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Death and the Workplace

18 April 2016

It is early, the morning is beautiful. A small group of corporates file in and take their places around the boardroom table. With a view of the water 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 business 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 4 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 6 months at work. My performance was sub-par and those who had functions reliant upon me bore extra duties 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 okay too – and I mean really okay, no one needed to say it’s okay. 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 - the one at the beginning of this story - 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.

Who is the Groundswell Project?

Jessie Williams is a Learning Entrepreneur and CEO of The Groundswell Project. Over the past 5 years, the Groundswell Project has run over 30 events and engaged thousands of people in conversations and actions about end-of-life planning. They have created multiple partnerships and projects with community, government and health organisations. They do a lot of social research, are a social enterprise, and a registered charity with DGR status. They launched their ‘Compassionate Workplace’ program in March this year.

Reference: George Bonnano “The Other Side of Sadness” Ref: