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How to support employees through grief


The process for how to support employees through grief is, unfortunately, one of the hardest and most delicate tasks you’ll undertake as a business leader.

Coping with death is difficult. When we lose someone important to us, life as we know it feels as though it has stopped. Sadly, life won’t ever be the same again without that person. Gradually, we learn to go on with our “new normal.”

Whether death is anticipated or sudden, it’s a cruel reality that, from the first moment you receive the news, everything changes.

It’s also unavoidable. The loss of a loved one will happen to every single one of us at some point. Sometimes, regrettably, it happens to several people at once, as with an accident, a global pandemic or a natural disaster.

How people grieve a loss and navigate the coming-to-acceptance process is different for everyone – as is the timeline.

When a death impacts a single employee or your entire staff, it can have a major effect on your workplace in terms of absenteeism, productivity and your team’s long-term emotional and mental health.

To work toward minimizing grief’s impact in your workplace, it’s helpful to consider the following questions:

  • How can you support your team members through a tough time and successfully transition them back to a normal work routine?
  • How do you balance the emotional needs of your people with the need for your business to continue operating as usual?
  • How can you prepare for this (inevitable) situation?

With those guiding questions in mind, let’s take a closer look at how to support employees through grief.

What to do when an employee’s loved one dies

1. Communicate with the bereaved.

Part of being a strong leader is displaying emotional intelligence. As soon as you become aware that one of your employees has experienced a loss, contact them directly to:

  • Express your condolences.
  • Let them know you support them.

The topic of loss is deeply personal and sensitive, requiring a delicate touch. If possible, it should be delivered in person or via phone call, if the employee is in a different office location.

Your goal in reaching out is to assure them that you care about them as a person – not that you’re concerned about how their grief-related absence will mean for you or the company.

Give the employee the opportunity to focus and process the immediate crisis they’re facing. Be respectful to their space and considerate to their needs. Independently, figure out how to delegate their workload to other employees.

Quietly notify other team members who will be taking on additional work. Also, alert your HR personnel, who will facilitate time off during the bereaved employee’s absence.

However, while working to make things easier, be mindful and respectful of your employee’s privacy. There’s no reason to formally broadcast the news around the office or tell details of the situation. If the grieving employee wants to share news of their loss with their co-workers, they will do so.

2. Consider granting bereavement leave.

Does your company provide bereavement leave? If not, you may want to strongly consider doing so.

Why is bereavement leave so important?

  • It’s an opportunity for your organization to demonstrate and uphold its values, which should involve caring for people.
  • It allows people space to grieve privately.
  • It gives employees time to take care of necessary personal business in the wake of a loved one’s death, such as planning funeral services, making burial arrangements or dealing with estate issues.

Many companies offer bereavement leave as a standard benefit for employees. The length of the time off given varies according to an organization’s size, resources and other variables, but three to five days off is average.

Typically, bereavement leave applies to the death of immediate family members:

  • Spouse
  • Children
  • Parents
  • Grandparents
  • Siblings

As with any other office policy, the rules regarding bereavement leave should be stated clearly in your employee handbook. This is to ensure universal understanding and prevent uncertainty during a stressful, emotional time.

Although these standards can seem strict, it’s important to have them as a basic guideline and to establish an equal playing field with all employees.

However, there can be exceptions depending on the uniqueness of the circumstances. For example, one employee may not be so close to their parents. Maybe another employee has a cousin or close friend who is more like a sibling to them. The bereaved may need to travel out of the country for funeral arrangements.

If your employee initiates a conversation with you about taking bereavement leave when the deceased isn’t immediate family, listen and seek to understand the employee’s relationship to the deceased. Take into account what this particular loss means to the employee and refer to your human resources department for guidance.

3. Be patient when the employee returns to work.

When an employee returns to work after the death of a loved one, be patient and accommodating.

Reiterate that you care about them and support them with your actions.

