Death and the workplace: a compassionate way forward for your organisation

This is a guest post by Jessie Williams, Executive Director of The Groundswell Project.

It is early, the morning is beautiful. Just one week until they break for Christmas, fourteen corporates file in and take their places around the table of a Macquarie Group boardroom. With a view of Barangaroo they sip their fresh coffee, begin their croissants, and talk about death.

It’s not a typical 7.30am conversation for a place usually filled with discussions about shares and interest rates. Not really your typical 7.30am discussion full-stop. But as we at the Groundswell Project consistently find, a morning spent sharing stories, peppered with social research, creative learning, and lots of laughter, is a profound experience, and a great start to the day.

I shared my story with those in the boardroom.

When I was a younger, up and coming professional, I went on maternity leave.

Like many workplaces, I was sent off with a large piece of baby equipment and an equally large baby card. While my family were full of anticipation for the first of the new generation to be born, it was my work colleagues who participated in the everyday bump-growth approval scheme.

To everyone’s shock, especially my own, my son died on the day he was born.

And then after four weeks of shock, crazy activity, heart-breaking sadness, copious amounts of wine, laughing and sobbing, I needed to get back to work.

The lift doors opened.

I was shaking on the inside. For months, my colleagues and I had pictured this moment. Only in that picture, I came with a pram and a big smile on my face. Now I had no baby to pass around, and I felt guilty that I was the cause of other’s discomfort and pain.

The people in my team, perhaps typical of work-groups anywhere, ranged from warm to tepid. Some gave me a hug, others preferred to steer clear. And I don’t know how I got through those first six months at work. My performance was sub-par and those who had functions reliant upon me bore extra duties to make to make up for that.

Turns out, these people had been part of a conversation, a brave conversation that took place in the kitchen the day before I returned. Standing around a table, leaning on benches, sipping coffee and eating biscuits, they asked each other as a team, as a workplace: “How are we going to respond when Jess walks out of those lift doors?”

After some discussion they came to an understanding and a mode of operation.

First, they would acknowledge openly what happened. Just the simple facts sufficed.

Second, they would create a light, time-bound opportunity for reactions to be expressed. Silence was OK too – and I mean really OK: no one needed to say “it’s OK”. And a small group of those closest to me brainstormed a list of practical things they could do, from covering my client meetings for a while, to inviting me to wine nights.

I wonder what happened to the culture of our workplace through that exchange? What set of values and practices transformed or simply came to light in that moment in the kitchen?

What I do know, is that I got through it. They got through it. And I stayed for another 10 years, a loyal and proud worker who eventually stepped into the top job.

We know that most of us don’t grieve in stages. In fact, we experience resilience. To use George Bonnano’s research, for most of us grief is an up-and-down experience with capacity for both intense positive and negative emotion. This is normal and expected.

And perhaps most importantly, we know that being part of a network of colleagues (as well as friends and family) who take part in the caring process, has a transformative effect. Not just for those of us who are experiencing great loss, but also for the people who work with and care for us.

The Groundswell Project

Five years ago we started the Groundswell Project to enable social and cultural change when it comes to death and dying in Australia. Through our workshops, conferences, and hundreds of engagements, we meet amazing, everyday people who speak intimately of their experience of loss, and how their workplace responds.

Everywhere we go people talk about work and the impact workplaces have on their caring duties. For example, what happens when they negotiate taking time off in order to perform carer duties and more importantly, the positive and sometimes negative shifts in how they view their workplace after a sudden disruption occurs in their life.

Like going to work, death, dying and bereavement is something that at some point, we all have to face. So it’s high time we started having the conversation about death and dying and how the workplace responds.

Our corporate breakfast around the boardroom table at Barangaroo was the start of a new kind of conversation about what a compassionate workplace could look like. Where anybody can step in to help a colleague. It’s not an HR function. It’s a democratic workplace function – where you co-create an ecology of care through a mutually supportive network.

This is a guest post by Jessie Williams, Executive Director of The Groundswell Project.  As a learning entrepreneur, she works across commercial business, non-government organisations and social enterprises co-creating programs for social change. She has been on the board of the Groundswell Project for 4 years and in the role as Executive Director since early 2015. This article was originally published on The Groundswell Project website. Read the original article here.

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