What COVID-19 Can Teach Us About Managing Grief in the Workplace

One of the most vitally important things a manager can do to ask the grieving employee what he or she needs.

When my mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer, I got the news while sitting in my cubicle at the office. I didn’t take the call into a conference room and shut the door or wait to take the call outside. I just sat there and received the news that the cancer had moved into her brain and that, at best, she had six to 12 months to live. You’d think after the call ended, I would have excused myself from work for the rest of the day, or at least have taken a walk outside for an hour to clear my head, but instead I seamlessly and calmly moved within minutes into a weekly business call. My mother was not just my mother, but my best friend, so it must be puzzling that I could proceed without any show of emotion for the rest of the day. One reason may be that grief still isn’t acceptable to exhibit or show in the workplace. So I wasn’t comfortable giving the news to my then-boss and being sent home. I anticipated discomfort, embarrassment, and pity from him, and felt dealing with his reactions would be worse than proceeding through my day.

With the death toll from COVID-19 in the U.S. expected to surpass 500,000 by the end of this month, many people are thinking about their own mortality and death than ever before. The evening news seems to always include an obligatory segment about the day’s COVID death count, and many news shows also include a segment at the end remembering those who have been lost to the disease.

This is an ideal time to think about how adept your managers are at handling grief in the workplace. Your company may have lost employees to COVID, and some of your employees may have lost family and friends to it. When the pandemic is under control—hopefully by the summer or fall—and employees are welcomed back to the office, conversations about those who have been lost will occur. How should you prepare your managers to handle these conversations?

When I lost my mother, I remembered the co-workers who made a point of coming by to tell me how sorry they were and see how I was doing. And I remembered how hurt I was that, despite sending my boss a text with my mother’s obituary, which included information about where the funeral would be, he neither attended himself nor sent flowers, a gift basket, or any other token of caring except a card after I returned to work. It was clear that my grief made him highly uncomfortable.

I found this article on Fast Company on managing grief in the workplace. The article was written by Lindsay Tigar, who recently lost her father to a chronic illness. She notes the importance of asking the grieving employee what they need. In my case, my boss seemed afraid I would ask for something. I had to explain during the call letting him know that I would be taking a week of bereavement leave that I would not be able to publish that week’s issue of our magazine on our site. Not only did he not offer to help or ask what I needed, he seemed afraid of what I might ask for.

“…It’s best to have an open, candid conversation with your employee where you can ask them how you and the company can best support them,” Tigar writes, synthesizing recommendations for employers given to her by Evans St. Fort, founder of St. Fort’s Funeral Home. When my boss, later in that same year my mother died, gave himself a half day away from the office for at least a month when his dog was dying, I wondered why he hadn’t proactively offered anything like that to me when my mother was dying. If I had asked to work from her place for part of every workday, I wonder what he would have said. He may have consented, but should I have had to ask? Would a sensitive manager have offered the option of working remotely for at least part of the time?

It might be helpful to supply managers with acceptable options to offer employees who have just lost someone they are close to, or are in the process of losing a loved one. One of those options could be remote work, or a more flexible schedule in which the work still gets done—but done on a schedule that gives the employee a chance to visit more with the person she’s losing, or in the case of a loved one who has already been lost, for the employee to take time for herself beyond the one week of bereavement leave.

Tigar also writes of the importance of managers understanding that work isn’t the top priority of employees who have lost someone close to them. “Employers have to give their employees grace, since it’s part of the healing process,” Tigar writes, noting a recommendation given to her by author and grief expert Breeshia Wade. That grace time is easier if at least each position has one employee fully devoted to it and at least one other employee who has been cross-trained to perform the most important functions of the position.

In addition to cross-training, managers can get creative, and see if there is a way to allow the employee to bring her experience of loss into her work. When you’re grieving, your emotions are at a high pitch, making you more sensitive to the feelings of others and sometimes exposing you to environments you have never been in before, such as hospitals or hospices. That heightened sense of awareness, and those new experiences, could put the employee in a mindset to develop better outreach to customers and business associates. Managers should be open to, and even encourage, the employee to talk about her experience of loss, and of finding ways of taking what she learned and applying it to her work. For instance, with customers experiencing loss in their own lives, how can your company better accommodate people during that difficult time? Are there services your company can provide, or make more flexible, for people experiencing personal loss or another life-altering hardship?

Grief is painful—and powerful—and it can make those who go through it more insightful. Rather than suppressing it in the workplace, trainers and Human Resources professionals can find ways of making grief easier to talk about and learn from.

Do you provide guidance to your managers on helping grieving employees? With COVID-19 bringing grief to the forefront, how can managers be taught the best ways to address loss and the ongoing anxiety that often accompanies it?