Supporting Employees Navigating Grief and Substance Use

Grief and substance use disorders have been considered taboo topics in the workplace for too long. With more than 600,000 lives lost to the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S. and alcohol consumption on the rise, we face crises related to mental health and substance use disorders—along with the pandemic itself.

We spend about one-third of our lives working, so employers must tackle grief and substance use challenges if they hope to improve the health and well-being of their workforces. To do that, they will need to address the relationship between alcohol and grief in the workplace.

Statistically, your employees are struggling.

Heavy alcohol consumption has been climbing for years, but the pandemic further exacerbated this trend. Nielsen reported a 54 percent increase in national alcohol sales in early 2020 compared with early 2019. Meanwhile, online alcohol sales had surged by 262 percent since 2019.

In an online survey, 60 percent of respondents reported drinking more than before COVID-19 because of increased stress, increased availability of alcohol, and boredom. Participants who reported being stressed by the pandemic also consumed more drinks over a greater number of days. This study is yet another reminder that many people use alcohol to cope with distress in the absence of better tools. And for anyone living with alcohol use disorder before the pandemic, isolation and stress presented additional challenges in their recovery.

Beyond all of this, another influence on our relationship with alcohol that has become exacerbated and hyper-relevant in light of the pandemic is grief.

Grief Is Present and Evolving in Your Workforce

It’s estimated that one in three of your employees is grieving, which makes it important to understand what grief is: a normative (nonpathological) experience that involves emotional, physiological, and cognitive responses. It impacts our mood and behaviors such as sleep, appetite, and substance use.

Although there are common patterns in grief, it impacts every person differently and looks different for the same person over time. Grief is a process of adaptation, and people naturally move from “acute grief” to “integrated grief.”

Acute grief is how we typically envision grief. It includes an intense and persistent emotional experience, difficulty accepting the loss, and disconnection from one’s social and professional world. As a person learns to live with the reality of their loss, they move to integrated grief. This grief might not be as frequent or as intense, but it remains a part of a bereaved person forever.

All of this said, how do alcohol and grief interact and intersect?

The Relationship Between Grief and Substance Use

Dr. Dan Wolfson, a clinical psychologist specializing in grief and a advisor, says alcohol can slow or prevent the ability to move from acute grief to integrated grief. He also says it’s a form of avoidance.

“When grieving, we need to engage with our emotions rather than avoid them,” Wolfson says. “Our psychological immune systems are tapped, so people fall back on the coping strategies they’re familiar with—even maladaptive ones like alcohol use. So we have to be proactive in engaging healthy behaviors and access support systems early and often.”

Sabrina Spotorno is a therapist for Monument, an evidence-based online alcohol treatment platform. Spotorno has helped many of her patients navigate grief and alcohol use disorder simultaneously.

“Grief can feel incredibly isolating, and we can temporarily lose our sense of self,” she says. “That’s why alcohol can often serve as an artificial source of comfort and companionship. Once we regain our awareness of how much we are in need of community, we can regroup from our period of emotional isolation and find our safe people in support groups and in therapy. Holding space for all feelings, sensations, and experiences, including grief, is what enables healing and change.”

How to Promote Healing in Workplaces of Tomorrow

Recognizing the relationship between grief and substance use, particularly alcohol, and knowing that your employees might be struggling are important first steps. Shifting company culture to support team members is an ongoing practice. Here are four ways to make that transition:

1. Encourage self-care in company policies.

Spotorno recommends encouraging self-care at all times, including consistent and concrete company policies that support this stance: “Offering flexibility with schedules, encouraging time off, and designating company mental health days can be invaluable ways to create a company culture that promotes self-care.”

2. Create open communication channels.

You should also create open communication channels to support grieving employees. This lets you share your support in concrete ways and ask direct questions about how to best meet employees’ needs. Even companies that supply every resource possible to grieving employees can’t truly foster a supportive environment unless they openly communicate about that grief and create space for it.

3. Revisit your bereavement policies.

To address grief and loss as specific influential factors in alcohol use, Dr. Wolfson recommends revisiting your bereavement policies or ensuring you have a bereavement policy in place.

“Someone taking a week off for bereavement leave doesn’t mean they are coming back at 100 percent,” Wolfson says. “We need to build their endurance back up. Expect an employee to start at 40 percent. When people feel overloaded or overstressed, they’re going to regress to potentially unhealthy behaviors. Wouldn’t you prefer a healthy employee performing well at 40 percent than an unhealthy one struggling to meet 100 percent of former expectations? We all need to be given time to work our way back.”

