Marie-Hélène Budworth

Associate Professor of Human Resource Management, specializing in learning, development & motivation.

Marie-Hélène Budworth

Finding meaning at work when suffering loss

May 15th, 2014 · 5 Comments · Uncategorized

This is a call for volunteers more than a Blog post.  My co-author, Kate Rowbotham and I are at the very beginning of a research project around how workers deal with personal loss.  As an initial step, I am looking to speak with one or two people who have suffered the loss of a friend or loved one while continuing to work.  This is not for participation in a formal study, it will be a semi-structured interview mainly centred on how you managed work and employment during that time.  It will help us to develop ideas around how to structure the research.  We recognize that it might be difficult to  participate in this discussion as it deals with highly personal content.

We are concerned with the interface between meaning of work and experiences with death and dying. At some point in an individual’s career, they are likely to experience the loss of a significant personal relationship through the death of the ‘other.’ It is precisely in these significant life events that individuals begin to question the importance of every aspect of their life, including work. Meaning is a tool used by the individual to impose stability in life. As life unfolds, individuals seek to fulfill needs for purpose, value, efficacy, and self-worth. Various lines of research are concerned with the salience of work relative to the rest of one’s life.  Our long term plan is to explore how the experience of loss effects the individuals’ experience of working and their commitment to their jobs, organizations, and careers.

If you have any comments about the project, feel free to comment below.  If you are willing and able to speak with me briefly, please email me directly at


5 Comments so far ↓

  • Shavone Lazarus

    The search for purpose is frequently explored in life, and especially accentuated during times of travesty and loss. Loss can be experienced in many different forms such as through break-up, separation, divorce, or death. Loss in life can carry with it, demotivating feelings of self-worth and purpose, not only in work but also throughout life’s mysterious journey.

    Organizations today recognize the need to support employees with loss via various benefits and programs such as bereavement leave, sick leave and Employee Assistance Programs. These benefits intend to assist employees to cope and recover from life’s unexpected travesties. The ultimate goal is to retain employees, engage employees and motivate employees to willingly return to productive work.

    This is challenging as various factors such as cultures, people and personalities deal with loss at different levels and in different stages. For some, work can be a retreat away from the reality of the pain associated with loss. For others, commitment to life and its deeper meaning can be a soul-searching venture that derives people away from work, and sometimes into career contemplation. At some point we ask, “is this really what I want to do for the rest of my life?”

    The solution is to engage employees through support, and understanding that loss, though a universal experience, cannot be treated universally, as the vast array of people that make up this world treat and respond to loss differently. Workplace flexibility and accommodation will be pivotal to make employees feel a sense of purpose and work for an organization that cares about their well being. A culture of organizational empathy will have a positive effect on morale, productivity and the organizations reputation.

  • Velda

    I’ve seen two different reactions to individuals’ attitudes toward work, after the loss of a significant other in their lives. Recently, a colleague of mine, after suddenly loosing his father, went from being highly engaged, putting in a lot of discretionary effort to becoming disinterested and saying things like “it’s just a job, there are many more important things in life” “I’ve given too much to this place, I’m getting out early today” “I am not taking this stuff home with me, to heck with that”, “I’ve wasted too much time on this place” etc. I have another colleague; who also lost a parent, who became even more engaged in work, who stayed in the office, even later than ever and took on extra assignments and projects and became consumed with her career – and advanced in her career. Personally, after loosing my mother; I went back to work quickly; consumed myself with work and used it as a distraction. I saw less of my friends and family (other than my daughter); work became the place of distraction, focusing on the task at hand, it gave me the luxury of not thinking or or talking about the loss.

  • Kathy Krzywucki

    I have to agree that different individuals react differently to such situation, I have met and worked with people from both extremes, some individuals completely disconnect from reality and see no purpose or meaning to move forward and have requested for extensive time off from work, while others find that being around people and keeping themselves occupied with work gives them the purpose to move on. Every individual is different and working as a manager or HR we have to understand that and tend to employees needs. Some people like to talk about their loss while others prefer to pretend like nothing happened, and being on the other side we have to understand and respect what they are going though.

