When an employee is struggling with loss, their team is, too

4 min read

When an employee suffers a life-changing loss, in many ways they return to the office a different person.

This new person has staggering bureaucratic, financial, and legal responsibilities for the next few months, even years. They are intensely grieving someone they loved, and at the same time they must move forward to create a new life without them. And they are suffering deeply, in ways that can affect their physical and mental health, as well as their work performance and productivity.

This new person isn’t the only one who has changed, though. When a team member is suffering, often the entire team is affected, for a lot of reasons.

As they worry about their colleague and what they are going through, their stress levels go up. On top of an already stressful workload, that can lead to lack of focus and lower productivity.

In addition, one employee’s traumatic loss reminds all of their coworkers that they’ll have to go through a similar experience someday. Again, the stress levels go up. Another stressful thing to add to the mix: a heavier workload, to cover for a bereaved employee who is on leave or working a reduced schedule.

For these reasons—and with grief-related losses in productivity costing an estimated $100 billion each year in the U.S.—developing compassionate managers who can expertly lead their teams through these rough waters is critical.

Giving team members extra work

The first thing that happens when a colleague suffers a traumatic loss and leaves for the day: Their colleagues must step up and take on some of their work.

Even in the best of situations, it is normal for some team members to be less than enthusiastic, especially if illness and bereavement have stretched the team thin.

For example, in many industries during the pandemic, there simply haven’t been enough people to cover all the work—a situation that is wearying even for the most outstanding employees.

Adjusting to these new roles and responsibilities can be a challenge, but honest communication and clear delegation of tasks can alleviate potential frustration.

Understanding bystander stress

Not only does a bereaved coworker force their colleagues to think about death, it is important to remember that it prompts them to observe how that employee fares in the aftermath of loss.

They may wonder what would happen to them in a similar situation. As they watch from the sidelines, they’ll keep a close eye on how much, or how little, support a bereaved employee receives from managers and coworkers.

Any perception of poor treatment of the bereaved employee—or a confused, unorganized response to the situation—can cause serious damage to morale.

For these bystanders, any perception of poor treatment of the bereaved employee—or a confused, unorganized response to the situation—can cause serious damage to morale.

Managing a team through loss

During times of crisis, managers have the power to bring the team together with smart, empathetic actions and words.

Managers sometimes feel like the “bad guy,” caught between a desire to be empathetic and a responsibility to enforce company policy.

But it doesn’t have to be an either-or situation. These things can ease the stress on the bereaved employee as well as their coworkers:

  • Make sure lines of responsibility and authority are clearly defined, as other team members take on additional work and as the bereaved employee transitions back. The more transparent, the better, in order to emphasize the feeling that you’re all in this together.

  • Show your commitment to making any temporary workflow changes seamless and sustainable by seeking feedback. Offer both anonymous and public ways for team members to point out problems and make suggestions. And don’t be afraid to make adjustments to the process based on feedback—it will only make the next person’s bereavement leave go more smoothly.

  • Make sure to publicly praise those team members who suggest changes that are implemented, to send the message that “taking one for the team” isn’t the only way to solve staff shortages. Rising to the occasion as a group is a creative challenge as much as a productivity challenge.

  • Stress the importance of mental health as part of your company’s commitment to the long-term stability of the company.