4. Examine the role alcohol plays in your culture and environment

Finally, take a closer look at how alcohol shows up in your office. Challenge your own biases and consider these tips from sober entrepreneurs. Perform an audit of where alcohol shows up in your work environment, whether that’s physically in your office, at company events, or during celebratory moments.

If you’re still not sure how to get started, know that there are numerous incredible ways to help your workforce. You might share grief resources and tools with your employees through internal communications and expanded benefits policies. You can also provide anonymous community support and point team members to virtual, evidence-based online alcohol treatment, including therapy and medication. Finally, connect employees with outside support designed to help with the logistical side of bereavement and grief management.

How to Help Employees Who Are Grieving

Mindy CorporonMindy Corporon was CEO of a successful wealth management firm, traveling around the country meeting with clients, garnering recognition as a high-profile woman in finance and mentoring emerging leaders — all while raising two boys.

Everything changed on April 13, 2014, when her father and oldest son were murdered by a white supremacist in the parking lot of the Jewish Community Center in Overland Park, Kansas.

The tragedy would eventually prompt her to take action to spread kindness, encourage productive interfaith dialogue and promote healing in the workplace. Corporon started the Faith Always Wins Foundation and organized an annual community event, SevenDays. She has also formed programs for productive interfaith dialogue and assists companies in creating healthy workplace environments so healing can occur after a tragedy.

Corporon, who has since stepped away from the company she founded, Boyer Corporon Wealth Management, spoke with us about her journey of grief and healing, and gave her advice on how organizations can support employees who are struggling with a traumatic life event.

You had a lot on your plate when this tragedy suddenly happened. How did work change for you?

I could only work for about two hours at a time. My brain and my body were not really available to me — I felt like I had been sucked into some other realm of reality. It just did not seem real that this could have happened. I was struggling with so much.

I’m an empowerer, so I like to give people more more responsibility than they may expect or than they may want. The team really stepped up — they took over clients and they did client calls. I had put things in a pretty good position so that the company could still operate, and I was really was only absent significantly about four weeks. But when I came back, I couldn’t focus. Things were foggy. About six weeks in, as I was in a meeting with a client, they were talking, and all of a sudden I couldn’t even hear them. I was in the parking lot with my dad and son. Then I’d be in the funeral home. I’d have to shake it off. I just was reliving these memories, and I felt so disconnected from the workplace.

How did your position as CEO impact your experience?

I had so much flexibility as a co-founder and a CEO. I felt a responsibility to the company and to the clients to pay attention, but there were times when I couldn’t. I had this flexibility, and now I look back and see that other people don’t have that.

That’s why I started focusing on my “healing in the workplace” objective. When people do go back to work, does their supervisor or their co-workers know that they’re not all there? I think people need to have those kinds of conversations and get emotional assistance along the way.

When did you decide to step away from your company?

In 2015 to 2016 I realized I had to leave my company. I wasn’t doing something that I felt like I needed to do, and that was talking about healing in the workplace. Because I could look back and say I could’ve healed better, and I could’ve helped my team heal better if I had known more, if we had had people come in to help us or if we had had a counselor come in and talk with us. We didn’t do any of that.

I felt like it was really important to oversee workshops and a process to help others through their grief. And when I say grief I know that most people aren’t going to experience what I experienced. But even the loss of a pet, the loss of a job, a divorce are very common. When trauma happens, we are so shaken, but we’re expected to come back to work in five days, or six days, or three days. I’m trying to help people, HR professionals and CEOs, understand that to get that whole person back, that person that you valued that was so important to you and your team, you have to do some things in the workplace to help them get comfortable again.

If an employee goes through something traumatic, what steps should their manager, organization or team take?

Let’s say an employee is going through a divorce. Divorce is a good example to talk about because it is common. That kind of situation takes your brain out of play because you’ve got your ex-spouse you’re dealing with, you’ve got probably a court appointment, or attorneys and meetings. You’re taking time off and you’re distracted. There could be significant grief involved if it was really bad.

As co-workers we need to be more honest with one another. We need to give each other grace and faith to come in and say “This is going on in my life.” As a supervisor, rather than maybe starting with “You didn’t get that report in,” you want to start with “Hey, I just noticed that there’s some stuff going on and I’m just curious, is there anything going on in your personal life that could be affecting your work?” These are relationships that if they haven’t been started or nurtured and then the divorce is happening, they’re even harder. That’s why with our workshops we offer some questions to ask, some icebreakers to get things started.

HR people are very busy, and things don’t come to their attention unless there’s a problem. So the supervisors are the people that are going to need the extra education, or the ability to pull that employee in and give them an opportunity to talk.

