The levels of support that employees need after a loss

5 min read

After a loved one passes away, every family relies on its community’s support, and that includes the workplace. In fact, when an employee returns to work, they are often spending more time with coworkers than family, so the office can be a key source of support.

When families don’t get the support they need, employees are overburdened at home and at work.

Stretched too thin, their work typically suffers, with focus and productivity taking a hit for weeks and months, which can affect the morale of everyone around them, and lead to burnout and turnover.

Keep in mind, a bereaved employee will not only be mourning a loss, they’ll also be dealing with the bureaucratic, financial, and legal responsibilities of settling their loved one’s affairs—tasks that take more than a year, on average.

The bereavement journey is complex, and it is crucial to understand how to be there for employees in a way that’s meaningful to them.

Getting stronger with support circles

Creating a culture of care strengthens teams and shows them they can do hard things—together. The more care you show, the deeper those bonds become. 

Think of them as circles of support: After a loss, an employer’s actions can add layer upon layer of support. 

Right now, many bereaved employees are essentially on their own to deal with hundreds of hours of labor outside of their full-time jobs. 

They can use all the support they can get, in order to give their work sufficient attention.

Empathy’s 2023 The Cost of Dying Report showed that 76% said their performance or status at work was harmed after a loss—with 30% saying they were significantly less productive at work. And as they balanced their work and home lives, 15% regularly missed work and 13% considered quitting.

Often, the best performers are carrying the heaviest load because they play a leadership role in their families as well. Especially if they are appointed executor of the estate, legally responsible for guiding it through the court-supervised process of probate. 

The first level: Time off

The most immediate level of support is covered by most companies’ bereavement leave policies. Most workers in the U.S. get 1 to 5 days of leave, with 3 days being the most common policy.

However, in most cases that’s not enough time. Empathy’s The Cost of Dying Report shows that 67% of employees take more days of (non-bereavement leave) paid time off than the number of days they spent planning the funeral.

By doing this, they are squandering time that would otherwise have been used for vacations or other necessary breaks from work in order to do the work of planning the ceremony.

Sympathy and condolences

The next level of engagement is the care and attention employees receive from their company and coworkers.

This can take the form of a flower arrangement from their team and condolences from their coworkers. A home visit by a manager or a coworker during an appropriate time is a heartfelt gesture that shows an understanding of the magnitude of the loss.

Creating a culture of care strengthens teams and shows them they can do hard things—together.

Often, colleagues want to show their support and don’t know how—and as a result, they may reach out in ways that are more of a burden to their coworker. For instance, writing long emails about their own experiences with loss, or calling and texting frequently trying to reach them to express their condolences.

It is helpful for managers to offer guidelines on how and when to reach out: to avoid making it about themselves, and to be cognizant of the bereaved employee’s time constraints and, possibly, a desire for privacy. As a workplace, you send a strong message of stability and support when the entire team is reaching out in a thoughtful and respectful way.

Empathy and action

To go beyond the traditional types of support for bereaved employees, take action with true empathy for the challenges they are facing.

Grief counseling, and support for their family, is a resource that can help families gain their footing in the bewildering and painful days immediately after a loved one’s death.

The time and expense of planning a funeral take many people by surprise, so help with funeral planning—and even curating reputable funeral homes and other service providers—can save families time and money.

Further guidance on estate administration and the legal issues that come up during probate, property ownership disputes, and in dealings with creditors are ways to save an employee dozens of hours of work over weeks and months.

Often, the best performers are carrying the heaviest load because they play a leadership role in their families as well.

The less that families have to “reinvent the wheel” to navigate the aftermath of loss, the more time employees will have to heal and resume their career at full speed.

Another option to consider is flex time as an employee returns to work. Many companies employ a gradual return to work for mothers coming back from maternity leave. Since loss, like birth, is a major life event it may be the best route for employees who need more time and space to recover.

However an employee is supported, it is important for their coworkers and managers to be strong members of their supportive community.

When you stand by them in their most challenging moments, they won’t soon forget it. And neither will their colleagues.

It is not just the compassionate thing to do, it is also the smoothest path to a more resilient company.