Teaching employees how to talk to their bereaved colleagues

3 min read

One of the biggest pain points for employees returning to the office after a death in the family is the isolation they feel, and the energy they must expend in managing social interactions with colleagues who feel uncomfortable around them.

At the same time, colleagues want to reach out and be supportive, but their methods may actually be stressful to their bereaved coworker.

Popping by their desk unannounced to check in, for instance, interrupts their work at a time when many people find focus and productivity to be a huge issue. For Empathy’s Cost of Dying Report, 1,485 Americans who experienced a recent loss were surveyed, and the findings revealed significant anxiety around work:

  • 76% of bereaved employees said their performance or status at work was harmed.

  • 43% percent of full-time employees and 53% of part-time employees regularly had trouble concentrating.

  • 30% overall found themselves significantly less productive.

Any added stress—whether it’s through well-meaning but ill-timed or invasive comments, or by adding to their isolation by ignoring their loss—makes the problem worse, and adds to the bereaved employee's suffering.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Training and education can help a bereaved employee’s coworkers be as supportive as they would hope to be, while creating a more resilient company culture.

Battling “grief illiteracy”

Most employees want to help a coworker who is clearly suffering, and convey their support and condolences during hard times.

However, they may struggle to say “the right thing,” which creates anxiety, uncertainty, and tension in the workplace. In some cases, people may say nothing at all, thinking that they’ll avoid upsetting their colleague if they don’t mention their loss.

Colleagues want to reach out and be supportive, but their methods may actually be stressful to their bereaved coworker.

For bereaved employees who often feel out of step with the rhythms of the office, this lack of connection only increases their feelings of isolation.

This tension is the product of “grief illiteracy,” part of our culture’s discomfort with death and the ways that we misunderstand and underestimate the experience of bereavement.

Offering employees communication guidelines

These pieces of advice provide a start for companies that want to create a culture of care—and for team members who want to offer meaningful support for bereaved colleagues

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

  • As mentioned, stopping by their desk may seem like a caring gesture, but unexpected drop-bys can torpedo productivity just when they are finally getting through their to-do list.

  • Instead, it’s best to put the ball in their court. Give them an open-ended invitation to talk anytime; let them choose when that happens.

  • Offer 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.”

  • Offering personal experiences with loss may seem helpful, but it’s best to keep the focus on the bereaved employee and simply listen to what they’re going through.

  • Often, people in grief want to talk about their loved one but no one asks. Asking questions about their loved one’s personality, passions, and other traits allows them to honor them with their remembrances.

These initial lessons are just the beginning, though. Comprehensive training about grief and working with bereaved colleagues is crucial—ideally as part of HR onboarding, long before crisis strikes.

After all, rising to the occasion as a group is a creative challenge as much as a productivity challenge. Every bit of preparation helps colleagues will feel more confident and clear about how to collaborate and communicate with each other.