Michelle Frederick – Grief in the Workplace: Beyond Policy

Instructional Design, eLearning, Performance Improvement, and Project Management specialist.

Instructional Design, eLearning, Performance Improvement, and Project Management specialist.

Grief is a complex emotional response to a loss. The death of a loved-one is one of the more obvious drivers of grief. Most managers have no formal training on how to address a significant loss experienced by a member of their staff. My own experience of losing my son in an unexpected and tragic way highlighted the need for you, as a manager, to move beyond basic HR policy and to approach the staff member with empathy and compassion. The best method would be to combine the two following a general structure.

Learning about the Loss

Somehow you will learn about the loss. Many times, this will come in the form of a quick note or phone call to let you know their situation. This first point of contact will set the stage for the entire process. Your staff will most likely be in a state of shock and may be unable to articulate exactly what happened. At this point, you should reassure the person that you will be able to cover their work-load and to focus on the situation at hand.

Notifying Employees

Your first internal point of contact should be to your Human Resources office. This will allow them to initiate any policies that are in place to support the person through this difficult time. Additionally, notifying your immediate supervisor of the situation will also be helpful as you navigate through this unfamiliar territory. It’s important to note that it is not appropriate to discuss this will the individual’s co-workers at this time. The person who has experienced the loss should be given as much control over the situation as possible and should drive what is being communicated to their co-workers.

Communication with the Grieving Employee

The first days of the loss of a loved-one will often be chaotic. In addition to the intense emotional turmoil the person is experiencing, he or she will often be dealing with planning a funeral or celebration of life. It is important to connect with the employee but it must be done with graciousness and shouldn’t be overwhelming. After a day or two, you or a member of HR should reach out with a focus on the following:

  • Expressing condolences
  • Providing an overview of HR bereavement policy
  • Reassure the employee of their value to the organization
  • Gently approach them about an anticipated return to work date
  • Ask about any outstanding work that is urgent which should be delegated to another employee
  • Provide information about EAP or other support services that are available to the employee
  • Ask how and to whom they would like their situation communicated to their co-workers or others in the company
  • Provide details around the best way to communicate with the company as they move through this difficult time

Support for Grieving Employees from Co-Workers

It is not unusual for co-workers to form a close relationship with one or more individuals on their team. If the employee has an established relationship with a co-worker and they have indicated a willingness to share details with this person, it would be helpful to meet with the identified staff member to become a link between the company and the employee. Additionally, based on the wishes of the employee, you will want to communicate the situation to his or her co-workers. This will give them a chance to process what has happened and provide them with an opportunity to offer support to their peer, it will also serve to eliminate the possibility of rumors and speculation around the situation.

Support employees during periods of grief

Funeral and Celebration of Life

Most, but not all, individuals will have some formal way of honoring their loved-one after they have passed away. It is important that the organization, at minimum, show their support by sending flowers or donating to a charity as requested by the family. It is also good practice for you and/or the employee’s team to send some form of acknowledgement to the employee. This may be in the form of flowers, a gift to charity, or simply a card to show support. Note that in some cases the family may be too overwhelmed to have an official ceremony in which case notes of sympathy and other forms of support may be sent directly to the employee.

Stay Connected

Most employees that experience a significant loss, such as that of a spouse or a child, may not be ready to return to the workplace for an extended period of time. It’s important to stay in contact with the employee during this time. In the first days and weeks of grief, the employee may feel disconnected from their life as it was before they experienced the loss. Parents who lose children will often start the process of navigating the world and their new reality. They often question the aspects of their identity that have been impacted by the loss. Maintaining contact will increase the likelihood of the employee to see themselves as a valued member of the team.

You, as a manager, have the opportunity to support your employee through one of the most intense and life-altering moments of his or her life. Your willingness to be present and supportive through the initial days of grief can have a major impact on the employee’s grief journey. It will also affirm that the employee is valued by the organization and their team.