How to Handle and Help with Workplace Grief

A guide for managers and coworkers on navigating the tough transitions stemming from loss

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Your coworker or direct report has lost a loved one. This person could have been a parent, spouse, child, sibling, or other relative or close friend.

Your team member has a tough road ahead regaining her equilibrium and productivity. A tough road lies ahead for you, too, but of a different sort. Most likely, you’ll be asking yourself how to thoughtfully yet practically deal with such a delicate situation. [If you’re the one coping with loss, this post on game-planning loss at work is for you.]

I was at work when I learned my dad had died. I’m not alone. Studies show we spend about 10 years of our life at work, which means so many life milestones are reached in the company of colleagues. Those include the grieving process. In the years since my dad passed away, I’ve been a coworker and manager to several team members affected by profound loss.

Many sensitive managers helped me through my own experience grieving in the workplace. But I’ve also worked in settings where even with 60 employees the lack of a set bereavement policy created an environment with no roadmap on how to best proceed in this situation.

My biggest learning curve occurred when I was managing a mid-sized team and one of our core members lost a parent. I jumped in to do everything I could to help the team cope and lessen the stress of the person who was out of the office. Despite searching extensively for resources on handling such a delicate situation, I found nothing that spoke to the experience of those left in the office. The following is meant to help others navigate these tough transitions.

Situation #1: You’re the boss

After it happens
Be understanding. Many companies have an HR policy around loss, but if at all possible, be flexible. Each person responds in his or her own way to grief. Treat these situations individually instead of lumping them together.

While they’re out
Go through their workload. Distribute what you can and decide what can wait until they return. Cancel or reschedule any necessary meetings during their absence. Review their to-do list with another team member.

Jessica Randazza, a marketing director, says her job as manager is not to “make loss go away” or “manage the grief” but rather to create an environment in which work can progress as your employees moves through their grief. This will set the tone for how a team will respond to helping a fellow coworker in need – if there is support at the highest level, chances are your team will follow suit.

On the personal side, try to go beyond the fruit basket. It’s fine to send flowers or food on behalf of the whole team, if appropriate. But consider also making a meaningful donation in their loved one’s memory or having everyone sign a card with short, personal notes.

When they return
Deciding when to resume working following a death is a personal choice. Aimee Barr, a New York City-based psychotherapist says, “Research has shown that structure and keeping busy can often help, but it is crucial to remember grief is a very personal process and can last anywhere from weeks, months or years.” Be mindful of that as a manager when your team member comes back to work: just because they’re back doesn’t mean they’re not still processing. If appropriate, check with HR for permission to send an email to your team the day before the employee returns reminding them that this person was away due to a loss.

Situation #2: You’re Human Resources

After it happens
Hopefully guidelines are already in place. Depending on the size of your company, sometimes it takes something like this happening to realize you actually need a policy. Regardless, every situation is different. Your role is to work with the manager and coworkers to the capacity that is needed. For example, help everyone decide on the best person to email the company and/or clients, and on the text of the message. Focus this note on those who need to know while respecting the boundaries of your coworker by not sharing too many details. Keep it short: “Anne experienced a loss in her immediate family and will be out of the office for the rest of this week. I’ll update everyone with more details in a few days.”

While they’re out
Work with the manager and a coworker to designate a person to check in with the bereaved employee on how they’re doing and inquire about when they might return to work. Other coworkers might reach out as well, but it’s good practice to assign one person to handle the difficult conversations.

When they return
Set up a few check-ins with both the team member and manager to review the transition back to work. Barr suggests, “As a guideline, it is important to remember grief often causes you to be easily distracted and emotional, and it may be very hard to stay focused at work.” Be mindful that everyone returns to his or her pre-loss productivity differently.

Situation #3: You’re the coworker

After it happens
What do you say? How do you respond to what they say in return? If your coworker learns about a loss while at work, they likely did so from an emergency phone call, email or text, and their world has turned upside down. If you are a close coworker or happen to see this transpire, help them to pack their bag and leave work immediately. You can be extremely helpful by simply saying something like, “Don’t worry about telling [your boss], I’ll take care of it for you,” or, if they’re too shaken up to drive, by offering them a ride or arranging for a cab.

While they’re out
Strategize with your manager on handling the workload over the coming days. If you don’t sit on the same immediate team, be supportive in your own ways. This can include working with your manager on sending a card or flowers or even merely just sending an email to your coworker letting them know they are in your thoughts.

When they return
Those of us who have experienced loss know about the many emotional landmines at work, including birthday and holidays. Be sensitive to days when your coworker is having a tough time (unbeknownst to you, it may be a big trigger day for them), and let them set the tone.

Three weeks after the death of a parent, Lauren Marfoe returned to her job as a public relations digital strategist. She wanted work to be the one place where she didn’t have to feel obligated to talk about her experience and hoped her colleagues would not force her to do so. In the months that passed, she slowly became comfortable opening up to coworkers but was grateful to not have felt pressured to dive in it right away.

Following her husband’s sudden death earlier this year, Sheryl Sandberg wrote, “Real empathy is sometimes not insisting that it will be okay but acknowledging that it is not.” When your coworker returns to work, allow them to express what’s going on and let them set the tone for how to talk about it. Do not offer praise for their strength (it’s most likely a show to get through the day) or unsolicited advice.

Grief is an individualized experience. Try to show your colleague empathy at all times. By doing so, you’ll be helping to create as comfortable an atmosphere as possible during an extremely painful time.

Sloane Davidson is an independent growth marketer and passionate philanthropist. She is the founder of Dinner Mode and the author of “The Giving Manifesto.” She’s @sloane on Twitter and Instagram.

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