For individuals suffering a loss in the workplace, grief can seep into almost all areas of work. The employee will attempt to separate their roles at home and work, often without success. When bereaved individuals go back to work shortly after experiencing loss, they usually try to combine the duality of their roles.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- How Managers Can Help Employees After a Coworker Dies
- How You Can Support a Grieving Employee
- Tips for Improving Company Policies to Help Grieving Employees
On the one hand, they want to return to work as employees while adjusting to their role as grievers. The way work organizations respond to their grieving employees after suffering significant loss determines the complexity of their grief experience in the workplace.
When work and sorrow fail to combine, the employee’s grief becomes disenfranchised. An otherwise productive employee may suffer negative consequences in their work performance when employers overlook their grief. Returning to work while grieving is almost always necessary, but bereaved employees can get through their loss while maintaining their work responsibilities with the proper support.
How Managers Can Help Employees After a Coworker Dies
How managers respond to employees dealing with a coworker's death when grief in the workplace is unsanctioned will directly influence how bereaved individuals cope with their loss. When higher-ups discourage their employees' outward displays of grief, employees resent having their feelings and emotions discounted.
Anytime employees feel they can't openly acknowledge their loss at work, they hide their sorrow. Managers who understand the grief process and their employees' suffering can help support them during distressing times. The following tips are for managers trying to find a middle ground when dealing with employee grief despite the company culture.
1. Practice being empathetic
Managing workplace grief isn't easy when dealing with several employees concurrently mourning the death of a coworker. Daily reminders of a coworker's tragedy stifle productivity as employees struggle to balance their job responsibilities and deal with their grief.
In many companies, workers form bonds because they spend a lot of time together at work. Some employees continue those connections outside of the workplace by socializing after work and extending invitations into each other's homes. Offering sympathy while being empathetic to their grief reactions helps employees better manage their grief when working under the stress of loss.
2. Promote a culture of understanding
Grief affects employees on many different levels, from the physical to the emotional and even the intellectual. An employee’s intellectual capability to process workflow and make decisions diminishes significantly with the emotional strain experienced from grief, leading to professional burnout.
Companies aware of the impact of grief on their employees find it easier to promote a culture of understanding that helps employees with the overall bereavement process. Understanding a grieving employee’s needs helps maintain high morale and a more satisfying work experience for everyone involved.
3. Recognize the signs of grief
Everyone at work deals with some form of loss at any given time. Some employees publicly express their grief and sorrow whenever a coworker dies, while others hold their emotions. Recognizing hidden suffering in the workplace should be part of management's focus, especially after the tragic loss of one of the company's valued employees. Some things to look for in a bereaved employee are:
- Acting out of character
- Lashing out in anger
- Becoming overwhelmed with workloads
- Withdrawing from participation in meetings
- Unable to get motivated to work
4. Acknowledge the loss
Recognizing grief in the workplace may be challenging for some managers to do. Some will find it difficult to express their sympathy because they don’t know what to say to their employees. In contrast, others may get caught up in the corporate culture of keeping emotions separate from work duties and responsibilities.
Many employees want their managers and employers to acknowledge their loss and validate their grief. A simple “I’m sorry that you’re dealing with your coworker’s death” is often enough to recognize the impact of the loss on the rest of the employees.
How You Can Support a Grieving Employee
The impact of a coworker's loss on other employees can be significant. Unfortunately, there is not much discussion on how dealing with a coworker's death affects individuals struggling with their grief in the workplace. The proper support can be a great help to employees trying to come to terms with their loss.
There are many ways to help someone grieving a loss at work without making them feel that their job's on the line or that they can't express themselves without fear of backlash. Here are a few ways to do so.
5. Recognize the need to work
Work itself is therapeutic for someone grieving a significant loss. Maintaining daily routines helps individuals cope with their grief as they heal from their loss. Often, a bereaved individual is passed up for essential work assignments because others fear that they can't handle any added stress.
