Business and Management INK

Uncharted Waters: Researching Bereavement in the Workplace

April 22, 2024 466

Diane M. Bergeron discusses the transformative effects of bereavement and the motivation behind her article, “Monday Mourning: A Call for the Study of Bereavement in the Workplace,” which was recently published in the Journal of Management Inquiry.

Someone once asked what motivated me to pursue this research. Beyond grandparents, I’ve experienced two significant bereavements. When I was 17, my young brother was hit by a car. Fifteen years ago, one of my sons died. There is so much that people don’t understand about bereavement, which is exacerbated by societal misconceptions (e.g., the ‘five stages of grief’ myth). This makes it difficult for individuals returning to the workplace.

To me, one of the most surprising things about bereavement is its complexity and that it can last far longer than expected. This is challenging to navigate at work where, unless it was a coworker’s death, no one else’s world has changed. I read about a culture in which community members array their furniture outside, in front of their homes, the night of a death. When the bereaved family goes outside, they see that the world has been altered and nothing makes sense. This is one of the best reflections I’ve heard about the disorienting nature of loss.

In a way, I was lucky. As a professor, I was not constrained by standard bereavement leaves. I had the spring semester off from teaching and then had the summer before I needed to fully return to work. Although many organizations offer bereavement leave, it is woefully insufficient (i.e., 1-5 days off). There are no federal laws about the legal right to take leave from work to grieve and cope with death. Further, part-time and lower-wage workers are less likely to have access to such benefits. Evermore, a nonprofit advocating federally-mandated bereavement leave, is working to change this.

People often wonder how to support the bereaved. Small kindnesses (and missteps) loom large in the first few years. Some neighbors stopped over with meals and groceries; others avoided us. Some wrote beautiful condolence cards. I will never forget the associate dean who attended the funeral, the only person from the business school to do so.

Bereavement can have lagged transformative effects. Five years after our son died, my husband and I pushed the eject button on our life. With an approved work leave, we sold our house and bought a 41’ sailboat.  For the next two years, with our 5- and 7-year-old sons, we sailed the east coast of the U.S. and the Caribbean.

I am now in a better research position and doing work on leadership and bereavement. Within the organizational sciences, this topic is uncharted waters – with little guidance for leaders and organizations. What motivates me is wanting to help leaders and organizations make grief and bereavement more bearable for employees. Gloria Vanderbilt once said, “We are not put on this earth to see through one another. We are put on this earth to see one another through.” Doing this work is a way to help others with their own losses.

Diane M. Bergeron is a social-organizational psychologist and a senior research scientist at the Center for Creative Leadership. Her research areas include women’s leadership and career advancement, job performance (focusing on workplace helping behavior), and the impact of leader listening on employees’ speaking up.

View all posts by Diane M. Bergeron

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