Living and Working Well After Loss

Notes from our dinner in San Francisco discussing loss in the workplace

One of the consistent themes that comes up at The Dinner Party table is the ups and downs of working (literally) through grief, and in life beyond. For some people, it can be some of the roughest stuff — navigating office politics, increased stress related to family dynamics, and the expectation that after a few days off, you should be back in the saddle and pumping out projects. For others, work is a place of major healing and forward motion, a built in community of support, a place to find purpose and motivation.

It left us wondering how we can support people in creating more of the latter in their lives. So we dove in. Through conversations with Dinner Partiers, managers, HR leaders, and people-ops people, we’ve started to develop a set of tools to: help people who’ve experienced loss figure out and ask for what the need in the workplace; to equip managers to give the right type of support to the people on their team who need it; and to help build community between people within an organization who’ve either experienced loss or want to show up for those who have.

Last week, we brought a handful of those people together in person for what we love to do most — dinner! Our intention was to begin building a community of people committed to creating more supportive workplaces. It was an evening to share what’s working, what’s not, and how to transform loss from the ultimate office water-cooler conversation killer into an actual team builder. While guests unanimously expressed that there’s a lot of work to be done around organizational policies (i.e. comically short bereavement leave, grief support resources that are available but rarely used), we ended the night with a new stack of ideas and hope for how community building can be a powerful tool within an organization too.

Here are questions that emerged from the conversation that brought to light some of the challenges of navigating loss in the workplace, as well as simple tactics workplaces could use to build more inclusive, supportive cultures.

How do you invite vulnerability into the workplace? One person described a simple (but impactful) ritual they use to create space for people to share what’s going on in their personal lives. They begin every weekly team meeting with a 15 minute personal life check-in. The check-in doesn’t take long, but it lets team members know if someone is having a hard week and whether to give them more space or extra support. Someone at the table highlighted the power of just being witnessed breaks down the isolation around loss, as well as other challenging personal experiences. Simply by giving space for people to let off steam and tell their story, we feel more supported and able to engage in our work.

How can we create a manager assistance program that supports managers so that they can support grieving employees? The way a manager reacts to an employee is a major determinant of someone’s experience back in the workplace, and can make or break their commitment to a place. Often the managers who give the best support, are the ones who have personal experience with it. But that leaves a lot to chance in the type of dynamics someone is facing when back at the office — and a lot of uncomfortable moments for people on both sides of the table.

How can we make loss as big as a priority as new parenthood? An employee from a start-up tech company shared how the founders of the company are young and parental leave policies weren’t improved until a founder had children. How can we make policies, benefits and manager support for grieving employees a priority when leaders have not been directly touched by it?

How can companies create private spaces for people to take much needed breaks to process their loss? We live in the era of the open floor plan office, which means private space to release emotion or take a break can be hard to come by. One person mentioned that she turned to the breastfeeding room to cry during a particularly hard day — which makes us wonder what sort of simple office infrastructure should we consider for employees dealing with end of life and loss?

We’re so thankful everyone joined us — and are looking forward to dinners in Los Angeles and New York later this year.

Thank you to all of our participants.

  • Anna Martinelli, Omada
  • Sam Rojas, Omada
  • Cory Smith, Wisdom Labs
  • Karen Rolfes, Constellation Brands
  • Kimberly Arnold, Salesforce
  • Lindsay Pettingill, Airbnb

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