How to support a grieving employee

5 min read

Ways to help an employee during and after bereavement leave

  • Verbally communicate your condolences and reiterate that your team is there to support.

  • Coordinate a group card, send a food basket, deliver flowers, make a donation, and/or attend the funeral.

  • Schedule time for regular check-ins or make the conversation part of your regular one-on-one meetings.

  • Provide the option to work fewer hours, work from home, or offer time off.

  • Redistribute work or jump in and do some yourself.

Rarely is any challenge a manager faces as difficult, or as meaningful, as supporting an employee through the grieving process. When someone who works for you experiences the loss of a loved one, knowing the right things to do and say can be difficult—and other members of your team will look to you for leadership and guidance as well. 

Supporting an employee through grief is a delicate process. As their boss, you must be sure both to handle the situation fairly and to make specific choices based on the individual’s situation. 

Making this balance even more problematic is the nature of the professional relationship. In business settings, boundaries should be respected, work needs to get done, and others cannot shoulder a disproportionate amount of work over the long term. At the same time, you know the employee personally, and it’s only natural to feel for them in this time of loss. 

Announcing a loss

Most businesses have a well-established procedure for when an employee first announces a loss in their family. Often the employee tells a close coworker first, then informs their line manager. A direct supervisor can help the employee coordinate getting the maximum guaranteed bereavement leave with Human Resources, communicate the news to teammates, and distribute the employee’s work responsibilities across the team. 

In response to the news, do express your condolences. The best way to show your employee that you care is to acknowledge their loss directly and express your support in a concrete way. You can say something like, “I am so sorry for your loss. The team and I are here for you. We will support you in any way we can. Please let me know what I can do to help you through this difficult time.”

As a leader, you may also want to contact the rest of the team or the office in order to coordinate a group card, send a food basket, deliver flowers, make a donation, and/or attend the funeral. It is appropriate for you and other colleagues to attend the wake (or another formal service, depending on the religion). If you’re aware of specific religious practices, the office should honor those beliefs.

While your employee is out of the office, they should be free from any work obligations. You can say, “Please take care of yourself, and don’t think about work. We will be thinking of you, though, and we will do anything we can for you and your family.” If a close coworker has stepped up as a personal liaison, that’s a good way to stay in touch without being intrusive and to find out what the employee needs. 

Returning to work

Just because your employee returns to work doesn’t mean they are ready to be fully present on the job. Some employees come back to work when they are not ready, either because they feel isolated or empty at home or simply because they have exhausted their paid leave.

Unfortunately, procedure around employees who bring their grief back to the office is generally not very well established. Consequently, you might find yourself in awkward moments of not knowing what to say to be supportive, what to do to assess the situation, or how to make decisions that balance their needs with the needs of your larger team. The fact is that even a very good employee who’s suffering grief may be unable to perform job responsibilities as well, or even to come back to work full time. 

Anything you can do to ease workload and expectations can give the employee space to heal.

Some signs to look out for that may mean that your employee needs additional support: they are not meeting their responsibilities or making errors they never made before; their teammates are grumbling and becoming resentful; or they are frequently calling in sick or disappearing during the day.

It can be uncomfortable to address ongoing grief in the workplace, but glossing over the issue doesn’t help the situation. Ask them if they want to talk. The conversation might be about their loved one or the grieving process, or you can talk to them about what would help them the most in the office. Many employees are just as uncomfortable with grief as you are, so they will say they’re fine. You know this isn’t true, so schedule time for regular check-ins or make the conversation part of your regular one-on-one meetings so that it is less challenging for both of you.

Being direct shows that you care and that you’re willing to ease their transition back to work, but it’s also productive to come to the conversation prepared with suggestions for what you can realistically do for them. Perhaps they can work fewer hours, have less responsibility for decisions, or work from home for a while. Your office might have a private space the person can use when they feel overwhelmed. As a leader, can you redistribute the work, or even jump in and do some yourself? Speak to HR about how you might offer them more time off. Anything you can do to ease workload and expectations can give the employee space to heal. 

Sometimes, everything you can do as a manager is not enough support for someone deep in grief. If you do not see your employee making much emotional progress and they are not functioning well, refer them to your company’s Employee Assistance Program (if you have one) or give them time to get counseling. Also discuss the situation with your HR representative to make sure you’re not missing anything. 

In the end, remember that caring for your employee and helping them however you can when they are suffering grief is the right thing to do—and it’s also sensible business practice. As the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) notes, “The more flexible an employer can be during this most difficult time, the more loyalty it will get in return over the long run.” ●