How to support employees through grief? Unfortunately, this is one of the hardest and most delicate tasks you’ll undertake as a business owner or HR rep.
Coping with death is difficult. When we lose someone important to us, life as we know it feels as though it has stopped. Sadly, life won’t ever be the same again without that person. Gradually, we learn to go on with our “new normal.”
Whether death is anticipated or sudden, it’s a cruel reality that, from the first moment you receive the news, everything changes.
How people grieve a loss and navigate the coming-to-acceptance process is different for everyone – as is the timeline.
When a death impacts a single employee or your entire staff, it can have a major effect on your workplace in terms of absenteeism, productivity and your team’s long-term emotional and mental health.
To work toward minimizing grief’s impact in your workplace, it’s helpful to consider the following:
1. Communicate with the bereaved.
Part of being a strong leader is displaying emotional intelligence. As soon as you become aware that one of your employees has experienced a loss, contact them directly to:
• Express your condolences.
• Let them know you support them.
The topic of loss is deeply personal and sensitive, requiring a delicate touch. If possible, it should be delivered in person or via phone call, if the employee is in a different office location.
Your goal in reaching out is to assure them that you care about them as a person – not that you’re concerned about how their grief-related absence will mean for you or the company.
Give the employee the opportunity to focus and process the immediate crisis they’re facing. Be respectful to their space and considerate to their needs. Independently, figure out how to delegate their workload to other employees.
Quietly notify other team members who will be taking on additional work. Also, alert your HR personnel, who will facilitate time off during the bereaved employee’s absence.
However, while working to make things easier, be mindful and respectful of your employee’s privacy. There’s no reason to formally broadcast the news around the office or tell details of the situation. If the grieving employee wants to share news of their loss with their co-workers, they will do so.
2. Consider granting bereavement leave.
Does your company provide bereavement leave? If not, you may want to strongly consider doing so.
Why is bereavement leave so important?
• It’s an opportunity for your organization to demonstrate and uphold its values, which should involve caring for people.
• It allows people space to grieve privately.
• It gives employees time to take care of necessary personal business in the wake of a loved one’s death, such as planning funeral services, making burial arrangements or dealing with estate issues.
Many companies offer bereavement leave as a standard benefit for employees. The length of the time off given varies according to an organization’s size, resources and other variables, but three to five days off is average.
Typically, bereavement leave applies to the death of immediate family members:
As with any other office policy, the rules regarding bereavement leave should be stated clearly in your employee handbook. This is to ensure universal understanding and prevent uncertainty during a stressful, emotional time.
Although these standards can seem strict, it’s important to have them as a basic guideline and to establish an equal playing field with all employees.
However, there can be exceptions depending on the uniqueness of the circumstances. For example, one employee may not be so close to their parents. Maybe another employee has a cousin or close friend who is more like a sibling to them. The bereaved may need to travel out of the country for funeral arrangements.
If your employee initiates a conversation with you about taking bereavement leave when the deceased isn’t immediate family, listen and seek to understand the employee’s relationship to the deceased. Take into account what this particular loss means to the employee and refer to your human resources department for guidance.
3. Be patient when the employee returns to work.
When an employee returns to work after the death of a loved one, be patient and accommodating.
Reiterate that you care about them and support them with your actions.
This support can take a few forms:
• Many workplaces offer an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) that includes access to a counselor who is qualified to speak with others about grief.
• Depending on the culture of your company or whether yours is a spiritually based organization, you may also consider bringing in support in accordance with the bereaved employee’s expression of faith.
• Maintain an open-door policy in which your employee knows they can share concerns with you, and you will be available to listen.
If appropriate to the type of business you have, your work environment and your resources, consider offering a transition period back to a normal routine.
Ways that you can be temporarily more flexible with a grieving employee:
• Allow them to work from home more frequently if the business permits.
• Provide continued support to the employee during this time.
• Lighten their workload upon returning to work.
• Help them to avoid environments or situations that remind them of their grief.
Easing workloads and expectations can give the employee space to heal. It also requires an ongoing dialogue with your employee and related team members to assess and address specific needs.
You should also monitor your employee for signs of mental health issues stemming from their grief, including depression or anxiety.
Signs your grieving employee needs help include:
• Lack of focus or productivity
• Social withdrawal
• Behavioral change (negative)
• Attendance issues
• Declining work performance
Gently, regularly ask your employee how things are going. If you’re concerned that they’re not coping well, suggest they visit with a counselor or other mental health professional. Ask what else they need from you. Have a plan, too, for how you’ll manage an employee who becomes emotional at work.
When work performance suffers for an extended period of time, it’s understandable that you may feel anxious about how this impacts your business.
However, this is an extremely delicate situation best handled on a case-by-case basis. The standard disciplinary approach usually isn’t appropriate when someone is grieving.
It can be helpful to put together a plan for your broader team to help achieve the former level of work performance. But the main thing to remember is to show concern for your employee as opposed to focusing on productivity.
In more extreme circumstances, it’s possible that you may need to discuss an extended personal leave with your employee – if that option is feasible for your business. This will allow them more time to cope with their grief, handle any additional business matters and focus 100 percent on healing.
It’s important to focus on the individual and demonstrate support. Provide a personal touch. Be empathetic and caring.
After all, much of the success of your business relies on the talented people on your team. If you take care of them and meet their emotional needs, everything else will follow.
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