How to Support a Grieving Employee
Key Points about grief in the workplace:
- Grief can make even simple, everyday tasks challenging. Grieving employees may find it difficult to focus and complete their work responsibilities as normal.
- You can offer a bit of relief by meeting these employees where they are.
- A combination of preparation, educational resources, and benefits can help you support grieving employees in the workplace.
Everyone experiences grief at some point in their life, but few of us are fully equipped to handle it when it comes. Grief is an overwhelming experience and it’s unique for each person. Everyone has their own path through the stages of grief, and what helped one person may not help another.
To complicate matters, our fast-paced society rarely allows time for grief. We’re often pressured to keep our grief short and private. After all, grief takes us away from obligations like work, school, and more.
No one can make grief easy, but you can lessen the burden by offering support and giving people the time and space they need to process their emotions and heal. Below are some ways that you can support a grieving employee:
An employee may need to drop everything and leave work immediately when they receive news of a loved one’s death. In some circumstances, the employee may not be able to update you on the status of their work assignments and projects.
With clear, documented workflows set up ahead of time, you can quickly reassign work so the employee doesn’t need to worry about any urgent projects they left behind.
Educate managers and teammates about the grieving process
Grief can take many forms and it may look different from one day to the next. Managers and coworkers may not know what to say or how to act around a grieving employee.
If possible, bring in a grief counselor to talk with employees and educate them about grief and ways to provide support. Grief counseling is an especially good idea if employees are grieving the loss of a colleague.
Provide bereavement leave and schedule flexibility
People who lose a close friend or family member often have to put their grief on hold so they can make all the decisions that accompany a death. They may have to make funeral arrangements, inform others of the death, and give extra attention to children or other people in the home.
You can help by offering bereavement leave and flexible schedules when the employee returns to work. In the United States, the typical bereavement leave policy is three to seven days. Unfortunately, this is rarely enough time to hold a funeral or memorial service, let alone work through the initial pain of a loss. If you can offer more time, your employees will appreciate it.
Providing either paid or unpaid time off is a huge expense, and it’s not feasible for every employer. In general, offer as much time as you can and communicate with the employee about how much time they feel they need. Some employees may want to come back sooner because work helps distract them from their pain. Others may ask for more time off because they need to heal before they can be fully productive.
It’s also important to note that grieving employees will have both good and bad days. Grief can come on suddenly, and employees may need extra breaks or to take a day off unexpectedly. If employees know that they’ll have flexibility when they return, it can be a big relief.
Offer mental health care
Some grieving employees will need therapy to help them process their loss and work through their emotions. However, regular sessions with a therapist can become costly.
If you provide health insurance that covers mental health care, you can help ease this financial burden. An Employee Assistance Program may also be beneficial.
Offer support, but be mindful of decision fatigue
People who experience a loss need support, but they may not know what they need. Decision fatigue is common immediately after a death and even a question like, “What can we bring over for dinner?” can be stressful to answer.
To be mindful of decision fatigue, you could simply tell a grieving employee that you’re there for them. They then have the option to reach out to you if they need anything. You could also make some decisions yourself instead of asking the employee. For example, if you want to give them a gift card to a restaurant, you could select the restaurant yourself instead of asking for their input. Both of these options show the employee that you care without asking them to make another potentially stressful decision.
Be aware of triggers and PTSD
If a death was particularly sudden, unexpected, or traumatic, an employee may sometimes reexperience the horror, panic, stress, and fear they felt at that time. In some cases, the employee may be diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). If this occurs, give the employee time and space to process their emotions.
Don’t be too hard on yourself if something you say triggers a response. There’s no way to anticipate the words and images that could be triggering. Even if you know the details of the death, it’s simply not reasonable to expect that you’ll remember those details at every moment. Don’t worry if you say the “wrong thing.” The important thing is to show understanding and compassion if a grieving employee needs to step away.
Any Support Matters
Grief is a difficult emotion to process, especially in the workplace where high performance and productivity are expected. Let grieving employees know that you value them beyond their work. Any little thing you can do to support them can make a difference.