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Workplace Grief

"Work As a Refuge"

A Study from 1988.




Measuring the experiences of the six individuals and their co-workers, and the policies of the four corporations, against existing theory sheds new light on the dynamics of grief in the workplace. In the first section of this chapter each case will be briefly reviewed with the predominant themes of the individual's back-to-work experience isolated and analyzed. In the second section these themes will be compared and contrasted, and related to existing literature. Certain assumptions about the working bereaved parent will be challenged, suggesting further research and appraisal of corporate employee assistance policy.

Case Study Reviews

In the first case study, Henry, the Korean printing mechanic whose baby daughter died of SIDS, was uncomfortable about bringing his grief into the workplace but did not know how to escape it. He preferred being at work and keeping busy as opposed to having time off. He was concerned that working part- time or not working at all might make him feel more lost or confused. However, one of his main difficulties in returning was dealing with his co-workers.

A private man, Henry had difficulty reaching out to others for support. He would instead try to cover up his feelings, only upsetting him more.

So I try to cover up my feelings and sometimes it's just--it just backfires. I try to, you know, look happy or talk happy, but in my mind, the more I try to do that, the more it upsets myself because I really don't feel like I want to talk happy. I want to be happy, but it's--they have their things to do and I can't just let my problems interfere with work or relationships with other people.

Work kept him busy but the isolation he experienced from not being able to interact with co-workers made him feel even more alone. He wished they might once in a while mention the death and thought their unwillingness to do so was perhaps a result of his withdrawal. Not receiving adequate support in the workplace clearly added an extra emotional burden. Only one co-worker extended himself to Henry, but was unfortunately not on his same shift.

Henry seemed to be introverted and shunned close relationships among his co-workers even before his baby's death. His grief exaggerated an already established isolation at work. Henry exemplifies what Merton (1957) identifies as the "bureaucratic personality." Sensitive to the hierarchy in his organization, Henry conformed to the rules and formalities. He felt powerless and uncomfortable sharing his feelings with his supervisor and only responded to his concerned inquiries in a noncommittal fashion. He did not want the supervisor to be interviewed.

Henry believed his company could best support him by providing a counselor, rather than more time off. He felt that this would give him someone to talk to once a week and help him feel less alone in the workplace. Henry reported often thinking of his baby while working. One co-worker interviewed observed that Henry was working more slowly than usual. His preoccupation with his daughter's death may have been a factor in the injury to his hand while working. Viorst (1986) believes that an increase in accidents is one of the long-term harmful effects of grief.

The death of his baby daughter precipitated Henry's reevaluation of his career and family goals, a common occurrence after the death of a child. Ramsay and Noorbergen (1981) wrote that an entirely new behavior pattern has to be created by the bereaved, his family, friends, and acquaintances in order to help him find the most appropriate way of strengthening the beginnings of a new existence. Searching for meaning in her death, Henry considered entry into the ministry. He wanted to be a better father to his remaining two children, whose grief created additional pain for Henry and his wife.

Henry made two major changes in his life in the course of the six month interview period. He moved to a new apartment as a way to avoid the reminders of his baby daughter, and he changed jobs. Both of these changes provided him with opportunities to provide better for his surviving children. Protective of his grief, Henry kept his baby's death private in his new workplace. Tatelbaum's experience (1980) was that after a death one's perspective on life is altered and changes are common.

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