Helping employees deal with cognitive challenges after loss

4 min read

For employees returning to work after a loved one has passed away, life as they knew it before loss is gone forever.

Along with the shock and the unfathomable changes in their lives, employees often feel internal changes as well. They may notice their attention wandering, they may struggle momentarily to recall facts, or they may feel less solid in their decision-making.

And when grief becomes too much, they may find themselves crying, having an angry outburst, or even feeling extremely sleepy. All of these reactions can be as bewildering to the employee as they are to their manager.

While they are completely normal experiences to have during the grieving process, the more that managers understand about what’s going on, the more they can help manage their teams through it.

Brain changes in the aftermath of loss

The shock of traumatic loss can be perceived as a threat by the brain, which can then shift into a survival stance to defend itself.

In this powered-down mode, people can suffer from cognitive issues like brain fog, which usually manifests as confusion, anxiety, forgetfulness, and a lack of focus and mental clarity.

For The Cost of Dying Report, Empathy surveyed 1,485 Americans who had experienced a recent loss. Among those participants:

  • 83% experienced anxiety, 56% of whom (46% of all respondents) suffered from it for a few months or more.

  • 73% reported confusion, with 38% of them (28% overall) saying it lasted for a few months or more.

  • 30% felt unusual anger or irritability.

  • 30% said their memory was impaired.

The role of sleep changes

Sleep disturbances can also create significant challenges for people in the aftermath of loss.

In fact, sleep was one of the most reported issues reported in the Cost of Dying survey, with 76% of respondents saying they suffered a change in their sleep patterns, and half of them (or 38% of all respondents) saying it lasted for a few months or more.

Companies that understand how normal these temporary changes are can create a shame-free approach to managing through them.

Anyone who has endured a period of time without consistent sleep—whether it's because of grief, or because of a newborn’s feeding schedule, or simply noisy neighbors—understands how quickly brain power can deplete under these conditions.

A bereaved employee who is exhausted yet struggling with sleep is not bringing their best self to work, no matter how much they want to.

Support to help them through these challenges

If confusion and brain fog are new to the employee, they may blame themselves and double down to try harder. Paradoxically, this may backfire because the grief process is just that—a process that unfolds in its own time, unique to every person.

By pushing themselves, bereaved employees can intensify their stress levels and exhaust themselves further. This may make their cognitive issues worse.

In instances like these, it is often the best workers will suffer from these lingering issues because they do not take adequate time to recover.

Companies that understand how normal these temporary changes are can create a shame-free approach to managing through them.

It is helpful to make work assignments, deadlines, and accountability as clear as possible, so the employee has as few distractions as possible.

Encourage them to let you know as soon as there is an issue so you can work through it. This requires a trusting relationship between manager and employee, so companies that have cultivated a culture of care will excel in getting past these hurdles.

And finally, prepare a vetted list of mental health professionals that managers can suggest for employees who are seeking extra levels of support. Searching for a therapist, counselor, or psychiatrist can be stressful in itself.

By offering suggestions, you can be sure they are getting quality care and, crucially, you are allowing them to sidestep the additional stress that a search would trigger.

By facing these issues with empathy and honesty, managers can help employees understand that they are normal and natural consequences of the grieving process—allowing the employees to avoid unnecessary struggle on top of the suffering they are already enduring.