Two days after his daughter's funeral, Don Lee returned to his job as manager of a business-insurance agency in Dallas.
He sat at his desk, thinking about Melinda's stay in an intensive-care unit. The 20-year-old college student had been in a car struck by a drunken driver. For 54 days she remained hooked to life support, alert but unable to talk.
Still, she was optimistic, writing 300 notes to loved ones before her death in December 1994.
Through his workday, Lee thought about her. "I put in my full eight-hour day," he said, "but for six months, I didn't do more than four hours of work each day."
His company never determined the cost of his lost productivity. But now the consequences of sorrow like his are being quantified. Researchers at the Grief Recovery Institute, a nonprofit educational foundation, recently embarked on an ambitious undertaking: to measure how grief affects U.S. businesses in dollars and cents.
It's imperative for businesses to connect the dots between grief and diminished productivity, says the institute, which estimates that American workers mourn the deaths of 2.4 million loved ones each year.
The group's new "Grief Index" — measuring sources of emotional pain ranging from miscarriages to pet loss — reveals some big numbers: Hidden grief costs U.S. companies more than $75 billion annually, it says.
"When your heart is broken, your head doesn't work right," said Russell Friedman, the institute's co-director. He advocates that businesses offer more grief counseling, longer bereavement leaves and more education on the topic.
The index is subjective and far from exact, of course. Industry groups representing funeral directors, hospice families and others that monitor and study grief say they have no comparable statistics.
Still, the the Sherman Oaks, Calif., institute's work is significant because of its attempt to use as many quantitative measures as possible. Counselors interviewed more than 25,000 grieving people, and almost all said their job performance was affected.
The group used more than 12 recognized studies to compute the cost of a lost hour. These numbers were then applied to issues such as pet loss: About 14 million pets die each year, and assuming that each pet has one grieving owner, and just one in 10 pet owners carries that grief into the workplace, it still results in 1.4 million incidences each year of diminished productivity. Annual estimated cost to U.S. businesses: $2.4 billion.
The Society for Human Resource Management, an organization for human-resource executives, says it has no data to confirm or dispute the institute's findings. However, its research shows that companies are taking steps to deal with grief.
In a recent society survey, 68 percent of businesses said they have employee-assistance programs, up from 64 percent in 1999.
About 92 percent of companies offer paid bereavement leave, though usually for four days or fewer. Friedman advocates 10 days.
The index's creators say they based it on conservative assumptions. To calculate the workplace effect of loved ones' deaths, the index assumes a death produces just one primary mourner, who in the next two years loses a total of 30 days of productivity. Minimum annual effect for U.S. businesses in lost productivity and on-the-job errors: $37.6 billion.
Other lost-productivity figures include $11 billion for divorce or marital woes, $7 billion for the death of an acquaintance and $4.6 billion for money trouble at home.
Other grief-related workplace problems are harder to measure. An unknown but large percentage of workplace accidents are grief-related, due to an inability to focus, the study asserts.
Working it out
Grievers must become advocates for their own needs, Friedman said. He suggests that they ask bosses to permit them "grief breaks," so they'll be more productive the rest of the day. His tips: Take a walk outside, visit the restroom, find a co-worker who can chat for a bit.
The institute also suggests mourners ask for extra days of bereavement leave, by arguing that the break will help them be more effective when they return.
How can companies lower the Grief Index? Hallmark Cards Inc., offers a program called Compassionate Connections, a support network of employees who have faced a personal crisis and mentor people now weathering similar experiences.
Eighty-five Hallmark employees have volunteered to be mentors to 5,400 co-workers. Mentors list a specific crisis — Alzheimer's, childhood illnesses, AIDS, infertility, house fire, etc. — that they have faced. The cost of the program is minimal, Hallmark says.
Often, programs begin as grassroots efforts that are embraced by a company. In 1999, at Foote Hospital in Jackson, Mich., employees lobbied for a program that now allows workers to convert vacation or personal time to cash, which is then used to offset lost income for co-workers who take time off to deal with a crisis.
Companies help grieving employees be better workers when they show "organizational compassion," said Jane Dutton, a professor of organizational behavior at the University of Michigan. She recently co-conducted a two-year study on the topic and found grieving workers are buoyed when company leaders respond to their basic needs. "Gestures of comfort" can be simple, such as bringing dinner to an employee's home after a funeral.
Dutton's interest is rooted in an experience with her own child. At age 3, her daughter fell down a staircase and almost died. At the time, Dutton split her work time at two different schools at the university.
"One school was very responsive, granting all kinds of flexibility and resources," she said. "The other reacted with silence, as if it didn't happen."
Her daughter recovered. Since then, Dutton has come to a realization about workplaces.
"There is always grief somewhere in the room," she said. "Companies have to deal with it."