Losing a loved one is truly devastating, and it can undoubtedly mess up your work routine. With this personal subject typically handled poorly by many employers, it is high time to start examining grief in the workplace. Joining Dr. Kevin Sansberry II is author and host of The Grief Bully Podcast, J. Nicole Jones. They talk about why bereavement leaves must never be about your closeness with the person who passed but more on the level of grief you are experiencing. J. Nicole explains why making this simply about the number of days kills the humanity and emotions surrounding it. She also emphasizes how people should stand up to their employers and demand better grief support, helping everyone cope with such a challenging situation.
Listen to the podcast here:
Examining Grief In The Workplace With J. Nicole Jones
Our guest in this episode is J. Nicole, The Grief Bully. J. Nicole is a life-impacting communicator, podcast host and author from Lawnside, New Jersey. She has dedicated her life to helping others heal from grief after suffering complicated losses of her own in 2019. She launched a podcast, The Grief Bully. Jones has published three books, The Grief Bully Journal in 2019, Truly Yours; @ I am Jnicole in 2014 and The Adventures of Gram and Lady Bug, a rhyming children’s book in living memory of her late grandmother in 2018.
We have J. Nicole Jones here from The Grief Bully Podcast. How are you?
I am doing well. How are you?
I’m excellent. I’m happy to be able to meet you and cross paths. I’ve been enjoying our conversations offline and happy to dive into thinking about toxic leadership and toxic organizations and how grief connects to that, whether that’s looking at policies, behaviors and actions. Before we get to that, I wanted to ask and get to know you a little better. Tell us a little bit about your story, where you come from and what you’re all about.
Thank you for having me. I do appreciate it. I am J. Nicole, The Grief Bully. I’m a podcast host, producer, author, most importantly, a life-impacting communicator. After a few personal losses of my own in terms of loss of loved ones, I decided to, “I’m tired of this grief thinking. I want to do something about it.” I made that conscious choice to step up and use my voice to help our community. That’s what I’ve been doing.
I am from a very tiny, small town in New Jersey called Lawnside, New Jersey. It’s very historical and has many great stories from Harriet Tubman and Underground Railroad. It has a lot of cool things. I’m very proud to be from there. I always talk about it. Before the speaking part of my life, I was a basketball player in high school and college. I do a little coaching as well and professionally, I’m in sales but personally, I’m in life impact.
One of the things I was interested in with your work was how personal loss brought you to the work. I could see that based on looking at your Instagram and all your social media the passion that you have for the work. I do want to dive into why you do the work you do and how. Before we get to that, when you think about toxic leadership being on this podcast, what is your experience in that area, whether that’s personal, as an employee or doing some research you’ve done? Talk to us more about that.
When I first hear toxic leadership, naturally from my own opinion, I think of something negative and an environment that’s negative. I think of a leader that’s negative but then that trickles down and it creates an environment. I don’t look at toxic leadership in a singularity way. I have been in positions where leadership then caused environments not so great.
Toxic leadership for me, I looked at it more of the leader having issues within themselves in a personal way that then trickles into the professional way. Due to a lack of training to help with that, what I’ve learned is that even though some people are leaders, they’re not necessarily managers. People can exemplify leadership qualities that might help them to get into a leadership role at their employment but they might not have the skills and the tact to be a manager of people. For me, where I’ve seen the issues is the lack of being able to manage people because we come with different personalities and different issues that happen.
That’s why for my personal experience with it, I don’t want to necessarily blame it on the person. It was more so of the environment because of lack of training. I’ve had some managers that are pretty cool people. We get along and there’s a vibe but then when it comes to having to deal with the humanity side of people, it’s a disconnect. We can become a little disgruntled with some resentment. We start to contribute unknowingly to the environment being toxic.
The way you’re describing that connects to the notion of grief in the workplace as we think about grief, grieving, bereavement and all that stuff. You talked about how on the individual level, you can be cool with the manager or what have you, but then when it comes to managing my situations, managing the policy or something like that, things get a little toxic or go awry. The support and humanity are not there. My question is, when you think about the current state of the workplace and we coincide that with examining grief-friendly places or places that support people to grieve, what do you see here in 2021?
In 2021, everyone’s on their heels in a professional workplace. I say that because for me, diversity and inclusion miraculously became this big thing. It was like, “There’s a need for diversity and inclusion panels and groups.” Many things like that. When you think about that, everything that people have gone through is grief and deep sorrow in so many ways.
That has become a bit uncomfortable where I’ve seen from family and friends. Personally, I haven’t dealt with so much grief where it has needed to rely on leadership’s ability. When things are crazy during the early stages of pandemic, a lot of my counterparts felt like we were spinning out of control and feeling overwhelmed, I did have to say to my manager, “I’m not feeling my best self.” He did respond by saying, “Take whatever time off you need to do whatever you need to do.” That’s because of the heightened part of what was going on in society.
