How to support an employee returning from bereavement leave
After an employee suffers a devastating loss, in most cases they will return to work and resume their office routine within days.
This is a critical time, and the way their managers and co-workers treat them as they transition back to work plays a critical role in their success.
Not respecting the person’s grief process or minimizing their experience and loss—whether by expecting them to instantly get ”back to normal“ or by ignoring the major life change they’ve been through—can feel extremely disrespectful to a grieving employee.
As a result, an employee may detach further from the office, feeling isolated and alone at a time when they need support the most.
However, a well-thought-out bereavement care policy that is flexible enough to address the varying needs of employees who have suffered a loss can have the opposite effect.
With proper support, employees can develop a stronger bond with their team and their company, while managing the temporary productivity challenges that often accompany loss.
What to know about bereavement leave
Most bereavement leave policies are between 1 and 5 days, with 3 days being the most common—much less than the 20 days grief experts recommend, but enough time to plan and hold a funeral. In addition, bereavement leave is typically reserved for employees' close relatives: a grandparent, a parent, a spouse, a sibling, or a child.
In the U.S., caregiver leave is protected by the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), but there is no federal guarantee of bereavement leave. Workers who have suffered a loss are largely left on their own to deal with grief, and everything that comes after.
Until 2014, no states guaranteed bereavement leave of any kind, either. But there is a growing awareness of employees’ need and right to recover after the death of a loved one.
In 2014, the Oregon Family Leave Act began guaranteeing two weeks of unpaid bereavement leave for workers at companies with at least 25 employees. And Illinois’ Child Bereavement Leave Act of 2016 provides eligible workers with up to 10 days of unpaid leave to recover from loss (which includes miscarriage, stillbirth, or a failed adoption).
More recently, Maryland passed the Flexible Leave Act in 2021, giving workers the right to use paid time off after the death of a family member. And in 2023, two state laws went into effect guaranteeing unpaid bereavement leave: For California employees, it’s, 5 days, and for Illinois workers, it’s 10.
Preparing for the first day back
Before the employee’s return, the simple things can mean a lot: Make sure to refresh their work area, and let the team know when the person will be expected.
Managers should treat this as a mini-onboarding, speaking with them privately at the beginning of the day to express support and talk through their transition back into the office.
Managers should treat this as a mini-onboarding, expressing support and talking through their transition back into the office.
In their first meeting back, the manager can briefly welcome them back to the office and then move on with the business of the day.
Avoid offering condolences or emotional tributes in front of the whole team. The goal is to make the person feel seen, supported, and a part of the team—not an “other.” After all, attention and support is one thing; a roomful of eyes staring at your is another.
Let go of your idea of “normal”
How does a typical employee behave when they return to work after a traumatic loss? There’s no such thing as typical.
Everyone grieves differently, and thus, one-size-fits-all bereavement policies are ill-advised.
Some people find work to be a welcome distraction from the intensity of their grief. In other cases, employees feel financial pressure after incurring large funeral expenses or becoming the single breadwinner for their family, for instance. And others are going through the motions, hoping that they’ll feel like themselves again soon.
Regardless, returning to work can be difficult for people who experienced a recent loss. It’s important to remember that just because they’ve come back, that doesn’t mean they’ll be able to resume their duties at full capacity for some time—thanks to the toll that loss can have on both physical and mental health.
What’s more, they will likely be dealing with practical matters such as dealing with creditors, locating assets, and guiding their loved one’s estate through probate—tasks that take an average of 13 months, Empathy’s Cost of Dying Report shows.
Set up support systems
In the aftermath of loss, emotions can run high and can even take an employee by surprise.
The more an employee can access emotional support in the moment—by having access to professional help, or by meeting regularly with a grief-focused ERG in the office, for example—the quicker they can they can bounce back from these volatile moments.
In addition, don’t forget the contributions their colleagues are making by picking up their work and helping them adjust back to office life. During the transition back, these team members may continue to do at least some of that work.
The important thing is for managers to clearly and regularly communicate with all team members about the transition plan, and who is responsible for what. Acknowledging the effect this is having on the remaining employees, emotionally and operationally, is an important part of managing a team.
In addition, it can be helpful for managers to find ways to customize bereavement care for a valued employee, based on their specific needs.
This could be anything from meal additional time off to subsidizing child care or curating a list of trusted professionals: lawyers, accountants, and real estate agents, for instance.
Part of being a stellar leader is practicing empathy, and that may include recognizing when someone is pushing themselves too hard to return.
It’s all about options that managers can use at their discretion. Every grief is different, so trying to shoehorn everyone into a narrow policy only leads to burnout and turnover.
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