Adverse Life Situations and ‘Invisible Grief’ in the Workplace

Written by
Hamsini Ravi

When Indu Gopal, an HR Generalist, was navigating a divorce in 2016, her productivity at work took a hit. This isn’t unusual, as Indu was not just managing court proceedings and lawyer meetings, but was also dealing with the aftermath of leaving an abusive relationship. ‘I found it extremely hard to concentrate on work. It was challenging to find the motivation to take up new projects, because I was going through depression, sleeplessness and also having health issues,’ she says.

Rohini Rajagopal, a Bangalore-based ex-Knowledge Management professional, went through infertility and pregnancy losses nearly a decade ago. She and her partner elected to take up In Vitro Fertilisation (IVF). Having chosen a large corporate hospital in close proximity to her office for logistical reasons, she remembers the acute sense of shame that plagued her at work, ‘I was terrified of running into someone from the office. What would they think? Unlike pregnancy, infertility is an invisible health condition and most people at work had no idea I was going through fertility treatment.’ 

The phenomenon of ‘invisible grief’

Divorce and infertility are just two examples of a larger phenomenon called ‘invisible grief’, whereby a person grieves the loss of a future scenario they dreamt of. While this kind of grief doesn’t fall into the traditional grief that comes with mourning the death of a loved one, it may be even harder to navigate, because it is often isolating and not acknowledged by others.  As a result, these have far-reaching emotional consequences on personal and work lives. 

No single way to approach

There is no playbook or guide for employers and managers to approach these situations, as each individual case is unique, says Paras Sharma, psychologist and Director, The Alternative Story, an organisation providing affordable mental health services. ‘The best way forward for a manager or an employer is to approach the situation with genuine concern and a learning stance. This will enable the manager to listen more, and understand how they can be of help, rather than suggest a lot of options or ask many questions which can be intrusive and unhelpful at such a time.’

Confidentiality is paramount

Another indispensable part of the role of being a manager or employer to whom people choose to confide in about their personal situations, is ensuring unconditional privacy for the employee in question. It is absolutely vital to keep it confidential and perhaps, discuss what parts of the issue, if any, the employee is willing to let the team or anyone else in the organisation know. ‘In the early days of my infertility struggles, only my immediate supervisor knew. But with time, I began to share more about my condition with my colleagues, so that they had an inkling of what I was going through personally,’ says Rohini.

Remove paperwork and admin hurdles

It is also vital to be aware of one’s privilege as an organisational leader and remove administrative pain points and hurdles. When Neha Rajamani, a Bangalore-based web developer in her 20s, got affected by long covid last year, she developed neurological issues, resulting in brain fog (a condition causing forgetfulness, confusion and a lack of focus) and a condition called POTS (postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome) that causes heart rate spikes even on mild exertion. Further, on developing each health complication, she got no concrete answers or helpful direction from doctors and specialists. 

Due to a lack of awareness of long COVID in the medical fraternity, Neha was not able to get a medical certificate explaining her myriad of health issues, she eventually quit her job. ‘If I had found the right doctors or other people with lived experience in long COVID (the way I have now), I would’ve been able to advocate for myself to get sick time-off on proper medical grounds; or for lesser responsibilities for a duration,’ she says. While it is understandable that organisations have requirements for medical certificates, it is important to act with consideration and empathy when employees are already going through medical gaslighting and navigating uncertain health realities. 

Organisation-wide policy to support sudden and chronic illness among employees

Managers need to trust the employee’s word about their health and have a discussion with them on the way forward, without depending on doctors’ certificates. Adds Neha, ‘I think the default behaviour is to not trust an employee unless they’ve stayed with the organisation long enough or been good enough to prove that they’re trustworthy. That makes it hard for someone with a chronic illness because there is no company-mandated structure to support or protect the employee in case of illness. Instead, how accommodating their team or manager is, is dependent on how good the interpersonal relationships are.’  

This is also true of those having dynamic or invisible disabilities. There are several physical and mental health conditions that are not immediately apparent in people, such as chronic pain, anxiety, ADHD, diabetes, learning disabilities, etc. ‘From the outside, I look like a fully functioning human being, but because of POTS, I cannot exert myself without fainting or having heart spikes,’ says Neha. 

Awareness about dynamic disability will help me function on days I can and not feel shame or guilt on days I can’t,’ she adds. Neha suggests that dynamic and invisible disabilities need to be mentioned on employee records that are made visible to the employee’s reporting line. This will prevent employees from having to repeat details of their condition to their managers and others in the reporting hierarchy. 'It will also simplify the process of availing sick leaves’, Neha explains.

Awareness and adoption gaps need to be proactively tackled

India does have a lot of progressive laws- for instance, miscarriage leave, by which employees are entitled to six weeks of leave following a miscarriage. Apart from the implementation challenges in granting such leave and entitlements, there is also a lack of awareness even in the country’s top metros. 'Organisations need to create awareness around these, but also importantly, need to create an atmosphere for employees to have conversations around these with managers and HR. Asking for accommodations, needs to be normalised,’ says Rohini. ‘I took a break from work for a period while undergoing IVF because I wasn’t confident about managing it alongside a full-time job. Workplaces should aim towards creating support structures during sensitive times and prevent people (particularly women) from dropping out of the workforce,’ she suggests. 

The long-term situation also needs to be addressed. ‘While there is a lot of emphasis on the immediate fall-out of the crisis, not enough is spoken about the longer-term challenges. The latter is when the individual is likely to require different kinds of support from the organisation and their colleagues. It should be considered normal for people to have a varying number of days that they work each week/month. Most often, the individual can still dedicate a considerable number of hours, but not necessarily be able to take on a full workload,’ says Paras. 

The workplace is not far removed from an employee’s personal losses and crises. While personal situations go through an upheaval, work-demands continue to remain high. For some, work may be just the distraction they need to navigate a tough, personal phase. For others, work could be the last thing they’re able to or want to do at this time. Employers and workplaces need to be understanding, and prepared to pivot in order to support employees during adverse life situations.

Work-life conversations that question the status quo.
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Work-life conversations that question the status quo.
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