When employees grieve: Grief in the workplace?


It is in the best interest of employees, their managers and a company’s bottom line to offer support to an employee who has lost someone significant in their life.

While it may be difficult to see the value of granting bereavement leave to an employee struggling with loss, it is a small investment with a return that will result in a healthier, more productive worker. When the employee is ready to return to work, a good manager can – and should – provide additional support that will help the employee transition back into an everyday routine.

It is a cultural tendency for people to try to “keep busy,” “distract themselves from their grief,” or “throw themselves into work,” and for some, a return to the structure of the work environment may be helpful. For many people, however, it may be difficult to even summon the energy to go into the office. To rush back into daily life may lead to an employee carrying grief with them, which may ultimately lead to illness or a longer time period of lowered productivity.

Effective managers should watch for signs to see if an employee may need extra support to cope with grief, including:

* Loss of efficiency

* Experiencing more distractions

* Becoming emotional or overwhelmed

* Having trouble focusing on day-to-day tasks

* Especially in a medical setting, there may be triggers that are similar to the loss that the employee has experienced

* “Buzz” or comments from co-workers or around the office

* Requesting more time off

When you notice these indicators, it is important to respond with supportive tactics on a case-by-case basis. Talk to the employee about different options when it comes to things like deciding how or if to share information with their colleagues about their loss. Some employees may share their loss with co-workers themselves and some may prefer to not discuss their situation at all. Take cues from the employee when offering assistance, and be aware of these common mistakes when interacting with someone who is experiencing grief:

* Asking “What can I do to help?” An employee may be afraid that they may ask for the wrong thing. By offering specific ways you can help, whether it be extending a deadline, allowing the employee to temporarily work from home, or offering to deliver a meal, your employee will be assured that they aren’t making an outrageous request.

* Assigning a timeline to the grieving process. As a society, we tend to think the grieving process should be over in a few weeks or months, but that’s not generally the case. A lot of times the reality of a loss is just hitting someone around the same time that others are expecting them to be moving one. Grieving can take an extended period of time if an employee lost someone they interacted with on a day-to-day basis or felt especially close to or distant from the lost loved one at the time of the loss.

* Saying “I know just how you feel.” It’s common for people to tell their own loss stories to demonstrate an understanding or to present themselves as a resource, but this kind of sharing may compound an employee’s grief. They may feel like they need to provide support or that it’s another burden, or they may simply be having vastly different feelings or experiences with their own grief.

There are external resources available to help a grieving employee as well. If your organization has an Employee Assistance Center, an employee may benefit from a reminder that it is available for their use. In addition, Hospice of Michigan offers free grief support services including community support groups, one-on-one support and presentations to help learn and understand appropriate methods to support those experiencing grief.