When I lost my grandmother, I was an entrepreneur at the time, so it was a different scenario. When I lost my father in 2019, I was a full-time employee for a top 500 corporate company, a very admired organization. It’s a great company. They do put people first but there is a disconnect when we deal with people who are emotionally deficient. Grief brings us to that point.
Toxic leadership must not be necessarily blamed on the person, but more so on their environment and lack of proper training.
When I looked at their bereavement policies, I said, “I’ve got to navigate. How am I going to deal with my father’s, the life care and all of that stuff? I know my job. This company has to have a policy that’s going to be awesome because they’re held in such a high regard.” I had three bereavement days for a parent and I was baffled by that.
Where the challenge lies as well is that my father had stage four lung cancer. Leading up to his death, I had to take time off. The bereavement policy comes into play after the person has passed away. You got to juggle those days based on this. When I’m dealing with toxic leadership, my beef is with policies and probably the people who create them or have the power to do so but I didn’t have this direct conflict with the leader in terms of a physical person.
My manager himself wasn’t doing things that I felt were toxic but I feel the fact that we didn’t have this policy in place, the skillset or training to facilitate that and make sure that employees feel comforted. My district did send me flowers for what it’s worth. I thought that was nice. I’m not expecting them to do so much more, especially co-workers but I think there was nothing. I honestly felt bad for my manager, to be honest, because I didn’t think he knew what to do. “How do you say anything?” “We don’t know how to.” Those conversations get left unsaid and then silence becomes offensive.
When it comes to navigating that, I have a lot of leadership that reads this show from corporations. I’m curious. Let’s start at the individual level. I’m a manager and a leader. What do I say? What are some ways to navigate that you’ve seen at work?
I’m going to give you the answer in the form of a question and it will be very surprising. It’s so simple. It’s origin, but it’s so powerful because then it puts that on the bereaved person. It’s a two-way street. I don’t think it’s fair to think that management and leadership should have the number one solution to this. If I’m a manager and I’m dealing with someone that lost a loved one, I will say, “What does support look like?” Five words.
Then it allows a person to dive into them as an individual. What support will look like for you, Dr. Kevin and what it will look like for me could be different. I might say, “Give me some time. Is there someone else that can maybe take some of my workload? Can you and I have a reevaluation in 1 week or 2, see where I’m at and what I’m feeling like because how I was a week ago prior to this loss is different now?”
Someone else might say, “I’m fine. I’m okay. I’m good. I don’t want you to treat me differently because I don’t want to feel this pity. It’s life. It is what it is. People will die.” Everyone’s going to be different. I don’t think it’s fair to think it could be a generalized solution but I found great power in what the support looked like because then also for the manager, they can say, “I tried,” rather than assumption and lack of conversation.
A person might say, “I don’t know.” Managers have some training from professionals and even professionals don’t necessarily have training in grief. I know someone that’s a licensed clinical social worker. They had one class in their entire curriculum in their education on grief and it wasn’t elective. It wasn’t even mandatory. That’s difficult.
One thing I want to lift up that I love about what you said is you exemplified the notion of leading equitably because there’s not something equal, we need to say to people. You’re not going to have the same way to manage a situation. Being equitable is saying, “How can I meet the need of that individual in that time?”
If it happens to somebody else, I need to figure out how can I meet the need of that individual? It may be different. I appreciate lifting that up because that connects to a lot of things we talk about related to D and I in situational leadership. Thank you for that. You talked about policy and the need for policy, as well as behavior change. As you think about policies and you talked about three bereavement days, based on what you’ve seen, what are some best in class or recommended steps that organizations can take as we look at detoxifying how policies impact people?
I get that question a lot. I don’t think I’ve had the best answer per se because there’s still more work to be done in the area. Some of the areas that I had sold that can be almost immediately changed are one, the relationship part of it that will determine the amount of days. My best friend’s mother was a mother figure in my life. My biological mother, I don’t know her like that. We don’t have a great relationship or rapport but this woman who has been in my life since I was eleven years old passed away. I don’t want to feel like I have to justify the relationship I had with this person to determine the amount of time that I want to use my bereavement sign for.
Off of a whim, we do have FMLA, which I don’t know for a friend how that qualifies but it’s unpaid time, so it puts people in a predicament where they have to choose if they can afford to take off this time. This is my part. Why does it matter who you take that time off for? That takes the human side of it out and the empathy part. I feel like that’s an immediate thing, even if I’m saying, “You get seven days a year bereavement time.” Some people will never use it. For some, it will never be enough and that’s a fact. Use them how you see it fit. I don’t feel like I need to write you some novel explaining that this is so-and-so. Bring proof.
Managers themselves maybe not be the ones personally causing a toxic workplace culture but the broken policies currently implemented.
