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As baby boomers age, we’re ‘in for a death boom.’ Companies can help grieving employees

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Bobbi Manka, right, works with her colleague Jen Gallois at Tyson Foods in Elgin, Ill. Manka’s co-workers helped her after her husband died in 2016.
(Stacey Wescott/Chicago Tribune)
Chicago Tribune

Bobbi and Daniel Manka were settling into bed after a night out dancing when Daniel stood up, clutched his chest and gasped, “911.”

Just like that, Bobbi Manka lost her husband of 44 years and gained “a hole in my heart that will never be replaced.”

But she has found comfort where she didn’t know she would: at work.

Grief after the death of a loved one inevitably follows people to work, where employers and co-workers often are unprepared to handle the immediate sorrow or the surges of pain that ambush mourners at milestones such as birthdays and holidays.

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Some of the shortcomings can be linked to insufficient bereavement leave policies, but often what fails is the human response to a suffering colleague.

“We have become an increasingly death-denying society,” said Amy Florian, chief executive of Corgenius, a Hoffman Estates, Ill.-based organization that trains businesses on how to help grieving clients and employees. “And when we don’t talk about it, we don’t know how to do it well: how to accompany people through grief.”

Florian said employers would be wise to prepare for the impact of grief on business as baby boomers, who are staying in the workplace longer, move toward the end of life.

“We are in for a death boom. We are in for a dementia boom,” said Florian, a fellow in thanatology, the study of death and bereavement. “All of these things are going to happen, but firms are not prepared for it.”

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Being prepared includes understanding that grieving individuals will cope differently, and employers should accommodate their unique needs, Florian said.

Nearly 90% of employers say they offer paid bereavement leave — usually three days for an immediate family member — but that’s not nearly enough time for many people, especially when the death is sudden, she said. Employers might want to consider more generous policies as well as expand them to accommodate deaths beyond immediate family, as losing an aunt or friend can be just as devastating if the relationship was close, Florian said.

No federal law requires employers to give workers time off to grieve.

Florian said employers also should not expect grief-stricken employees to function normally when they return to work: Their concentration is shot, their minds are disorganized, and they may be prone to making mistakes. Some employees will need additional support for a month or two once they’re back on the job, such as flexible work schedules, more breaks, adjusted expectations and someone to catch errors, with the assurance that their performance reviews won’t suffer, she said.

Educating workers on how to best support a grieving colleague can also help. Many people fumble awkwardly as they try to express sympathy, or avoid the topic altogether because they don’t know what to say, Florian said.

“What is often very shocking for people to learn is that ‘I am so sorry’ is not the best thing to say when someone dies,” Florian said. “The focus is all wrong, it’s on the comforter and not the griever.” Better to ask about the person who died — what they were like, how it happened, making sure to use his or her name, she said. If someone doesn’t want to talk about it, they will close the door on the conversation, she said.

Manka, 64, who lives in the town of Genoa about 65 miles northwest of Chicago, said she was surprised to discover how often people didn’t ask how she was doing after her husband died suddenly of a heart attack two years ago.

“They are afraid that they might trigger something and you might start crying,” she said. “Even if I did, it would have been a good thing.”

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Bobbi Manka pokes her head into her boss' office.
(Stacey Wescott/Chicago Tribune)

But Manka, an administrative assistant in the Tyson Foods sales office in Elgin, was pleasantly surprised by how her colleagues stepped up during her crisis, even though she’d worked at the company only two years at the time and no one from the office had met her husband.

Her boss and a colleague not only attended his “celebration of life” but also stayed and got to know her family, she said. When her three days of bereavement leave were up and she couldn’t bring herself to return to work, she was given an extra week off unpaid. She was eager to return when she did.

“My world had been rocked so incredibly hard that coming back to work helped me, because the house was so empty,” Manka said. “Work was my safe place for a long time.”

As she struggled to adjust to her new reality, Manka sought counseling from Tyson’s chaplaincy program, a network of 100 chaplains employed by the company to help workers navigate life challenges. She found solace in the Bible verses she was given and the advice about how to help her children through their grief as she dealt with her own.

Small kindnesses in her office of 12 have made a big difference, she said. On her first birthday after her husband’s death, her co-workers presented her with a big cake and card and told her, “We want you to know you’re part of the family,” Manka said. On her wedding anniversary, or when something triggers memories, her boss can detect a shift in her mood and urges her to take a walk and clear her head.

Such accommodations pay off in the long term, Florian said.