It’s also important to assign a buddy when people come to work — someone that each person can go and talk to and just vent a little. You want to have a very open conversation.

If you’ve gone through something really tough, how should you communicate with the people around you at work?

I learned that sometimes we need a mediator — counselors, people in the mental health profession. Because if you don’t have a great relationship but you need to go in and talk to a supervisor, it helps if you have somebody with you. Maybe that’s a buddy that was assigned to you or a more formal mediator sitting there, helping you, giving you support.

Tell us about your foundation. How did starting that help you heal?

We started the Faith Always Wins Foundation and we really focused on kindness. We created an event called SevenDays: Make a Ripple, Change the World. I put my heart and soul into that, and that was a big healing process for me. It’s been going on four years. It’s a big event, it’s well branded, it has a lot of people attend, schools are involved, artists are involved. It’s fantastic.

I’ve put heart and soul into helping people understand that with Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, everyone needs to be more accepting respectful and not be hateful. The respectful part doesn’t come if we’re fearful, so we do a lot of education.

It’s really impressive that you’ve been able to turn something so awful into helping other people.

Thank you. I do it for my dad and son, because they were great people, and everything I do is to encourage other people to live to the fullest every day — because that’s how they lived life.

The Blanket of Bereavement Policy Is Chilly

Bereavement, the period of time of mourning following the death of a beloved person. It can be one of the most devastating experiences for many of us. For employers, we are forced to tie metrics to this extremely personal experience with our bereavement policies. We literally quantify our employees’ grief.

This begs me to question why we thought this was a good idea in the first place?

We knew it was unethical and downright cruel to ask someone to clock-in after experiencing a death in the family. At its core, we thought we were simply showing our staff we care. We wanted them to grieve. We wanted them to heal. Therefore, we implemented, what is now considered standard, three days off. Not only did we put a maximum number of days employees are allowed to mourn, we also implemented stipulations around who it is okay to mourn for. Most policies today encompass immediate family members: Mom, Dad, kids, etc. The logic behind this criterion was to ensure no one took advantage of the policy right?

While there are plenty of articles out there detailing how companies need to give more than three days and broaden the criteria to encompass those outside of immediate family, what I advocate for is much different – eliminate this blanket policy we call bereavement all together.

Here are the top 3 issues with bereavement policies: 

#1 The experience of grief is unique to each individual

Some of us deal with grief by powering through. We stay busy. Out of sight, out of mind. I remember working for a VP of HR when she lost her mother. We had the standard 3 days and she did not take a single day. When I asked her why she said, “If I go home it will just make it worse. I want to be here where I am useful.” I told her I understood and left it alone. However, many of her peers were not as observant. She had a revolving door for days on end of people asking why she had not taken her three bereavement days. I ended up asking her to share that experience with me a few months after and oh boy… did she vent. She went on and on and on about how thankful she was that people cared but how their constant questioning about why she didn’t use the days made her grief so much worse. She was constantly forced to think about her loss. For this HR pro, the very policy she implemented to help others cope with grief, actually caused her more grief.

#2 Sometimes the passing of a pet is worse than the passing of human

It’s hard to imagine for some, but the death of a pet is a significant loss for many people. I lost my best buddy a couple years ago – a Jack Russell. To say I was a train wreck would be an understatement. I literally could not function, let alone put on a pretty face and be productive at work. On the contrary, had my stepmother passed away I could have walked into work in a day as nothing had happened. The criteria stipulating who we are allowed to take time off to grieve for does nothing to benefit our staff.

#3 Some need a couple hours, some need a couple months or even years

The problem with telling our staff they have 3 days to cry it out is that everyone handles grief in different ways and on different time tables. Many would assume that a parent losing their child needs much more than 3 days to “get over it”. Others, depending on who they lost, relationship with that person, so on and so forth, may only need a day. The 3 day rule, or any fixed measurement period for that matter, is not conducive to our overall goal which is for our employee to heal.

I challenge all HR Pros to eliminate their bereavement policies and implement a catch all bucket called time off. Determine what your company can budget for paid time away and let our staff use this as they see fit – sick days, I had to put Lassie down days, vacation in Europe or even I’m hung-over and can’t get off the couch days. Should your employee need more than the allotted paid time off, let them take it unpaid. The circumstances surrounding why they need to be out is irrelevant to the company and the budget. This does not mean we do not care about them, it means we are allowing them to tell us what they need.

Hire people you trust to do a good job, treat them like adults, take the time to align their values with the company, continually invest in their professional and personal development and let them determine their best way to grieve a loved ones’ passing.

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