Managing Grief in the Workplace

What losing my parents has taught me about how managers should be trained to support bereaved employees.

When my father died after a six-week illness on January 7, I once again experienced managing work while grieving. I gained insights on how managers can be trained to support employees during the rough, long-term process of grief. I noticed these same things nine years ago when my mother died, but there’s something about losing the second parent—and having none left—that makes the grief process even rougher and an employee even more in need of compassion.

Reach Out

First, I learned the value of a manager who is proactive in reaching out to express condolences, ask the employee how they are doing, and let the employee know that their colleagues will be dividing up their workload. Employees with bosses like this are exceedingly lucky. However, it should be the norm, given the right personalities put into management roles and the right bereavement training and protocols.

Give Them Time

Some employees will offer to do a scaled-back version of their usual work duties. It’s up to the manager to insist that, no, they will not. The week immediately following the death of a loved one is a time for an employee to do the things they need to do to prepare for the funeral, to spend time with family and friends, and to begin to deal with how the pain is affecting their psyche. “No, Susie, this week is your time. I will discuss with your colleagues how we’ll divide up your duties this week. You need this time for yourself.” That’s what you want to hear from your manager.

Keep in mind that a week off from work may not be enough time for some employees. When possible, consider offering the employee a part-time schedule for the first two weeks back on the job to ease them back into their usual routine.

Acknowledge the Loss

Some people are afraid of grief, and, if relying on their own instincts, won’t say a word—any word—to the grieving employee or colleague. To avoid the negative impact of not hearing from certain colleagues after a painful death, the manager should organize collective recognition and condolences. A card everyone signs is an option for work groups on a strict budget. A gift basket is another option.

However you choose to acknowledge an employee’s loss, the acknowledgement should be even-handed. I have witnessed some employees getting gift baskets following the death of a grandparent and another employee getting nothing following the death of a parent. Managers should be encouraged in their bereavement training/protocols to choose a plan in advance for how loss will be acknowledged, and then stick to it, regardless of which employee is grieving.

Provide Work Support

Some people—in particular those who have never experienced the death of someone who was a cornerstone of their life—believe that the grieving process ends after the funeral. However, that’s only the beginning. The person who experienced the loss is now at the start of learning how to live without one of the most important people in their life. A manager should keep that in mind by finding ways to support the employee by keeping their workload at a minimum for at least a few weeks afterwards. The grieving will go on for years, but it’s helpful to give additional assignments to a colleague in the weeks immediately following the funeral, or to assign a colleague to work with the grieving employee on a demanding new assignment. Extending deadlines, whenever possible, in those first weeks also can be a tremendous help. It can be hard to focus when you’re coping with deep grief, so it may take the employee longer than usual to complete work.

Train Managers

Training managers about the perspective of a bereaved person is also a good idea. When dealing with a huge loss, things that may be interesting or meaningful to others won’t matter to the grieving person. For example, it’s best not to burden the person with questions about what they think the work group should do for an upcoming party or what color they vote for painting the conference room wall. It should be common sense, but many people don’t realize how irrelevant questions like that are to someone who has just experienced the trauma of a significant loss.

There are a multitude of resources to guide companies in supporting grieving employees, but, unfortunately, the best tutorial is going through it yourself. Managers who haven’t experienced a significant loss themselves can consider it an exercise in empathy to see if they can imagine how much it will hurt.

Does your company have training and/or protocols in place to prepare managers to support bereaved employees?