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Dealing with loss in the workplace

Published on Jul 19, 2022

The effects of grief and loss ripple outward to all aspects of a person’s life, including their work life. When employees experience the loss of someone close to them, teams, managers, and whole organizations often face challenges that, if not properly addressed, can have far-reaching and long-lasting repercussions, from distraction and absenteeism to lowered morale and high turnover.

Last week we gathered a panel of leading experts and thought leaders in the fields of grief, loss, and workplace management to discuss this important topic. Here we present a summary of their discussion, highlighting the recommendations they put forward for managers and companies dealing with bereaved employees.

The grieving employee

The first few days and weeks after the loss of a loved one can bring on a wide range of emotions, and it is important to remember that everyone experiences grief differently and in their own unique way. They often find themselves in a kind of “grief fog,” in which they feel overwhelmed, confused and in a haze. They may also be experiencing grief symptoms like an inability to concentrate, headaches, loss of energy, or alterations in their sleep habits. 

In addition to all of the emotional and physical hardships, a bereaved person may also need to take part in—or even take charge of—many difficult tasks related to their loved one’s passing, such as funeral arrangements and notifying friends and family, as well as the longer-term obligations of winding down their loved one’s affairs, including probate, closing accounts, filing taxes, and many others.

With all of these challenges a grieving employee may be facing, returning to work can bring on a whole new set of issues. Even with the best intentions to compartmentalize, we all bring our whole selves to work, including our grief. The employee in question may also experience a compounded sense of guilt over work left undone or work that had to be completed by other team members in their absence. All of these feelings can affect their productivity, their motivation, and their overall engagement with the workplace. 

The team

These effects impact the employee’s entire team. Taking on their grieving coworker’s responsibilities in order to ensure team goals and objectives are met may cause burnout and added stress. In addition, the rest of the team may be struggling with how to properly address and interact with their grieving coworker in a sensitive and compassionate way.

It is important to face these issues head on and address them openly with the entire team, understanding and recognizing that this situation can have significant impacts on team dynamics, on the relationships between team members, and on work outcomes, and working together to mitigate any negative effects.

The manager

Few challenges that a manager will face are as difficult or as meaningful as supporting an employee through the grieving process. Managers have to figure out how to distribute and assign the grieving employee’s workload to other team members, both while the employee is away and while they make the transition back to work.

Additionally, they may be struggling with how to talk with the bereaved employee about their situation, conversations that can be awkward if not handled properly. They often want to check in on how the employee is doing, but need to balance this compassionate support with the need to discuss when and how they will be able to return to their job responsibilities.

While challenging, these conversations also present a unique opportunity for managers to show up and support their grieving employee in meaningful ways that enhance the employee experience and strengthen the morale and motivation of both the employee and the team.

The company

Companies have increasingly come to recognize the value and importance of addressing employee’s needs outside of the office, as these needs have clear effects on the workplace. Gone are the days of ignoring employees’ life events, from the big ones, like becoming a new parent, to day-to-day issues, e.g. a child with a fever. Companies are now providing paternity and maternity leave, and are becoming more flexible in accommodating work hours to specific situations. Grief and loss should be viewed by companies through the same lens—as a transformational life event that deeply affects the employee and the workplace. 

In general, the best way to foster a comprehensive culture of care within organizations is to recognize that life-changing events do not respect company calendars or organizational hierarchies. They can happen to anyone at any time, and so it is crucial to put flexible policies in place that enable everyone across the board to have the time, resources, and support they need to face these challenges.

Some recommendations from our panelists

Direct managers

  • Consider naming a “grief buddy”—a workplace ally who can help the grieving employee by communicating things back to the team.

  • Optimize communication and prioritize employees’ time off work during the first days and weeks following their loss. 

  • Make sure the employee knows how valuable their work is, and ask them how the entire team can ease the workload and help the employee through this period.

  • Check in with them and communicate your support beyond the immediacy of the loss.

  • Create a safe space on team channels, such as a separate group chat where team members can check in and see how other team members are doing.

HR and companywide policies

  • Keep in mind that the most common form of bereavement leave—a three-day period immediately following the loss—may not be sufficient even to cover the funeral, much less all of the challenges that follow. When considering your bereavement leave policy, make sure to provide ample time off, with flexibility built in to accommodate employees’ needs.

  • Strive to establish clear and tangible HR support for the employee, their manager, and team members. 

  • Include grief and mental health questions in internal company surveys, to understand if employees would like specific resources, training, or additional support on these fronts. 

  • Audit current policies, procedures, and any services you provide to someone who may want to get help, including asking whether employees even know about the services available to them.

  • Consider providing bereavement benefits that offer direct support for what the employee is dealing with, such as access to therapy or grief support programs, referrals to legal/tax support, and access to tools that take care of logistical and bureaucratic nightmares like closing accounts, applying for benefits, or managing the probate process.

To watch the full video of the discussion, register here

Resources from Empathy:

  • Empathy – We support families through all the emotional and practical challenges of loss.

  • Cost of Dying Report 2022 – In-depth research about the impact of grief and loss on families' money, time, health, and more.

More resources from our guests:

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