Some people are embarrassed because of their circumstances. They say, “My grandmother was like my mother. My mom wasn’t there. Do I need to explain all of this to you?” It’s a funny thing I saw on TikTok going around. It was a reenactment of a person calling out because he had a death in their family and the manager is like, “What aunt was it? How close were you?” It’s so funny but it was so accurate. I get a reaction video to it because some people are like that and care. For all of the managers and leaders out there, sometimes it’s how-is-this-impacting-me first mindset versus how-is-this-impacting-the-person.
If I could even shut my mouth for one more minute, it could make a difference on how that employee feels supportive because it’s costly to replace employees. Sixty percent of the people surveyed in this particular thing would leave a job if they felt unsupported during bereavement. I don’t even think that management considered that sometimes.
It’s hard for me to give you concrete changes but I do think that’s one of them examining, “What do we even define bereavement time or bereavement policies as?” In its origin, I believe it was more so for the affairs part of it, the business aspect, funeral services, things along that line and not for coping. No one could think you would cope in three days. I don’t think anyone thought that but to plan a funeral and do this and that, in some cultures, it can happen this fast. In some, you have other things you have to do. Equitable, realizing that everyone’s circumstance is not the same. In my situation, my father wasn’t married. He left a lot of responsibility on me.
I would have wanted it that way. I’m not just preparing to attend my father’s funeral. I’ve got to plan it. I have to get the finances in order. I’ve got to close out all of his affairs. I’ve got a deal with hospitals. If we have these open discussions, that’s a great start. If I’m answering the question, I don’t know that we can bounce to what policy should be but what conversation should be being had to lead us closer to a point where those policies are more bereave community-friendly.
You did lift some concrete things that probably need to change like that whole proof of death is weird. One of the things you talked about was the timing of it. Some policies have a thing where you can only use bereavement and leave a certain number of days after an event. That’s stupid to me. That’s super toxic. When we talk about that equitability, why do we have to time it around?
What if from a religious standpoint, my timing is different? What if I need more time? Those are some concrete things people should look at in a policy because they have a policy which most companies do. The more flexibility, the better to me sounds like an equitable way to handle this situation. That allows bereavement to be proactive instead of reactive in a way.
A lot of companies do have EAP but you don’t hear about it in set from when you first are hired. That’s a part of it. I didn’t hear about it. I was asking for more clarity on the FMLA, so then my manager was able to reach out to the human resource person and then we started figuring it out. You heard that I was proactive in trying to do that, whereas there should be some trigger. I don’t know if it’s an app or whatever it is.
For example, we use Workday to request our days off. If someone requests a bereavement day, then perhaps that can trigger some follow-up from some counselor. “Mr. Manager, this person requested this time off.” I don’t know what type of violation that could be for HIPAA perhaps. Maybe not everyone says to their manager, “I’m taking off for bereavement.” They just go in in their day off and they choose the bereavement.
That’s why from a legality standpoint, I’m not well-versed enough to know what is it and isn’t on the right side. That’s why I don’t like to tend to speak to that but I would love to be at those round table discussions to bring the human part of it because I’ve been there and I know what that feels like. To navigate to your point, I had to decide. “I’ve got three days. I plan a funeral. It’s going to be on that day. I’m going to try to take one bereavement day off. This day, I’ve got to view the body and make sure this is good. When Monday comes, I’ll probably going to feel like this.” It shouldn’t be. I don’t know what it should be like but it shouldn’t be how it is.
Another thing that could happen is whatever HR system you used, I use sick time or bereavement time. It triggers an automated email with the EAP information at the time. When you get hired, onboarding and stuff like that, you’ve read EAP. I came from HR, so I knew more about EAP. I speak my language. For the staff who didn’t look at EAP like I did all the time, they don’t even know what it is. A lot of them didn’t even know you could use it for spousal care, sometimes your children, dependents and stuff like that.
EAP is a powerful solution because a lot of times, what people don’t realize is EAP can be a resource for employees to find resources. I’ve never planned a funeral before. EAP has people who can walk you through finding resources and stuff like that. On top of that, they have trained therapists, social workers and stuff like that. We talked about organizational policy but I want to hear about the state of the law. Are there any mandates legally in any states that you know of or anything you hear in legislation?
No one has to justify their relationship with someone who passed away just to be eligible for bereavement leaves.
When I was doing some research on this, I was surprised. I did not know that bereavement policy is not a federal mandate or a law. It’s not mandatory for any organization to offer. If I give you three days or a few days, I’m doing you a favor because I don’t have to do this. I believe Oregon is the state that does have it where it’s a part of a federal mandate. It’s not exactly called grief or bereavement. It’s something with the word family but they have something that is a great mirror. It’s not complete flexibility with the name of the person that you’re related to but there are more people. Maybe step-grandparent, in-laws and things like that.
