Words of Comfort: How to Support a Grieving Employee

By Lacey Conner, SHRM-CP on Jul 13, 2020
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How to Support a Grieving Employee

Everyone will suffer the loss of a loved one at some point. In fact, the Hospice Foundation of America estimates roughly 2.5 million people die in the U.S. each year. If you think about the number of survivors impacted by the death of just one person, it becomes clear millions of people could be grieving at any given time and many of those have jobs. Inevitably, the individual’s pain, denial and anger will spill into the workplace, and possibly even more so today. With many people adhering to social distancing guidelines, it can be more difficult for impacted individuals to lean on their support systems. It will be up to your organization’s leaders to create an environment that supports grieving team members and helps them transition back to their “normal” work life.  

Grief Affects Workers Differently

The grieving process isn’t universal; everyone handles it differently. While five stages have generally been accepted — denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance — there is no single timetable to guide employers who are trying to support a grieving employee. Signs an employee is struggling with grief include (but are not limited to) fatigue, low morale, inability to concentrate, diminished work quality, absenteeism, anger, irritability, symptoms of depression and lack of motivation. These telltale signs of grief may indicate your employee is in need of additional support.

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How Employers Can Support Grieving Employees

One of the most uncomfortable situations a manager or supervisor finds themselves in is supporting an employee who has just lost a loved one. It often seems nothing that is said or done can help take the pain away. The situation is very delicate for employers and involves balancing compassion and understanding with maintaining workplace productivity. That said, it is important for leaders to know their interactions with grieving employees play a critical role in their healing process, and returning to work and resuming normal routines is a big part of recovery. Here are four ways managers and supervisors can support a grieving employee:

  1. Prepare in advance. Have policies in place for how the leave will be handled in the event an employee loses a close family member or friend. Currently, there are no federal bereavement laws and only one state (Oregon) has laws in place which grant paid or unpaid leave for employees to mourn the loss of a loved one or attend a funeral. That said, employers should have policies in place and know what they would do should an employee suffer a death of a loved one. 

    When it comes to bereavement leave, time off is generally given for the purpose of making funeral arrangements and/or attending the funeral/memorial services and provides the opportunity for the employee to grieve privately. The amount of time off is often based on the relationship to the deceased — the death of immediate family members generally results in more days off than the death of extended family members. Many organizations offer 3-5 days off and it is typically paid.

  2. Communicate immediately. As soon as an employer hears their employee has suffered a loss, in-person, sincere condolences should be made. The goal of communication should be to let the employee know they are supported, not how the loss will affect the organization’s goals or the team’s performance. At this time the employee can be reminded of the organization’s bereavement policy. If arrangements need to be made to cover the workload while the employee is out of the office, management should take those steps absent of coordinating every step and assignment with the grieving employee.

    Remember, a loss can be highly personal and while some people within the organization will need to know, the employee’s privacy should also be respected. Therefore, when it comes to communicating with the team, the bereaved employee should always be asked what amount of information they are comfortable with others knowing. In some cases, they are an open book, in others, they won’t want anyone to know. Both are okay and it is your job, as a manager, to respect their wishes.

  3. Know that productivity may be lower for a while and that is okay. It is important to continue to support the bereaved employee when they return back to the workplace. Oftentimes, those first few days back in the office are the hardest. While employers should expect productivity, they should also understand it may not be where it was before the loss. Providing flexibility in workloads or due dates is best practice, along with granting remote work days.
  4. Watch for warning signs. Poor grooming habits, social withdrawal and substance abuse may indicate the employee is suffering from prolonged grief. As an employer, you are in the position to observe changes in the grieving employee’s behavior and recommend support through an Employee Assistance Program (EAP). EAPs help employees with a variety of issues including mental health services.

It can be difficult to know exactly how to support a grieving employee as everyone processes grief differently. That said, the tips above should help guide the way. If you need further assistance, don’t hesitate to reach out to our HR experts. At Axcet HR Solutions, we’ve been providing comprehensive outsourced HR services to small- and medium-sized businesses in the Kansas City metro since 1988.

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