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Adding Insult to Injury: When a Type A-Driven Company Shuts Down Workplace Grief – Part I

Mark Gorkin, MSW, LICSW, "The Stress Doc" ™, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, is an acclaimed keynote and kickoff speaker as well as "Motivational Humorist ...Read More

This is a rant disguised as a thoughtful essay. However, before spewing, (hopefully without making an ash of myself) let me provide some background data. Contemplation will follow ventilation, i.e., some meaningful and supportive ideas regarding the grief process.

A prominent financial securities company requested a Critical Incident/Grief Intervention. One of their long-time brokers, a gentleman in his late 50s, married with a son in college, had recently retired. (I will call him Paul.) Actually, Paul’s decision to retire was not truly voluntary despite his being much beloved and admired for his gregarious and very giving nature. For many years Paul productively shared time, energy, and resources with one and all – from colleagues to community charities. (He was reported to have 35,000 names in his Rolodex!)

Alas, Paul was likely suffering from a worsening bipolar illness over the past two years. Like many in the financial industry, he seemed to lead a high risk-high reward “larger than life” work-lifestyle. Apparently, the repressed economic conditions and concomitant stress had taken a toll on the status of his client list and his mind-body, bringing to the forefront pre-existing manic-depressive tendencies. Paul’s behavior at work was becoming increasingly erratic, and he needed to be hospitalized. Despite several attempts by the company to support the treatment plan, Paul would check himself out of the hospital against medical advice. He also was not taking the prescribed medication, and was becoming increasingly suspicious and pessimistic in his thinking. Unfortunately, untreated bipolar illness can be fatal; not surprisingly, over the weekend, two days before my arrival, Paul took his life with a handgun blast to the head.

Why the Anger?

A day before the intervention, the Human Resources Director mentioned that she wanted me to speak for ten minutes about the typical impact of such a tragic incident on employees, both as individuals and as a collective. However, in an early morning conference with the CEO and the HR Director, the former changed his tune, much to the surprise of the HR Director. He would say some words about Paul at the “all hands” meeting, and I would be cloistered in an office: those who wanted to meet with me could do so, but only on their own initiative. He even discouraged walking around and introducing myself to people, perhaps facilitating some spontaneous discussion and sharing of thoughts and emotions.

The HR Director still held out hope that I might attend a meeting with the personnel in Paul’s former department. A manager in the unit, a female, was very supportive of my speaking to the team. Alas, as I was about to walk into the conference room, the Department Head, a man around 60 years of age, bluntly pronounced, “He’s not to be in here!”

What was going on? Was this just macho-Type A-“don’t let them see you sweat or tear up” psycho-cultural behavior? (And I’ll let you decide where the emphasis goes on the “p-c” italicized terminology.) If only it was that straightforward. While I was encouraged to meet with Pauls’ female Administrative Assistant and another male employee who Paul had mentored (who, I discovered, knowingly chose not to come to work this day), top management was definitely walling me off from the staff. And my concern and frustration was building.

Based on years of critical incident experience, I am all too aware that not only is there grief for the lost colleague; in addition, this kind of sudden and violent death, even if not so surprising, is still shocking or fairly incomprehensible for those in mourning’s orbit. And invariably, such a jarring vulnerable state rattles one’s own Pandora’s Box, bringing to the fore “grief ghosts” or personal demons – memories of prior losses along with smoldering guilt and regrets or shameful failures – both of longstanding and recent duration. (In addition, anticipated losses, for example, the impending death of an aging parent, the possibility of being downsized, etc., become fodder for this potentially volatile mix.) And the three people I spoke with (all women, perhaps not surprising in a testosterone-driven environment), only confirmed my hard-earned understanding.

Four Brief “Ghost” Vignettes

1. Administrative Assistant. This assistant had worked directly with Paul for nearly ten years. She was well aware of his deteriorating condition. While wishing she could have done more to help him, the assistant was not beating herself up. She had seen her mother unmercifully torment herself after the assistant’s brother had committed suicide when she was a teenager. She recognized that the hardest part of this tragedy would be “never seeing Paul again.”

2. Human Resources Director. The HR director also was realistic about what can be done when a person is determined to end his life. She and the company had done all they could in terms of Paul’s treatment and “retirement.” However, when I mentioned my frustration about being “walled off,” about not being able to help people share their feelings regarding Paul while connecting with their own personal experiences of loss, this woman, with tears welling up, immediately associated to the death of her husband ten years earlier. We all bring our “grief ghost” pain to work.

3. Department Manager. The HR Director had indicated this Manager needed to speak with me; she would drop by my office shortly. When she never showed, I asked the HR Director to firmly encourage her. When she finally showed, this woman of 40, who had wanted me to participate in the department meeting, teared up quickly as she spoke of Paul’s more recent “sturm und drang.” Yet again, upon mentioning the normative concept of “grief ghosts,” there was a soulful outpouring, this time of a recent shock to her system. She had just been diagnosed with skin cancer, and some form of radiation treatment would start within the week. (Having had “cutthroat surgery” to surgically remove a tumor from my thyroid, I understood somewhat her wave of anxiety.)

