Guest blog: We need to talk about professional grief
People working in hospices, care homes, hospitals and other care settings often experience the deaths of patients and residents where they work, but this doesn’t mean each death is any easier to cope with.
This experience, often called ‘professional grief’ can be different to personal grief. Personal grief is the grief experienced when losing a loved one to death. Bereavement by an immediate family member is often most recognised and supported by society. As a result, most communities have dedicated organisations and support available.
Professional grief is a grief that can occur from working directly with patients who die or supporting others who have experienced loss. This includes chaplains, healthcare professionals and funeral professionals. There is little research or training on professional grief, as for many it is considered “part of the job”.
At Hospice UK, we know the impact professional grief can have on those in the end of life sector. We’re used to talking about death, dying and grief, but we know that even if death is a regular part of your professional life, it can still be incredibly hard to deal with.
Compassionate Employers is our workplace wellbeing programme, where we help organisations look after their people and support employees through grief, dying and caring. Through this, we’ve been running workshops to help care professionals manage recurring and often overlooked experiences of grief through their work.
Why is this needed?
People faced with continuous or regular grief through their work may need different tools and support to manage the impact that frequent death and bereavement has on their life.
Staff working in hospices, care homes, hospitals and other care settings may find that the nature of the job exposes staff to recurrent grief. People working in fast-paced patient facing roles or acute settings may find they are faced with recurrent, traumatic deaths, which they may not have the time to process. Some staff in medical settings may find that team members become patients themselves, creating a double layer of personal and professional grief.
Professional caregivers are distant mourners. The effects of professional grief are often hidden and subtle. Professional losses accumulate and grief may be transformed into other emotions such as anger, anxiety, blame, helplessness and guilt. Sometimes professional grief may take the form of a chronic or delayed grief response – one that never seems to come to a satisfactory conclusion.
Without effective support in place, employees who experience frequent loss are at higher risk of burnout and compassion fatigue, leaving people feeling tired, drained, defeated or helpless.
Even if death, dying and grief are common in your workplace, they are still incredibly impactful and need proper support. Sometimes the challenge of getting people to recognise the impact of professional grief can be an additional barrier to them getting the support they need. Leaders may try to look out and support their staff coping with professional grief, although identifying and acknowledging this grief can be challenging.
What support do people want?
We know there is an appetite to open up the conversation about professional grief. Ahead of our workshop sessions, we hear from health and care professionals who want to know more about professional grief, and how it differs from personal grief. They want to recognise the warning signs and effects of professional grief on themselves and their colleagues.
People want to learn and practise sensitive and effective responses so they can support colleagues who are struggling. Leaders want to know how to support their teams who cope with grief on a regular basis. Staff want to know ways to cope with emotional, traumatic, and young deaths, and how to access available support resources.
Beyond practical workplace support, many people joining our workshops wanted to have a space for self-reflection and find out more about self-care opportunities.
We know there’s more we can do in this space – and we know that many people working in care settings have a desire to do more to support their colleagues and teams who work with patients at the end of life daily.
What do people find the most helpful?
Hearing from people coping with regular professional grief has helped us to open up this conversation and encouraged people to talk about the impact that death, dying and bereavement has on their work. And it's clear that people want to talk about this more – 100% of people who joined our recent workshop on professional grief said they would recommend it to a colleague or a friend.
For many people, increased awareness of professional grief and how it differs from personal grief has helped them to acknowledge and respect their own or colleagues' experiences.
Many people find it helpful to have advice on how to build a supportive culture at work, learning how to identify moments when they or their colleagues need support, and how to provide it. Participants aim to share workshop knowledge with line managers, so they can integrate what they have learnt into the organisation's culture.
Some have taken away practical tips, exploring changes they could make to their workplace such as signposting to resources to support with professional grief, or creating specific spaces for moments of quiet and reflection.
Compassionate Employers top tips for managing professional grief
- Acknowledge the death and its impact.
- Focus on what we can control and the impact we can have on people we care for.
- Encourage open communication throughout teams, using initiatives like morning check-ins and 1:1 sessions.
- Encourage self-awareness and sharing in teams, so people are not left to cope with the effects of grief alone.
- Encourage employees to have a self-care strategy and a grieving ritual.
- Regularly review your policies.
If you would like to learn more about Compassionate Employers, visit www.hospiceuk.org/compassionate-employers