Grief comes in many forms
In my research into the impact of grief on productivity, many respondents told me that their grief was overlooked because it was a pet and not a person who had died. For example, Veronica told me, 'When my cat died, I was inconsolable. I called my manager to say I wouldn’t be coming into work that day, and she said, “pull yourself together, it was only an animal”. Her lack of understanding made it even harder for me to go back into work."
The perception of many people is that it’s not OK, or somehow weak or inappropriate to grieve when a pet dies. However, there are many clear reasons why grief can be profound after the death of a pet.
As a compassionate manager, you will be better placed to support your staff when they experience these other losses if you understand how they are likely to be affected.
Animals such as cats and dogs give their owners unconditional love. Stroking and playing with a pet releases oxytocin, which is the hormone that promotes calm, contact and care. It is the same chemical released when nursing a baby and can generate powerful feelings of love. It’s no wonder that losing a much-loved pet can be as painful as losing a loved one.
Pets hold a special place in their owners’ lives. The relationship can be similar to the relationship with a child. Most animals are entirely dependent on their owners for all aspects of their daily care, including feeding, exercise and grooming. This interdependency continues for the whole of an animal’s life, whereas children grow up and become independent.
Moreover, there may be an additional burden of guilt, particularly when they had to make the decision to have a pet put down. Even when all hope is gone, many pet owners report feeling remorse afterwards, and burden themselves with worrying whether they have done the right thing, or if there may have been a possibility for recovery.
The impact of grief on productivity
Any significant loss can have a deep impact on a staff member’s well-being and effectiveness, and someone suffering after their pet has died may well exhibit signs of grief which are comparable in severity and impact to the grief felt after the death of a close family member.
Remember that a person who is grieving may be affected by sadness, anger, stress, guilt, regret, numbness, lack of control, sleep deprivation, fatigue, muddled thinking, memory difficulties, and disconnection from others. Any of these can have an impact on the ability to perform day to day activities effectively, and the impact can last for many months.
You can make a difference
If your staff member is grieving for a pet, some very small actions can make a really big difference:
- don't trivialise it, or dismiss it.
- acknowledge that the loss and the pain is real.
- look out for any signs that might suggest their grief is temporarily overwhelming, and give the person some space and privacy if they need it.
Madeleine Allen is a human leader in a corporate world. She delivers training in Soft Skills with Hard Benefits, enabling leaders to be compassionate AND profitable.