How to Approach Grief in the Workplace

Dealing with grief in the workplace isn't easy, but there are resources. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.
Dealing with grief in the workplace isn't easy, but there are resources. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

At its purest, most essential moments, bars bring us together. Whether it's a group of childhood friends having a homecoming during Thanksgiving or a city pulling together after a calamity, bars exist to offer us a metaphorical port in the storm, a moment of respite from an otherwise chaotic world. But bars are also no stranger to human woe and tragedy. The ingredients that bring people together can also cause undue stress and strife.

Dealing with grief in a customer-facing workplace is never easy, particularly if the business continues to operate. What are some actions owners or managers can do to help their employees? What about customers? Here at Tales, we've explored how the industry deals with substance abuse, unhealthy lifestyles, and burnout behind the bar. But when a disruptive event like a sudden death or unexpected illness happens to someone working in the spirits industry, how can management, employees, and guests move forward?

Amanda Hembree is a Licensed Professional Counselor and Certified Employee Assistance Professional based in New Orleans. She currently runs a private practice specializing in the mental health needs of musicians, culture bearers, and service/hospitality industry workers in the city. Below, she shared with Tales how business owners and employers can best deal with tragedy, and what resources are out there for those grieving.

When a disruptive event like a sudden death or illness happens in a customer-facing workplace, what are some things managers or owners can do to help their employees? What about customers?

"It is important to remember that strong personal bonds are often formed in the workplace, especially in the service/hospitality industry, thus a sudden loss will have a great impact across many levels. Managers and supervisors are put in the difficult position of ensuring their employees are supported while the business keeps running with as little impact on customers as possible. They will often observe issues with attendance, decrease in productivity, and a shock reaction from their employees while trying to maintain sensitivity in reassigning job responsibilities and dealing with their own grief reaction.

Managers should keep in mind that the general mood of the work environment will be altered for some time and that everyone will have their own unique reaction to the loss. There may be resentment or guilt among workers who assume job responsibilities formerly handled by the deceased. It is important to acknowledge and discuss the impact of the death with both staff and regular customers as it can help with a grieving process, and finally, managers can offer guidance and support to workers by assisting them in finding individual counseling if necessary.

Managers should be sensitive and straightforward, willing to listen patiently, understanding that grief can last for an extended period of time, and that employees and regulars may wish to talk about the loss many times. In cases of loss from suicide, homicide or death in the workplace, reactions are normally quite severe and individual counseling or support groups may need to be utilized."

For those without health insurance, are there any good online resources?

"There are a plethora of resources for grief online. Two great ones are Modern Loss and What’s Your Grief. Another couple of affordable options are online therapy apps such as TalkSpace or BetterHelp, which allow affordable ways to have a “therapist in your pocket” at times that are convenient to the user — something that is super helpful with those in the service industry that don’t have schedules that may work with traditional therapy.

In-person grief groups are also a good way to find support during such a difficult time and can be found at Young adults (20-30 somethings), may also find help from The Dinner Party, which hosts potluck dinners for those that have experienced a significant loss."

What are some common reactions when something like this happens?

"There are many reactions that are common with grief, though the intensity of the reactions will vary among individuals. These can be broken down into four main categories: physical, thinking, emotional, and behavioral. Physical can be fatigue, weakness, nausea, rapid heart rate, and sweating/chills. Thinking falls into disbelief, poor concentration, poor attention, nightmares, and increased or decreased awareness of surroundings. Emotional manifests as anxiety, anger, irritability, helplessness, and guilt. Behavioral: Emotional outbursts, loss or increase in appetite, increased alcohol consumption, restlessness, and withdrawal."

What are some self-care or healing practices people can do?

"Listen to yourself, don’t be afraid to cry if you need to, sleep if you’re exhausted, or seek somebody out if you need to talk. Surround yourself with people that are nurturing to you, go on walks, take a bubble bath, or do other inexpensive things that treat yourself well. Obtain proper diet and sleep as well as exercise. This includes limiting alcohol consumption, something especially difficult in the service industry, but all of the above will greatly impact how you feel and how you heal!

Lower expectations for yourself, and ask for help when you need it. Also be aware that others might not know how to react to your grief. It will be awkward, but know most people are attempting comfort the best they can. Consider starting a journal or seeking out counseling or other support if you need it."

Hembree also offered this list of resources for those who can't afford a therapist. Bars and restaurants have long been a haven for those looking for like-minded individuals to share with and bond. With the right resources and management, these relationships can help people through the hard times, as well as the good.

Additional Resources

Seasons Grief & Loss Center in New Orleans provides employers with specialized grief management programs for employees who have experienced the loss of a co-worker or significant other.

Journee formed in the past few years to address substance abuse and mental health concerns in the service industry.

Chefs With Issues Facebook Group is a private setting for those in the restaurant industry to talk openly and honestly amongst each other.

The Heirloom Foundation addresses suicide, substance abuse, and mental health in the food and beverage industry.

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