It wasn’t using for whoever you want to use them for but it was more than just mom, dad, children, spouse or some other people, which is important. If your in-laws passed away, if you’re close, if you’re not the stereotype joke where everyone doesn’t like their in-laws, it isn’t true, I love my in-laws, if something like that happens, I want to use my bereavement time. “My mother-in-law passed away. I’m out of here.” Oregon is a great example of that. Their time was a lot more. It’s a law that their organization has to offer.
That happened in 2020. It’s interesting that we got 50 states and we named one. That’s not horrible because you got one.
Forgive me if it’s more but honestly, I did my research. If someone else came out of the woodworks and so, be it but Oregon was the one that had this. New York tried. It was pretty close but it got stopped. That’s the other one that stuck out to me as well.
They were going to do about twelve weeks but got vetoed by the government. These are bright spots because at least people are trying. From a legislative standpoint, there is recognition of the need for change over and above three days. It’s the fact that we’re talking about it and come up with some examples to give people guideposts or templates to look after. Find the New York legislation. Look at the Oregon legislation. Organizations can build upon that. If we’re thinking about how to be transformational and be human first in our workplaces, we can look at policies.
You asked about states. Facebook is another great example. This was in 2017. It says, “Starting today, Facebook employees will have up to twenty days paid leave to grieve an immediate family member, up at ten days to grieve an extended family member and will be able to take up to six weeks of paid leave to care for a sick relative.”
You want to know why, though. The reason why is beautiful. I went back into my feelings a little bit. I felt that in a minute just reading that, I felt supported. I can never imagine that this company I worked for would allow me to come back whenever I feel like it. That’s not realistic. In my mind, twenty paid days, not affecting my other time off days that I have approved for other stuff, I got to figure it out. You need to either say, “I got to quit this job or I’m going to do it.”
The reason why is because their COO Sheryl Sandberg made this happen. She was the one that announced it. I read her book. What happened to her was that her husband was on vacation. He went out down to the beach and never came back. He dropped dead. She realized and felt that. She had young children. She knew firsthand what that experience was like. Where that becomes beautiful is that she was able to do that but there’s maybe not enough Sheryl Sandberg’s or people who have had that firsthand experience at the forefront of making these policies.
That is powerful. It was created due to a real life event. The bright spot in the policy is you have full support from leadership and everybody made it happen together. As we wrap up, what words of wisdom would you want to leave our readers with?
Speak your mind to protect your heart. It’s a J. Nicole quote by the way. I like to say that because as much as I go to the defense and I’ll be on the front line, so God chooses otherwise for the bereaved community, it’s also on us a certain level of responsibility to speak up for ourselves. If you are a bereaved person, if you have dealt with loss and you are facing toxic leadership around these issues, you got to use your voice and your resources to make sure that your voice is heard to protect your heart. You don’t want to necessarily form that resentment against a great employer or a company that could be great for yourself and your family based on a misunderstanding due to miseducation.
Speak your mind to protect your heart.
If we can speak up, even put that back on them and say, “What do you know about grief? Are you open to learning how to support other people and me better?” Words have power. We’ve always got to keep that mindset that it’s a two-way street. We do have to do better. Let’s lean in and let’s not be afraid of grief, death and all of those things because it’s real. It’s not changing but we want to prevent this toxic leadership and do better. That’s not going to happen if we’re silent.
How can people get ahold of you? How can we learn more about the work that you do?
I am J. Nicole, The Grief Bully. I have a podcast. It’s called The Grief Bully Podcast on everywhere you listen to podcasts. On YouTube, it’s Youtube.com/JNicoleTheGriefBully. You can see all of my episodes there. I hang out the most socially on Instagram. Feel free to follow me there @I_Am_JNicole. DM me. Send me a message, anything. You can go to JNicoleJones.com.
I appreciate being able to talk to you about this. This is a pioneering area in the workplace to detoxify and show employees that we value their humanity. At the same time, we want to treat people equitably. I appreciate your insights.
Thank you so much. Thank you for having me and for the work that you do.
Thank all of you for reading the show.
- The Grief Bully
- The Grief Bully Journal
- Truly Yours; @ I am Jnicole
- The Adventures of Gram and Lady Bug
- @I_Am_JNicole – Instagram
About J. Nicole Jones
Nicole, The Grief Bully is a Life Impacting Communicator, Podcast Host and Author from Lawnside, NJ. She has dedicated her life to helping others heal from grief after suffering complicated losses of her own. In 2019, she launched her first podcast, The Grief Bully.
To date, Jones has published, three books, The Grief Bully Journal in 2019, Yours Truly, @i_am_jnicole in 2014, and The Adventures of Gram and Lady Bug, a rhyming children’s book in loving memory of her late grandmother in 2018.