and Marketing in 2011 and currently serves as public relations associate, specializing in measurement and analytics and managing communication planning for government relations and advocacy initiatives. When she’s not involved in community and campus organizations, Erica enjoys deep sea fishing with her family and working on music. 

Disclaimer
Posts represent the views, expertise and recommendations of their authors and do not necessarily reflect an endorsement by the University of Tennessee. Furthermore, the content of the blog is for informational purposes only. The content of the blog is not, and is not intended to be used as, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.

Don’t Misunderstand: Interpreting Grief Behaviors

By Erica Jenkins

Most employees can function at work when grieving, but there will likely be behavior changes supervisors and co-workers may notice. Paying attention to these behaviors and understanding that they are related to the grief experience is the first step to being supportive during the grief process.

For supervisors responsible for employee performance, monitoring employee behavior during grief is especially important, as it allows the supervisor a way to be accommodating but also provides an empathetic avenue to address performance issues related to grief if the behavior persists.

It must be noted, that in order to correctly evaluate employee behavior, a supervisor must know the employee’s work habits and characteristics prior to the loss.

Dr. Laura Wheat, a clinical assistant professor in UT Knoxville’s College of Education, Health and Human Sciences explained the following common grief behaviors employees may exhibit and the reasons behind them.

1. Extreme, Yet In-Character Behavior

When grieving, we turn to our natural coping mechanisms because they make us feel better. Naturally shy and withdrawn co-workers may isolate themselves more. More outgoing co-workers may spend a lot of time joking around at the water cooler or finding reasons to have a meeting because that interaction is comforting and provides a distraction.

2. Reduced Productivity or Preoccupation

Employees in grief may appear preoccupied or have reduced productivity because they are processing the loss and trying to make sense out of it, especially with a death loss.

3. Arriving Late or Leaving Early

Depending on the type of loss, an employee may arrive late or need to leave early. A loss can create a change in the family routine that may take time for the employee to adjust.

4. Calling in Sick

You may observe a co-worker in grief getting sick and taking more sick days. While some may think the employee is faking illness to get out of work because they’re sad, grief takes a lot of energy and actually lowers the immune system’s ability to fight off infection

This is Part 3 of 4 from our first series of stories about grief and loss. Read parts 1, 2, and 4.


Erica Jenkins HeadshotErica Jenkins  Contact
UT System Administration

Erica joined the UT System Office of Communications and Marketing in 2011 and currently serves as public relations associate, specializing in measurement and analytics and managing communication planning for government relations and advocacy initiatives. When she’s not involved in community and campus organizations, Erica enjoys deep sea fishing with her family and working on music. 

Disclaimer
Posts represent the views, expertise and recommendations of their authors and do not necessarily reflect an endorsement by the University of Tennessee. Furthermore, the content of the blog is for informational purposes only. The content of the blog is not, and is not intended to be used as, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.

Doctors’ Orders: It’s OK to Be Sad

By Erica Jenkins

“Loss can be any experience that demands the surrender of something that is personally significant or familiar,” explained Laura Wheat, a clinical assistant professor in UT Knoxville’s College of Education, Health and Human Sciences. And grief is how we express and acknowledge our loss.

The personal nature of grief also makes it a difficult topic for many to address in the workplace, said Laura Miller, a health communication researcher in UT Knoxville’s School of Communication Studies.

“There’s something about the workplace setting that seems to confuse people about how to deal with grief,” Miller said. “It confuses grievers too, because they’re not sure if they are allowed to have their human experience out in public in the workplace.”

This is Part 2 of 4 from our first series of stories about grief and loss. Read parts 1, 3, and 4.


Erica Jenkins HeadshotErica Jenkins  Contact
UT System Administration

Erica joined the UT System Office of Communications and Marketing in 2011 and currently serves as public relations associate, specializing in measurement and analytics and managing communication planning for government relations and advocacy initiatives. When she’s not involved in community and campus organizations, Erica enjoys deep sea fishing with her family and working on music. 

Disclaimer
Posts represent the views, expertise and recommendations of their authors and do not necessarily reflect an endorsement by the University of Tennessee. Furthermore, the content of the blog is for informational purposes only. The content of the blog is not, and is not intended to be used as, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.

Find the Silver Lining in Loss

By Erica Jenkins

Justin Crowe had just arrived in Washington, D.C. for a conference in 2010 when his parents called, and the news wasn’t good.

“They told me that my brother, my only brother, had passed away,” recalled Crowe, a UT Extension specialist with Tennessee 4-H.

It was a shock – Justin’s brother was only 36.

Standing at a Metro bus stop in D.C. that night, Justin called his supervisor, Steve Sutton. “I just broke down,” Justin said. “It didn’t really hit me until I talked to somebody. I told him that I didn’t know what was going to happen, but that I was going to do the best I could.”

Steve Sutton was only a year into his first supervisory role and hadn’t been in a situation like that before. So he relied on his instinct.

“I tried to treat Justin as I would want to be treated. A person can only handle so much, and I knew our staff was a team and could handle things while he grieved,” Steve said.

Back in Tennessee, Justin’s support network kicked into action.

Justin’s Extension family drove, some more than 100 miles, to the funeral. Cards poured in from across the state. The 4-H youth leadership team he worked with pooled their money and sent a wreath.

“I still have that wreath hanging on my front door. It’s starting to fade, but every day when I walk out, I look at it and think of the memory of my brother and that a group of 4-H’ers cared enough about me to do that,” Justin said.

This is Part 1 of 4 from our first series of stories about grief and loss. Read parts 2, 3, and 4.


Erica Jenkins HeadshotErica Jenkins  Contact
UT System Administration

Erica joined the UT System Office of Communications and Marketing in 2011 and currently serves as public relations associate, specializing in measurement and analytics and managing communication planning for government relations and advocacy initiatives. When she’s not involved in community and campus organizations, Erica enjoys deep sea fishing with her family and working on music. 

Disclaimer
Posts represent the views, expertise and recommendations of their authors and do not necessarily reflect an endorsement by the University of Tennessee. Furthermore, the content of the blog is for informational purposes only. The content of the blog is not, and is not intended to be used as, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.

Making Wellness a Workplace Conversation

Wellness doesn’t start when the workday ends, it’s a 24/7 commitment, and the University of Tennessee understands the role a supportive workplace plays in helping employees live healthy and balanced lives.

Work Healthy UT is a new statewide initiative led by the UT System Office of Human Resources to better communicate the dozens of health and wellness resources available to our employees and to create a network for connecting to others with similar interests, sharing success stories, recommending tips and offering support.

Let us know if there are topics you’re interested in learning more about or stories that would be helpful. We’re also looking for guest bloggers if you’re interested in contributing to the blog.

Disclaimer
Posts represent the views, expertise and recommendations of their authors and do not necessarily reflect an endorsement by the University of Tennessee. Furthermore, the content of the blog is for informational purposes only. The content of the blog is not, and is not intended to be used as, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.