Death affects us all. At some point in our lives, we will lose someone we love and the difficulty that follows as we try to heal and move forward is far from easy. And returning to work when the pain is unbearable is one of the hardest times after someone you love has died—even if your company offers bereavement leave.
This is important to remember, whether it is you going back to work or an employee in your office, since they’ll need your support during this painful and often disorienting period of time. They will do their best to pick up where they left off and fit in with the coworkers they’ve known for years, but they won’t be the same person. The loss will have changed them and, as a boss, it’s something to navigate with care.
Your employee wants to keep their professional life as functional and stable as possible, as you do—but some well-meaning things that colleagues and supervisors often do can make that more difficult. Keep a few things in mind as you lead the way to make the transition as smooth as possible.
Toxic positivity can be really harmful
As much as you may want to root on your employee, either for a good job or for nailing a meeting despite their recent emotional and mental setback, being too positive can actually create a negative environment. Although most people know not to say, “You’ll be fine” or “Your loved one is in a better place,” that doesn’t mean that toxic positivity still can’t be present in the workplace. For example, “You seem to be doing better,” might seem harmless, but for the grieving employee that type of positivity can feel toxic and its intention can backfire.
There’s such a thing as too much empathy
When a grieving employee returns to work, trying to navigate a comfortable and supportive environment for them can feel daunting. But don’t go overboard when trying to console your employee. They’re likely to be bombarded by condolences, questions about how they’re doing, and mounds of empathy. While all of this is wonderful, it can become too much. Your employee knows you’re empathizing, so you don’t need to tell them all the time.
They’re not sure when they’ll be at 100% again
Grief, all forms of it, is very difficult. While some grief is felt deeper than others, the sentiment, the loss, the pain, still exists. Someone who’s just come back from bereavement leave can’t be expected to be their “old self” again. In fact, this grieving employee has no idea when, or if they’ll ever be 100% again. As a boss, your employee wants you to acknowledge this and be patient with them. Things like flexibility in their schedule or being allowed to take a break and compose themselves can really help their healing process.
Checking in feels good
Although the empathy and the “aww” can definitely wear thin, a simple “How are you doing today?” is different. You’ll never know when your employee might be in the mood to talk about their situation or just shoot the breeze about something unrelated. It’s that small gesture of checking-in that acknowledges that your employee is still suffering and you haven’t forgotten that.
Adjusting assignments and deadlines are greatly appreciated
Because, for many of us, going back to work after we lose someone is inevitable, it doesn’t mean our mindset is what it once was. Being the one to reach out first to your grieving employee about what work they can and can’t handle right now can be beneficial for everyone. Some people like to throw themselves into lots of work when they’re in mourning, while others need to keep tasks on the lighter side. Finding the right balance for your employee during this difficult time is a much appreciated gift you can give them.
Try to read your employee’s cues
Everyone grieves differently. And, in the same vein, everyone processes their emotions and deals with their feelings in a variety of ways. Grief and mourning are unpredictable, as are the people experiencing them. Being a manager who is cognizant of this and takes the time to read their employee’s cues will really help on days when the grieving employee is barely hanging on by a thread.
Don’t compare losses
Because death can make people feel uncomfortable, knowing what to say and how to say it can feel tricky. Although there are those who know that condolences and offering a shoulder to cry on is plenty, there are those who, in an attempt to relate to the person in mourning, share their own story of loss. This is never a good idea. While it may feel like you’re getting on your employee’s level and showing that you understand, it’s just a bad way to go about it. Never compare losses. You’re not just diminishing the pain your employee is experiencing at this moment, but you’re also making it about you. It’s not about you right now.
Let your employee know you’re there for them
Not everyone wants to talk about their loss or even death in general. It’s not an easy subject especially when you’re in the throes of mourning. A great manager or human resources department will put it out there that their ear is all yours if and/or when you’re ready to talk. But, similar to too much empathy, you don’t need to keep offering up your services. Just let your employee know once and they’ll come to you if they need it.
They’re doing the best you can
The most important thing your grieving employee wants you, their manager, to know? They’re doing the best they possibly can. They’re going to have OK days, bad days, and days where they’ll need to take a mental health day. But, when they’re in the office, they’re going to do their best to bring their A-game, and while that A-game may not look like it did before they lost their loved one, they’re making an effort, so please be patient with them ●
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