How to create a sense of belonging for bereaved employees

3 min read

In workplaces, being treated equitably compared to your coworkers is one thing. Being truly welcomed is another. This is true of colleagues who may feel like the odd person out because of race, ethnicity, religion, or gender—and it is a feeling that bereaved employees may recognize.

After an employee has suffered a traumatic loss, it is common for them to feel isolated and disconnected from their coworkers for a number of reasons.

First, grieving a loved one can feel like an overwhelming, disorienting experience. They are building an entirely new life for themselves, without the person they love. Going to work every day in a workplace that is unchanged can feel like living in two different worlds.

Second, their coworkers may feel uncomfortable around them because death is such a taboo topic in our society.

To counteract that, employees need to feel seen, supported, and part of the team—not an “other.”

Cultivate a shared sense of purpose

To address the individual needs of a bereaved employee, first make sure you have addressed the needs of the entire group and the work they are doing as a team.

Clear and regular communication about responsibilities, deadlines, and accountability will lessen the overall anxiety level in the office.

This is particularly important because when employees see their coworker suffering after the death of a loved one, it can create deep anxiety. It is a reminder that someday they’ll grieve someone they love, and they’ll be carrying the burden their coworker is carrying.

Treating their bereaved coworker the way they’d want to be treated creates a shared mission that goes beyond the concerns of the moment: covering work during their bereavement leave.

A manager who quickly and effectively enlists the whole team is creating a bond between colleagues that will endure.

Schedule a “welcome back” meeting

On an employee’s first day back after bereavement leave, a one-on-one with their manager will get them back up to speed and give them the opportunity to ask questions or air concerns about returning back to work.

At their first meeting back with the group, it’s OK to start off with a quick “Hi, glad you’re back” and then move on. But comments in front of a group, even ones that are intended to express care and support, can put them in the spotlight at a moment where that feels revealing and painful.

Emphasize that working through grief is more important than pretending it’s not happening.

Better to give them access to managers one-on-one, and listen to any concerns they have about returning to work— emphasizing that working through grief is more important than pretending it’s not happening.

Educate coworkers to counteract “grief illiteracy”

Many of us struggle to know what to say to someone whose loved one has recently passed. It is a completely normal response, tied to the fear of death and lack of cultural conversations around the topic.

For these reasons, we are a grief-illiterate society. It’s easy for coworkers to shatter a bereaved colleague’s sense of belonging in their well-meaning but clumsy attempts to ease their pain.

Some tips managers can offer their teams to create an environment that is welcoming to employees who have suffered a loss:

  • Always err on the side of expressing your support briefly, without expectation, and without conversation requirement.

  • In conversation, limit the amount of time you talk about yourself and your experiences of loss—keep the focus on them.

  • Stopping by their desk may seem like a caring gesture, but people in grief often have difficulty with mental focus. Unexpected drop-bys can be distracting.

  • Instead, it’s best to put the ball in their court. Give them an open-ended invitation to talk anytime; let them take you up on it when they want to.

  • Offer your time for a coffee or a chat via Slack or email, and leave it at that. For example: “If you feel like some company, I’m going down to find a quiet spot in the cafe downstairs for lunch.”

  • Bereaved people often want to talk about the person who died. Asking about their loved one—as opposed to their grief—is often a more welcome topic.