This support can take a few forms:

  • Many workplaces offer an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) that includes access to a counselor who is qualified to speak with others about grief.
  • Depending on the culture of your company or whether yours is a spiritually based organization, you may also consider bringing in support in accordance with the bereaved employee’s expression of faith.
  • Maintain an open-door policy in which your employee knows they can share concerns with you, and you will be available to listen.

If appropriate to the type of business you have, your work environment and your resources, consider offering a transition period back to a normal routine.

Ways that you can be temporarily more flexible with a grieving employee:

  • Allow them to work from home more frequently if the business permits.
  • Provide continued support to the employee during this time.
  • Lighten their workload upon returning to work.
  • Help them to avoid environments or situations that remind them of their grief.

Easing workloads and expectations can give the employee space to heal. It also requires an ongoing dialogue with your employee and related team members to assess and address specific needs.

You should also monitor your employee for signs of mental health issues stemming from their grief, including depression or anxiety.

Signs your grieving employee needs help include:

  • Lack of focus or productivity
  • Social withdrawal
  • Behavioral change (negative)
  • Attendance issues
  • Declining work performance

Gently, regularly ask your employee how things are going. If you’re concerned that they’re not coping well, suggest they visit with a counselor or other mental health professional. Ask what else they need from you. Have a plan, too, for how you’ll manage an employee who becomes emotional at work.

When work performance suffers for an extended period of time, it’s understandable that you may feel anxious about how this impacts your business.

However, this is an extremely delicate situation best handled on a case-by-case basis. The standard disciplinary approach usually isn’t appropriate when someone is grieving.

It can be helpful to put together a plan for your broader team to help achieve the former level of work performance. But the main thing to remember is to show concern for your employee as opposed to focusing on productivity.

In more extreme circumstances, it’s possible that you may need to discuss an extended personal leave with your employee – if that option is feasible for your business. This will allow them more time to cope with their grief, handle any additional business matters and focus 100 percent on healing.

What to do when an employee dies

Everything that’s challenging about the loss of an employee’s loved one can present the same challenges – perhaps even more – when it’s one of your own employees who passes away.

This is because the death has the potential to impact all employees in a team or department up to the entire business, depending on the size of your office.

Consider this:

Many of us spend at least eight hours per day, five days per week at work. A lot of us are around our co-workers more often than our families and friends. With such prolonged contact, close connections can form in the workplace.

Most likely, many of your employees will have known the deceased well. Perhaps they worked together on projects or went out to lunch together regularly. Maybe one mentored the other.

Whatever the relationship, undoubtedly this loss will have an emotional impact on your other employees, to varying degrees.

The death of an employee can also impact your business in other ways:

  • If the deceased held a critical leadership role in your organization
  • If the deceased had a highly specialized skill set or knowledge base that no one else has
  • If the deceased had the primary relationship in your company with an important customer

Your employee’s sudden and unexpected absence could leave a void in your workplace that you need to resolve as soon as possible so work isn’t affected.

1. Communicate with your team.

As soon as you become aware of an employee’s death and have basic information to share, you need to talk to your entire team. Such news is always better coming from leadership rather than the rumor mill. Thus, it should be disseminated to all relevant parties at the same time.

Call a meeting with the team or department of the deceased. Or, if your company is smaller, gather everyone together. Approach this meeting as you would any other focused on a tragic event.

Tips when communicating with your team:

  • Be straightforward and transparent about what happened without going into detail of how the employee passed away.
  • Be open, but respectful of the wishes of the deceased’s family. If you don’t know the answer to questions other employees ask or you don’t have the family’s permission to share something, simply say you don’t know but will try to find out.
  • Acknowledge the loss and what it means for you and your employees.
  • Allow the meeting to be a forum for people to air their feelings and grieve.
  • Make it clear that your employees have your support. Provide them of resources that are available at your workplace, such as counselors or religious clergy.
  • Keep employees updated as more information becomes available regarding funeral or memorial services, where to send sympathy cards or where to make donations in the deceased’s name.

