Managers with teams are normally taught soft skills like negotiation, time management or coaching – but not how to deal with a grieving member of staff, one of the most sensitive situations they are ever likely to encounter.
“The role of the manager and HR is wider in the UAE than in the West; they are looking after people who are away from family and the first call often comes into the employer,” says Patricia O’Sullivan, the 51-year-old owner of ProTraining.
The 12-year-old UAE training company has this year started a one-day workshop for Managing Grief in the Workplace. The course has run twice so far this year and is next scheduled for September 1 in Abu Dhabi.
Tony Zeenny, 47, who is associate vice president of learning and development at Rotana, was one of the course’s early adopters.
“We hear a lot about managerial skills. But no training course tackles topics like managing grief, although we will all encounter this at some point on a personal level,” he says.
“We employ 80 nationalities and many live in countries of crisis – some of my employees lost family members in the Nepal earthquake. We have also had suicide cases and someone was even killed out jogging, in a hit and run. Managing grief and understanding its terminology is a necessity.”
According to the National Bureau of Statistics, an estimated 3 per cent of the UAE working population is affected by loss or grief. That’s 120,000 workers at any given time.
“With a limited social network and no family, grief extends from personal life into work,” says the Dutch course trainer Marjan Kaddouri, 51, who trained at the Grief Recovery Institute in California. “With an ageing population, everyone is going to deal with death at some point, but we don’t seem prepared for it.
“Grief is not necessarily confined to death either – there are other losses such as divorce, financial loss, health, even a child leaving home. Grief is unique; there’s no one size fits all. Without family or friends helping here, people tend to leave because they have no support.
“I have had a number of personal losses – from friends to both parents. I’ve lived here a long time – we first came to Al Ain in 1990 – so I know it’s difficult for people to find support, especially at work. I set up this programme from scratch and then approached ProTraining.”
There are no legal requirements under the UAE labour law when it comes to staff loss and grief, Mrs Kaddouri says, so it is up to individual companies to determine their stance on compassionate leave in their HR policy.
The Dubai government sets out specific compassionate leave for public sector workers in its Human Resources Management law – five working days if a “first-degree” relative dies or three working days in the case of a “second-degree” relative.
Additionally Muslim widows are granted Iddah leave of four months and 10 days if their husband dies.
First-degree relatives are defined as a worker’s mother, father, wife or children and second-degree relatives as grandmother, grandfather, grandchildren or children of siblings.
“This is a grey area – here, family is not necessarily mother or father,” says Mrs Kaddouri.
Mrs O’Sullivan adds: “Policy needs to be flexible in defining immediate family. People will always remember how their employer handled their case, so it is worth being sensitive. Policy is not black and white, and forward-thinking companies in the region really want to do their best, for morale, retention, productivity, the atmosphere in the workplace.”
Having attended the course, Mr Zeenny says he better understands how grief affects staff engagement and productivity, and how to respond. “We all say ‘I’m sorry’ and ‘Stay strong’,” he says. “Different terminology makes you closer and allows you to provide real support, not just a casual ‘sorry’. It’s a more genuine approach.
“Rotana already had a policy covering death and bereavement, but I will be adding my input, especially in the informing family section, now I know what to say.”
But for those who don’t know what to say, Ms Kaddouri advises being honest.
“It’s better to say: “I don’t know what to say,” she explains, adding that anything that makes it about you is not a good thing. “Avoid “I know how you feel”, or “You lost a parent, I lost a parent”.
Mrs Kaddouri adds that giving advice and trying to make people feel better is a human reaction but empathy is better.
“If I really want to support you, it’s better to say: ‘I can imagine you’re going through a very difficult time.’ Because people find it hard to talk about grief, they can come across as not being genuine. ‘I’m lost for words’, ‘Tell me how to help’ or ‘I’m here for you’ all work.”
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