Before deciding on what an employee can and can't take as they cope with grief, ask them to see if they're up to the task or prefer a lighter workload for the next few weeks. Allow them to help decide so that they continue to feel like a valuable part of the team.
6. Ask about their experience
Talking about the details of their experience helps many grieving individuals lessen the impact of their grief at the workplace. Many employees fear talking about their pain and sorrow at work because of its effect on their careers. It’s not unusual for employees to hold their feelings in and withdraw from the rest of their colleagues, leading to the loss of relationships at work.
When no one’s talking about what happened, bereaved employees sense the white elephant in the room of which nobody wants to speak. As a result, they start questioning their contribution and sense of competence at work.
7. Show sympathy and compassion
The difference between sympathy and compassion is that you understand how someone’s feeling, especially after suffering through a tragic loss. Compassion is your willingness to relieve the bereaved from the burden of loss. You show sympathy and compassion toward fellow employees by sharing their pain while finding ways to help them get through the rough patches at work.
Consider purchasing a unique sympathy gift for a coworker or taking on project deadlines temporarily until they can resume their regular duties.
Tips for Improving Company Policies to Help Grieving Employees
A company’s practices and policies that help managers and higher-ups deal with grief in the workplace reflect the corporate culture. If not already written into the company’s mission statement, you may want to discuss incorporating the company’s stance on each employee’s overall wellbeing.
You may want to begin by discussing the implications of loss in the workplace and how the company plans on helping its employees deal with grief. Here are some considerations.
8. Don’t deny grief
Employees who fear openly acknowledging their grief in the workplace may suffer a form of complicated grief referred to as disenfranchised grief. Disenfranchised grief is not expressed or publicly mourned because it’s not socially supported, like a coworker’s death.
Disenfranchised grief may increase work and safety errors and promote employee burnout when an employee hides their suffering. Employees may also find it difficult to concentrate on menial tasks and routines and become disinterested in their work. A bereaved employee who’s supported can better process their grief and withstand the ebbs and flows of their suffering.
9. Allow more time off for funerals
Changes in bereavement leave policies to allow employees more time off for funerals and grieving may improve their overall wellbeing. Many people return to work after three days of suffering a significant loss. Companies expect their employees to return to work and pick up where they left off with little regard for their pain and suffering. When bereaved employees fail to perform as effectively as before, it damages their confidence and self-worth, impacting their work performance.
Less than a week’s worth of time off is hardly enough to allow the initial stages of grief to manifest, let alone settle. An employee returning to work sooner than they’re ready may suffer adverse grief reactions while at work, affecting the comfort and safety of others.
10. Appoint a dedicated person
Grief affects the entire organization, not just the individual employees struggling with coming to terms with their loss. Appointing a dedicated person to help bereaved employees whenever they suffer loss helps promote a corporate mission of having their employee’s wellbeing in mind.
The designated person should make themselves available to employees to offer support and orientation on how to ask for paid time off, get extended bereavement leave approved, and get them in contact with support services either within or outside the company.
11. Provide support for managers
Make the appropriate grief and bereavement training available to all managers to feel comfortable dealing with loss in the workplace. Acknowledging employees’ losses and validating their grief is an acquired skill that develops over time and after proper training.
The way managers respond to an employee’s setback sets the tone for how well they process their grief at work. Here are some examples of how you can support your managers as they support your employees. You can give managers autonomy in making decisions related to bereaved employees in the following ways:
- Setting up transition periods for bereaved employees to readjust to their duties
- Assigning temporarily lighter workloads
- Delegating backlogs to other team members
- Allowing flexible work arrangements
- Being less demanding on them
How to Support Grief at Work
Organizations can find many ways of better managing employee grief at work by being proactive in setting corporate policies that encourage the wellbeing of all employees dealing with loss. Changes take time to implement, as with everything centered around the workplace and corporate culture. In the interim, companies can take the necessary steps to make all employees feel valued, appreciated, and supported through tragedy and loss.