“People who felt they were treated compassionately during times of grief are incredibly loyal to their employer,” she said.

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Grief last year cost employers an estimated $113 billion in reduced productivity and on-the-job errors, a calculation that takes into account not only the deaths of loved ones but also other traumatic losses such as divorce or home foreclosures, according to the Grief Recovery Institute, an organization based in Bend, Ore., that trains therapists and counselors in grief recovery.

That estimate is up from $75 billion the last time the nonprofit released its Grief Index in 2002, an increase driven by inflation as well as changing workforce demographics as the population ages, said Operations Manager Ed Owens.

Yet employers are rarely proactive about addressing grief in the workplace, and typically seek help only when an employee has died and co-workers need support, said David Fireman, executive director of the Center for Grief Recovery and Therapeutic Services in Chicago.

“If I had my druthers, [grief training] would be a built-in component to employee orientation,” Fireman said.

GrieveWell — a nonprofit organization in Ann Arbor, Mich., that provides grief training to employers and peer-to-peer support for adults — is trying to raise the profile of grief as an “unspoken public health issue” that has dangerous consequences if it is not addressed, said Amy Milanovich, who until recently was the group’s executive director.

Unresolved grief, a clinical term that refers to intense mourning that persists a long time and interferes with daily functioning, has been linked to an increase in heart disease, stroke and cancer, she said.

The workplace has become increasingly important as a source of support, she said, as community traditions that used to surround people in mourning have been cut short amid an expectation to get back to life as usual.

ComPsych, a company that provides employee assistance programs nationwide and internationally, has seen a steady increase in crisis counseling calls about bereavement, probably because employers have become more aware of the need for mental health support, spokeswoman Jennifer Hudson said. Employees over 60 are the most likely age group to seek bereavement help, the company’s data show.

Eric Freckman, a certified financial planner in the Chicago suburb of Palatine, said grief training at his firm has led to improved relationships with clients, who often find themselves navigating unfamiliar bank accounts and investments when a spouse or parent dies. Increasingly, grief strikes even before death as more people live longer with diminished capacity, he said.

People tend to make emotional decisions around money, especially when they’re grieving, so it takes empathy to guide them to the best decision, Freckman said.

“There’s the answer in Excel of what they should do,” he said. “But getting people to actually do that is very difficult.”

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Financial advisor Eric Freckman, left, says grief training at his firm has led to improved relationships with clients.
(John Konstantaras/for the Chicago Tribune)

Freckman said he used to be “sort of terrified” of talking with clients about the deaths of their loved ones. But after training with Florian at Corgenius he feels comfortable engaging in conversations about the loss — “How did you find out?” he asks. “What was it like for you?” “Are there phone calls we can make for you?” — and leaving the paperwork to later meetings. About 90% of clients want to talk, and the care shown has helped solidify trust, he said.

The simple stuff can make a big difference, Florian said. She knows from experience.

Florian was 25 with a 7-month-old son when her husband, John, went to a business meeting and never returned. A farm insurance agent, he was killed when his car was struck on a rural Iowa road on a sleety February night.

“I felt like my future had simply evaporated in an instant,” Florian said. “And nobody knew what to say to me.”

Florian, a stay-at-home mom at the time, felt “every breath was different” after that day, as she adjusted to the empty pillow, the coffee for one, the realization that “anyone could die at any time.”

She felt alone as many people avoided talking about her husband after the funeral. She was grateful to those who did, especially when they said his name.

“It’s such a comfort to know that John’s life made a difference, that someone remembers besides me,” she said. “That his death left a void in the world, not just my life.”

Florian noticed various ways well-meaning people’s support was insufficient. They’d ask if she needed anything, but she worried that if she took advantage of those offers, she’d be a burden. More helpful, she said, was when people identified what needed doing and offered to do it, such as shopping for groceries, weeding the garden or baby-sitting her son.

Florian recalls working with a financial professional who would change the subject when she started to tear up. So she was impressed when another financial planner, on their first meeting, looked at her file and said: “I see that you are widowed. Tell me about John.”

Her experience propelled her to get a graduate degree in pastoral studies and advanced certification in grief counseling, and she taught ministry courses on death and grieving at Loyola University for 11 years.

Decades after John’s death, Florian is remarried, and her sadness lives alongside her joy. She can still be sent into a sobbing fit in the grocery store aisle when she hears a certain song — and that’s OK.

“The point of healing is not to forget,” she said. “The point is to remember.”


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