  • Caileigh Dauphinais

    In a company with a culture of caring and where family oriented values are demonstrated, we fairly recently had an interesting experience with an employee who lost her father. This employee is very long-tenured, respected, very hard working and particular. When we found out about the passing of her father, we were warned by a senior level person in our HR department that the employee didn’t wish to speak about it and that we should treat her with respect, but not to bring it up—this is not typically aligned with our culture. The employee continued to work, but demonstrated erratic behaviour, lashing out at colleagues for the simplest of things and alienating herself from others. After this behaviour was observed, the same senior HR person reached out to her and was basically told to mind her own business (in a respectful, but firm manner). Things eventually settled down and the employee returned to her usually pleasant and productive self. About a month ago (which was about nine months from the date of death), the individual was in the HR department informing us of another colleague’s loss and brought up the fact that no one ever spoke with her about her father and how alone and unsupported she felt by her colleagues. As HR professionals, it is important to be compassionate, supportive and available, but it is impossible to read minds. This was an interesting experience because she seemed to be angry that we respected her expressed wishes. You can never predict how employees will react. I think the biggest key here is to be open-minded, flexible and supportive to the extent that it is not hurting the business. You can also never predict how employees will react.

  • budworth

    Erin T – Marie, I realize this blog was from an earlier semester, but I hope you don’t mind that I comment on this blog instead of the new blog posts in November. I remember reading this blog post in early September, and to this day, I catch myself thinking about it, and the replies I’ve read after. I would prefer that these posts are kept confidential, but I also trust your judgment if you need to share ideas or some content in the future.

    While I understand what it means to work while suffering from the death of a grandparent, and the most recent circumstance of living with my father who has had cancer for two years now. I found the contents of this article and the replies very intriguing.

    As mentioned, for the past two years my Dad has gone through many treatments for colon, lung, liver and thyroid cancer. As one of his main supporters (and to my mother as well), I am actively engaged as the active listener, especially when one or both of my parents seek comfort from me. While I find it hard to be the one offering so much support (as it seems we’ve grown so accustomed to relying on our parents, there comes a time when they rely on you), the experience can be emotionally taxing.

    With regards to the blog content, I can’t agree more with the meaning of “work and experiences in death and dying” and how these impact our daily lives, especially work. While I feel it’s my purpose to be strong and supportive for my parents, I also find purpose and a form of escape in my work.

    While working at Scotiabank, I would prep myself every day. To get into my car, drive to work, and put my “game face” on as I perform the required expectations of my role. I found going to work, finding meaning in my work as an escape from what I am experiencing at home. I preferred not to discuss my current situation with my peers or even my manager, unless it was absolutely necessary (missing a group skype call, etc.,) I did not want to seek sympathy from anyone, and I did not want my peers to view me as “weak” or “less than” because I must have been “going through a hard time.” I didn’t want people to alter their perceptions of the quality of my work, or give me a “break” based on my personal circumstances.

    In regards to friends, or peers from work asking me about “how things are going,” I can definitely understand why some employees may be offended by the question. In asking this question, you are telling me that I am “cracking” or “unfolding” and when I say that, I mean to express that I feel my excellent performance may not be as stellar as usual, or I am making the assumption that my peers are going to ask me if “I need assistance” or “someone to talk to.” Fortunately, I come from a big family of 4 adult sibilings, while I am the baby, I have 3 other adults to rely on for support. Moreover, this is not the kind of support I want to receive from my peers, especially when I am in direct competition for that upcoming management role. (as an example).

    While I’m currently not working for Scotiabank any more, seeking more of an administrative HR role, I turn to my school work and reading to give me purpose and meaning. Sometimes I feel that in going to work, likewise in attending class it gives me meaning (to participate, to do well in my studies, to learn and grow). I’m also realizing that, in my doing this, I am attaching my identity to my work (essays), and high achievements – this may not be healthy, but I am using it as a coping mechanism. And I feel that, for those employees who wish to not reply to comments or questions on “how are you Really doing,” I’m using work as an escape from what I face outside the “office.”

    While we cannot help or control our personal circumstances, we can control our destiny and way of life. Besides, we only live once! And I can’t waste my time on the sorrows of my personal experience, how can one not notice that the sun still shines for us every day!

    Carpe Diem 🙂

    In regards to my Dad, we beat thyroid cancer is August, celebrated his 70th birthday in September! Currently awaiting more test results in the new year. Thank you, Erin