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Grief and the workplace: How to help your employees handle loss

Grief is a normal part of life. However much we wish it otherwise, the pain of loss is something that happens to all of us.

If you manage a team (of any size), chances are, you’ll eventually be (or already have been) in a position to either help or hinder an employee’s grieving process.

And since there’s no one-size-fits-all solution that will work for everyone, offering extra support can feel uncomfortable, tricky and hard to navigate.

But it’s a worthwhile effort that won’t go unnoticed or unappreciated.

It’s worthwhile because even under "normal circumstances", the understanding you offer your people makes a real difference in how they feel about coming in and working hard for the good of your team. So it makes sense that when they’re going through something as emotionally challenging as processing the loss of a loved one, that they’d need even more support from their managers.

In On Grief and Grieving, co-author David Kessler says it well, "This is one of the most crucial experiences you will interact with your employees on. They will remember how you handled this."

Read on for some tips on how you can help make work a safe space for team members going through grief.

Have practical tools ready

You can’t prevent grief. But you can be prepared with practical resources for your employees so that when the unthinkable occurs, you have them at the ready. Have a folder with contact information for area funeral homes, grief counseling, florists and legal services, as well as a clear guide to the bereavement benefits and assistance your company has available and what steps must be taken to ensure leave is approved without any hiccups.

Another way to offer practical support is by taking the initiative to contact the employee about their needs during this difficult time, and working with the rest of your team to organize practical help while the person is on leave, recovering or ramping up on their return (a meal train or gift card to a restaurant for takeaway, assistance with yard work, childcare or pet care, etc).

Don’t avoid the topic (or the person)

While giving an employee who’s come back after a loss wide berth sounds like a good idea (and keeps you from having to awkwardly address the issue) it can have the undesired side effect of making some people feel ignored or invisible.

If the person who’s returned after their bereavement leave hasn’t made it clear via some sort of communication to you or their team members, it’s better to be direct and ask the person what they need moving forward.

Do they appreciate regular check-ins from their colleagues about how they’re feeling, or prefer not to talk right now? If they don’t want to talk, offer to communicate their wishes to the rest of the team, and make sure they know that you’re available any time if that changes.

Adjust your expectations

And this applies to both your expectations for the employee in question’s productivity and engagement, as well as less obvious expectations that may have to do with your own personal beliefs about the grieving process and how long it should take, or what it should look like.

According to the Harvard Business Review, grief can cause people to be more withdrawn and disorganized, so managers should be very careful of labeling these issues as performance problems in grieving employees.

A messy desk with a coffee cup, and multi-coloured crumpled-up sticky notes.

@designhorf via Unsplash

Check in

Because everyone grieves differently, and processing loss is nonlinear, your employee may be fine at first, and a few months later start crying mid-meeting. In an essay she wrote after losing her husband, Sheryl Sandberg (COO at Facebook, and author of Lean In), recommends asking people who are grieving, "how are you today" (as opposed to "how are you") as it quietly recognizes the fact that loss is lived one day at a time.

It’s important to schedule times in your calendar to circle back and see how your employees are doing.

Early on, that could mean a long conversation over coffee every few days or weeks (only do this if you and the person who is grieving are comfortable with that frequency/intensity) and after some time has passed, it could be every few months. If you’re not particularly close, checking in could be as simple as asking how your employee is doing that day and offering to help however you can.

Your role as a manager who cares is showing the person who’s experienced a loss the patience and compassion they need in a way that is comfortable for them.

Foster emotional intelligence

The most important part of making your employees feel safe enough to talk about emotional issues like grief at work is training your people in emotional intelligence via educational programmes about dealing with grief and trauma.

It’s also a good idea to give them access to workshops and mental wellbeing tools to help them work with their emotions on a regular basis through techniques such as mindfulness and recording their thoughts.

Find the right words

Grief counselors (and people who’ve gone through the grieving process themselves) recommend you skip the typical platitudes. According to Psychology Today, things like, "be strong", "this too shall pass" or "I know how you feel", "time heals everything" or the dreaded "everything happens for a reason| are some of the worst things you can say to someone who’s mourning.

Instead, opt for something more open-ended and understanding when offering support, such as, "I don’t have the words, but I care, and I’m here if you’d like to talk" or "We’re so glad you’re back and I’m here to talk if that’s something you’d find helpful".

When you’re not sure what to say or you’re not very close to an employee, even a simple, "I’m so sorry for your loss," goes a long way. Handling grief at work can be complicated but it's always worth the effort to take care of your team.

What are some ways your company offers support to employees going through grief? Share your experience with us at foundations@koahealth.com.