For employees, the bereavement-to-burnout pipeline is real

5 min read

Returning to work after the passing of a loved one is difficult for any employee, whether they love their job or not. Grief is a profound experience that affects us physically, emotionally and cognitively—and it is often hard for coworkers and managers to fully understand what they’re going through.

It's also important to remember that grief is only one aspect of loss. Each bereaved employee is managing new financial, legal, and family responsibilities that can put them in both a time crunch and a financial crunch.

For employees carrying this heavy load, burnout is a real risk.

On average, bereaved families are putting in 20 hours per week for over a year to settle a loved one’s affairs, according to Empathy’s 2023 Cost of Dying Report, which surveyed 1,485 Americans who had experienced a recent loss. And 76% of respondents reported that they suffered a change in their sleep patterns, with half of them (or 38% of all respondents) saying it lasted for a few months or more.

In particular, top performers who push themselves may be in danger. Here’s a look at what they are facing, and the most effective ways for organizations to successfully support them through this period.

Physical, mental, and emotional effects of loss

It is common, and normal, for people in grief to experience cognitive and emotional changes.

The Cost of Dying Report found that 43% percent of full-time employees and 53% of part-time employees regularly had trouble concentrating in the aftermath of loss, while 30% overall found themselves significantly less productive. In addition:

  • 73% reported confusion, sometimes known as “brain fog,“ with 38% of them (28% overall) saying it lasted for a few months or more.

  • 83% experienced anxiety, 56% of whom (46% of all respondents) suffered from it for a few months or more.

  • 30% said their memory was impaired.

In addition, physical symptoms can include aches and pains throughout the body, lowered immunity, and digestive problems. And grief-related stress can increase the risk of high blood pressure, irregular heartbeat, chest pains, or even heart attack.

Grief experts say that a bereaved person is going through much more than sadness. They are experiencing neurological and physical changes which act as a kind of learning process in the brain and body.

These cognitive and physical changes can be even more difficult for high performers who are not used to falling behind. They may push themselves hard to keep up—making their stress and anxiety worse, which can make symptoms worse as well.

Their extra part-time job

To keep up with the average workload of 20 hours per week over a period that lasted more than 12 months, 92% of bereaved employees took time off work or adjusted their work commitments in the aftermath of loss, the Cost of Dying Report revealed. 

And as bereaved employees balanced the administrative, financial, and legal responsibilities of loss, 15% regularly missed work and 13% considering quitting.

Typically chosen by family for the competence and reliability, executors tend to have leadership positions at work as well.

In addition, bereaved employees had a hard time planning their schedules because the tasks of loss often took longer than they expected them to: 50% said it took more time than they expected to plan the funeral, and 62% say probate took longer than expected.

There is another group that has an even higher workload: executors. An executor of an estate is legally responsible for resolving the estate’s financial and legal affairs and guiding it through the probate process.

Typically chosen by family for their competence and reliability, executors tend to have leadership positions at work as well—another way that burnout can be a higher risk factor for high performers.

How to help employees avoid burnout

Additional PTO is helpful, but it isn’t the only way to support employees. Strategies that address their responsibilities and the ongoing drags on their energy and time provide meaningful relief.

Address “grief illiteracy“ in the office

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 they struggle to say “the right thing,“ which creates anxiety, uncertainty, and tension in the workplace. 

Grief training and education can help the entire team feel more confident and clear about how to collaborate and communicate with each other.

Think beyond just days off

Flexibility is as important as the number of days when it comes to PTO, and a smart, effective policy allows managers to adjust working hours and approve work from home days when needed.

In addition, a vetted list of service providers saves employees valuable time and energy, which allows them to keep up with their work responsibilities. Offer information—and possibly subsidies or partner discounts—for the following resources:

  • House cleaners

  • Child care 

  • Pet care 

  • Meal delivery services

  • Estate and probate lawyers

  • CPAs for tax preparation 

  • Estate sale professionals

  • Property management 

  • Junk removal 

  • Home cleaning and landscaping

Offer the option of reduced schedules

Many postpartum employees transition back to work through a period of part-time employment. Death, just like birth, is a life-changing event. And for some, transitioning back to the office is more difficult than others. 

For employees at risk of burnout, allowing them to take a step back from work without disconnecting altogether can be helpful. This is a short-term remedy that pays dividends long-term.

It also shows the employee that the company is investing in their career and not just in what they can do this quarter—something that any strategy to mitigate burnout risk should do.