4. Department Head. The above Director and Manager both apologized for the stoic male culture and shed additional light on why the Department Head had likely been so brusque in his stop-order: his son had committed suicide! Clearly this individual was “protecting” himself from subterranean emotional pools in which he did not want to submerge.

I could admire a man who chose to participate in such an emotionally charged venue, whether he spoke of his pain or not. I would respect a man who decided to excuse himself from such a meeting, whether he chose to explain his motives or not. But the real frustration is not this DH’s ability to control my access; my dismay comes from his power to deny other team members an opportunity to share, grieve, and reminisce in a uniquely intimate and potentially therapeutic setting.

Benefits of Structured Workplace Grief

In contrast to setting strict boundaries on a grief counselor, there are several major personal, team, and organizational benefits for a company that facilitates a more open, “all hands-heads-hearts” approach to structured workplace grief:

1) Walk the Talk, Don’t Fuel It – the organization “walks its talk” about having compassion for their employees; a company acknowledges that certain critical events take precedence over “business as usual”; not responding appropriately to the above detailed critical incident may open top management to speculative criticism about their actions while the employee was still alive,

2) Facilitates Expression and Acceptance – it facilitates if not the full the expression of pain at least an acceptance of grief emotions and the asking of questions about the deceased, his or her family, ways of memorializing the deceased, or supporting the family; in general, structured openness illuminates and validates the grief process,

3) Opportunity for Education and Evaluation – allowing a grief counselor to address large and small groups of people not only is an opportunity to provide grief (and perhaps mental health/illness) education, it also enables employees to check out the grief counselor; that is, is this an individual I might feel comfortable talking with individually, someone I might be willing to risk sharing my own vulnerability?,

4) Identifies “Grief Ghost” Carriers – invariably, a significant percentage of employees are walking around with work-family-personal stress that drains energy and attention and/or are harboring “grief ghosts” (intense and/or unstable emotions and memories connected to past losses or traumas) that affect both productivity and the quality of work relations. When compounded by a tragic event or some kind of crisis, people already in an emotionally sensitive, uncertain, or vulnerable place are in need of and especially ripe for a “reach out and touch someone” message,

5) Potential to Reduce Hazardous Environments – in an age of workplace harassment and bullying, grief intervention has the potential for early detection of troubled individuals and/or disruptive work relations; when workplace (and community) violence routinely make headlines, prevention is your most important intervention process!

6) Receptivity for Support and Problem-Solving – people touched by mourning are often ready for momentary venting and a reassuring shoulder as well as being receptive to new problem-solving resources; e.g., after a brief one-on-one with a grief counselor, people are frequently more open to considering an “in-house,” company sponsored, Employee Assistance Program (EAP) referral for short-term counseling,

7) Affirms a “Work Family” and Allows for Venting – in light of the close professional and often personal nature of work relations, a grief session for members of the deceased’s team or department is especially vital and valuable; such a session affirms a sense of “work family” or a close-knit caring community, as individuals share personal associations or connections to the tragic loss; it helps members discover they are not alone with their jumble of emotions; people may vent their confusion or even anger at the deceased, at God, at the company, etc., and group discussion may help clear up any misunderstandings or circulating rumors, and finally,

8) Recognize and Integrate the Deceased’s Strengths – with proper facilitation, a team session may encourage individuals to recognize the qualities in the deceased they particularly admired and transform this sharing into two processes that enable the spirit of the deceased to symbolically, psychically, and productively walk the workplace halls and floors:

a. Individual Identification/Integration – for example, if a team member says he admired the deceased’s ability to give people undivided attention in conversation, this individual can be encouraged to practice and apply more undivided and empathic listening and questioning skills; and by doing so, the deceased’s spirit more strongly lives within the individual, and

b. Collective Identification/Integration – if an entire team or department selects a variety of admired qualities to emulate and assimilate, then a “fallen soldier’s” spirit truly burns not just within an individual psyche but also in the mental maps and heartbeats as well as the soulful rhythms and courageous communications of the collective consciousness.

Closing Summary

The above essay illustrates the defensive and short-sighted modus operandi of a macho-driven work culture. The essay also depicts how such a culture, during times of death and grief, buries their minds and emotions in the sand, thereby losing a unique opportunity to impact not just the bottom line, but also the interconnected heads, hearts, and spiritual well-being of the employees and the organization.

While not having a chance to give my grief talk, the final segment of this workplace grief series will be a written version of the words I was hoping to share with the company’s employees. Until then…Practice Safe Stress!

Keep Reading By Author Mark Gorkin, LCSW ("The Stress Doc")
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