Few things highlight society’s expectation that you “get over” your grief quite like returning to the workplace. According to the U.S. Department of Labor when addressing funeral leave, “The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) does not require payment for time not worked, including attending a funeral. This type of benefit is generally a matter of agreement between an employer and an employee (or the employee’s representative).” That’s all it says. It actually doesn’t even require that you’re given any unpaid time off to go to a funeral.
If your employer does offer bereavement time, the standard allowance after the death of a member of your immediate family is between three to five days. Can you imagine losing someone you share your life with and being expected to return to work three days later? Sadly, many people can because they have to. The harsh reality is that we’re often expected to return to the office far sooner than we’re ready.
So how do you navigate your work-grief balance?
Give yourself permission to NOT be “over it.”
People are generally good and know enough to give you some space with your grief. But your co-workers’ lives have not been impacted by a recent loss so their world is just fine; over time their empathy can wear thin. They will continue working as effectively as they always have and may expect you to quickly return to the same level of productivity you were at before. This can be especially painful when it’s been a few months since your loss and you’re wondering, “Are they right? Should I be over this by now?” Grief after a major loss is a long learning curve. You’re going to have good and bad days and moments, but you are not failing if you are having trouble working as productively as you once did. You’re just finding out where this new grief fits into this part of your old life.
Expect your fuse to be shorter.
Your emotional burden is so heavy that some inane action or comment from a coworker can unleash a disproportional fury from you. Do your best to be conscious of this behavior. When you feel the anger or frustration welling up, take a breath and ask yourself if you’re really mad about what just happened, where the anger is coming from, and whether that anger is justified.
Find an escape.
So you feel the emotion welling up and maybe you’re about to lash out, or maybe you’re ready to cry and you don’t want to be doing this at work. You need some place to go. Make a plan before that moment of vulnerability comes. Find a place you can escape to where you’ll be comfortable releasing some emotion if you need to. At an office this will probably be a bathroom, but you could make a plan to go to a bathroom on a different floor. Usually we’re big proponents for letting out your emotions whenever you need to, but we understand that the social rules of the workplace can be different. So find a place where you’re as comfortable as you can be in your workspace and make that your “home free.”
Set small, clear goals.
There’s a lot of thought-fog that comes with grief. One of the most common symptoms people experience is difficulty concentrating. One thing you can do to help regain some of your focus is to sit down with an actual piece of paper and write down all of the things you need to do—anything that comes to mind. Then put a number next to each task noting your first priority to the last. If any assignment has multiple tasks, break it down into task items and include them in your priority list. When you’ve done this, you’ll have a reference point that will help you regain your focus when your mind wanders off.
Write a letter to your boss.
If you feel like your performance level has changed, your fuse is short, or you need to take emotional clarity breaks, communication with your colleagues is crucial especially with the person to whom you directly report. Talking about emotional vulnerability in the workplace can be incredibly challenging, so one way to say exactly what you mean to say (and just as importantly, not saying what you don’t mean to say) is to write it down. A letter to your direct boss can help them clearly understand how you’re feeling, how you’ve found it’s affecting your work, what you need right now, and what you hope for the future.
Remember that you’re returning to work as a new person. You’ve got many of the same characteristics that you did before, but parts of you are now shaded by loss, and some of those parts will be changed forever. You’re not going back to work the same, though most people will expect you to. If at all possible take it easy and do your best to set reasonable expectations for yourself then clearly communicate them to your colleagues.