For those employees who were close to the deceased, the earlier discussion on how to transition employees back to a normal work routine and monitor them for signs of emotional distress may apply.

As a leader, it’s your responsibility to keep a pulse on the relationships that have existed within your team and maintain a dialogue with employees about their well-being – especially after the death of someone important to them.

2. Honor the deceased colleague.

It’s understandable that your employees may want to attend funeral services for a colleague. And, if it works for your business, you should encourage it and be as flexible as possible.

But what if the funeral is during work hours? What if your company is smaller and the majority of employees attending a funeral would mean the entire office shuts down for a half day or longer? Depending on what type of business you have, it might be critical that your workplace remain open and viable, with a certain number of people present.

The reality is that allowing everyone to attend the funeral may not be feasible. And you have to be fair and treat all employees equally – you can’t allow some people time off to go and not others.

In this scenario, you may have to get creative for how your office honors your colleague.

Ideas to help honor a deceased colleague

  • Appoint a representative to attend the funeral on behalf of the company.
  • Host a memorial service at the office during a time that is more beneficial for the company – and be sure to invite the family of the deceased. This has the added benefit of enabling you to highlight what the employee meant to the company and give other employees time to speak, if desired.
  • Hold an office-wide fundraiser that benefits an organization important to the deceased or a cause related to their death. For example, if your employee died of cancer, you could donate to the American Cancer Society.

Special considerations during troubled times

Managers dealing with grieving staff during a global pandemic or a natural disaster may find themselves having to juggle traditional concerns alongside unforeseen scenarios.

Especially problematic are instances in which an employee passes away but health and safety concerns prevent public gatherings and memorial services.

Where and when possible, try using technology to pull people together, even briefly. Thoughtful, considerate words prepared in advance, a moment of silence for the departed – these simple, graceful acts of human compassion may help colleagues and coworkers begin to process their shared loss, even from afar.

In such instances, remember that the context in which the loss occurs may heighten feelings of anxiety, loneliness or depression.

For this reason, it may be helpful to make an extra effort to remind staff about company and community resources available to support them. Naturally, if your company has an EAP office, you’ll want to reach out to them. These trained professionals may not only help you shape your response in light of the situation but also mobilize additional support for your team, if needed.

Enlisting such aid is always a good idea, of course, but perhaps more so when employees are necessarily distanced from one another – and friends, family – in the wake of storms, earthquakes, disease outbreaks and other catastrophic acts of nature.

3. Plan ahead and create a succession plan

No one wants to imagine the death of a valued team member. However, it’s important to be proactive and plan ahead for what you would do if you suddenly lost an employee – by death or any other unforeseen means.

This doesn’t mean you have to be cold or inhuman. It’s just smart business to protect your organization from the unexpected. The best time to think about it is when you’re focused, calm and thinking clearly – rather than scrambling to resolve a work situation when you’re in shock or emotional, such as right after a death.

So, what you can do in advance? For each employee:

  • Identify which skills and knowledge gaps would exist in their absence.
  • Maintain awareness of what they are working on and the processes they follow to complete their work.
  • Appoint a back-up person to help fill in whenever that employee is out of the office. In the event of a death, that same person can help shoulder the work responsibilities of the deceased until a more permanent solution is found.
  • Establish a succession plan.
  • Know what you will communicate to customers with whom the deceased worked closely.
  • Consider obtaining a key life-insurance policy for personnel who are essential to the continued success of your company.

Summing it all up

The death of an employee or someone close to them is never easy. But, unfortunately, you must know how to help employees through grief.

It’s important to focus on the individual and demonstrate support. Provide a personal touch. Be empathetic and caring.

After all, much of the success of your business relies on the talented people on your team. If you take care of them and meet their emotional needs, everything else will follow.

For more information on helping your employees to navigate difficult changes, download our free magazine: The Insperity guide to managing change.