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Ways to support employees returning from bereavement leave

4 min read

Supporting a grieving employee’s return to work

After one of your employees suffers a devastating loss, they generally need to return to work and resume their office routine. How their managers and co-workers react to them as they work on transitioning back to work plays a critical role in their success at picking up their role after everything they’ve been through.

Not respecting the person’s grief process or minimizing their experience and loss can feel extremely disrespectful to a grieving employee, and you may find them moving on from your team or company as soon as they are able.

An approach that takes the employee’s needs into consideration, aligning with company policy as required but deviating from it where possible to support them, can result in a much better outcome—with manageable productivity and increased loyalty.

Preparing for the first day back

When you know the grieving person is returning, you may refresh their work area, and you let the team know when the person will be expected. When you see them, express a sympathetic word to acknowledge their loss, you give them some space, and then everything is “normal” again. To you.

But deciding when to return to work after a loss is very personal. For some people, returning to work is welcome. They may find work to be a welcome distraction from the intensity of their grief. In other cases, employees have incurred large funeral expenses or became the single earner, so they need to go back to work immediately to pay their bills. And many people just don’t know what else to do.

Just because they’ve come back, that doesn’t mean they’ll be able to resume their duties at full capacity for some time.

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.

Just because they feel ready to come back or they are meeting company policy requirements to return doesn’t mean they are forgetting their loss or that all of the effects of loss and grieving are behind them. What’s more, they may still be dealing with practical matters, such as bills, insurance companies, and legal matters, or they may have doctor or therapist appointments.

Being present for your employee’s unique needs is key

When your employee notifies you that they will be returning to the office (or company policy requires that they come back), it is important to have a direct and respectful, empathetic conversation about their current state of mind and what they feel capable of.

You can use that information to create an initial transition plan, and you will need to have regular conversations with your employee so you can be agile about gauging where they are, what they need to be successful, and what they feel they can ably resume. Chances are, they will appreciate a slower than normal pace, a sympathetic approach, and understanding and patience as they heal. 

During your conversations, ask them what they need, and listen if they need to talk about their grief.

Rather than assume you know what the person needs, let them lead on the best ways you can be supportive. This helps you be realistic about what you can expect from them, but even more importantly, you are present.

Set up support systems

While the employee was out of the office, other employees picked up their work. During the transition back, these team members should continue to do at least some of that work.

As their manager, you are managing all of your employees and how they work together, so it’s appropriate to communicate what they need to keep doing and what they can expect from the transition plan.

Recognize who can best continue to support the grieving teammate and how and who is stretched, overburdened, or at the end of their patience for whatever reason; they may have their own personal struggles.

Acknowledging the effect the absence is having on the remaining employees, emotionally and operationally, is an important part of managing your team.

As a leader, you have to learn how to support your team members as they deal with difficult losses. The more you can humanize the experience they have at the work place, the greater the personal and professional benefit for all involved.

In addition to “managing” their back-to-office transition, it can be helpful if you help manage behind the scenes to find the most helpful ways the company can customize the policy for your valued employee.

This could be anything from additional time off to covering the cost of therapy. In the end, though, you are not their therapist and your accommodations may start to negatively impact the team. Part of being a stellar leader is practicing empathy, and that may include recognizing when someone is pushing themselves too hard to return