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Talking about loss at work: 10 ways to make it easier

Written for CharityComms. Live link here.

We’ve had more than our fair share of loss over the past year – in all its forms. Jobs, income, ‘normality’, workplace, sense of security, and of course, life itself.

Worldwide, close to 1.5 million people have died because of COVID-19, while 2.6 million are likely to be unemployed in the UK by the middle of 2021. But talking about the impact of these losses can be difficult. And being comms professionals doesn’t make it any easier.

So, here are some tips to help talking about loss a little less intimidating. Because while you can’t fix someone’s pain, knowing that the people around you care, can make the world of difference.

1. Remember that everyone’s different

We all have our own stories and experiences around loss, and they’re all very different. For some, losing a pet can have as much impact as losing a parent. Redundancy can be devastating for one person, while someone else might be relieved. Try not to make assumptions about how someone is feeling, but be open to hearing how it is for them.

2. Know that there is no ‘right thing’ to say…

When someone’s going through a difficult time, there’s often a fear of saying the wrong thing. It’s fine to be honest in saying ‘I wish I knew what to say’. Cruse Bereavement Care suggests: “Don’t worry too much about saying the right thing. The feeling will come across and it is more important that you say something than you find the perfect words”.

3. …but don’t unleash your own stories

Our own losses are often intense experiences. And when someone shares their story with you, it can be a cathartic and automatic response to dive into your own. So, knowing what to share and what not to is a fine line. If someone is going through a redundancy process, they might not want to hear how your old boss treated you. But equally, knowing that someone else understands a glimmer of what you’re going through can be hugely comforting. You could offer the person you’re speaking to the option and ask if it would be helpful for them to hear your experience.

4. Be open to really listening

Often when you ask someone how they are, it’s easy to switch off before they answer. We’re so conditioned to be ‘okay’. If a colleague is having a tough time and you ask how they are, be prepared to listen to them. You don’t have to have any answers. Sometimes being heard can be the best medicine.

5. Take their lead

Grief is a strange and very personal beast. For some, being at work can be a relief and an escape into ‘normal’ life. For others, it may be overwhelming and impossibly hard to concentrate. Take the lead of the person you are talking to. Be sensitive to how much they want to talk – some will be comforted by sharing. For others, it might be too much in a work environment.

6. Remember that emotions have their own timeline

Unfortunately, grief isn’t a straightforward process. It can be a lot like snakes and ladders – one day feeling like you’re in control, the next, raw and back to square one. Check-in with colleagues three, four, five months down the line. That’s often when the shock wears off and other tough emotions surface.

7. Be mindful that other people might be triggered

Another person’s loss can trigger our own fears of death or losing those we love, or remind us of past bereavements. And if a colleague has been made redundant, it’s not surprising we may feel anxious about our own role, or sad that they have to leave. Check-in on other colleagues if you can, as well as yourself. One person’s loss can have a rippling effect.

8. Think about how workplace support might help

If lots of people are being affected by loss at your charity, the organisation could put some specific support sessions in place. Louis Weinstock, co-founder of bereavement app Apart of Me explains how: “We believe in the importance of creating safe spaces for our team of volunteers to explore their grief. We have a Wellbeing team, coaches and mental health specialists who offer free one-to-one support for volunteers. We also run monthly ‘Wisdom by the Watercooler’ sessions, where the team comes together and we have an expert leading the session sharing life wisdom”.

9. Be aware of what colleagues are working on

Working in charities, particularly health-related charities, can be an emotive business. Be mindful of what material colleagues are working on and aware of which subjects might be too close to the bone. For example, interviewing someone affected by brain injury might be overwhelming for a colleague whose parent has just had a stroke.

10. Remember loss is a shape-shifter

The impact of loss can take many forms – shock, anger, anxiety, numbness, sadness, distress. And those emotions can take their toll physically, affecting sleep, immunity and appetite. Being aware of what a colleague may be experiencing (though not making any assumptions) can help you to be more sensitive to the way you respond to them. If they’re angry about being made redundant, they probably don’t want to hear about a great new project you’ll be working on.

And finally, if you or a colleague are feeling overwhelmed by loss, there is a wealth of wonderful mental health charities ready to give their support. Or to find a professional counsellor or psychotherapist, the BACP is a good place to start.

We will be discussing mental health in our Scotland networking group – Wellbeing for comms professionals. Find more resources and tips in our wellbeing guide.

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