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Thoughtfully Managing Grief in the Workplace

How to create a supportive and compassionate culture at work in response to grief

Melissa Kong
Talent Equity Consulting Associate
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We’ve all experienced grief in the face of loss. While we might express and go through our grief differently, it has an undeniably profound impact on us. It is a heavy, heartbreaking, and very human emotion that can shake us to the core in both the personal and professional aspects of our lives.

Grief is also complex and non-linear. While the pain of grief generally improves over time, grief itself never entirely goes away. Instead, we learn to adapt to coping and living with it. This article investigates how we, as HR professionals, can support people in our organizations experiencing grief.

In This Article


Understanding Grief in the Workplace

Supporting an employee who is grieving is a challenging process. Given the nature of professional relationships, what is the appropriate boundary? How can you be compassionate and supportive of the grieving employee as they mourn their loss?

They aren’t able to give 100% while they recover. At the same time, the show must go on. There is work that needs to be done. While arrangements can be made to distribute a grieving employee’s workload to other co-workers, it isn’t sustainable in the long term.

The impact of grief in the workplace is significant. Thirty work days are lost annually per grieving employee, with an additional 20% continuing to lose workdays due to absenteeism.

The cost of mishandling grief is also substantial. It is estimated that employers spend more than $113 billion because of on-the-job errors and reduced productivity from companies being ill-equipped to support their grieving people.

How might we create workplaces that can provide a supportive and safe space for grieving employees while also ensuring work sustainability? While it isn’t easy to do, it is undoubtedly worthwhile.

A clear starting point is to invest in an employee assistance program (EAP) that supports workers. However, this action must be underpinned by a culture of psychological safety within the organizational culture.

Recognizing Signs of Grief in Employees

Grief can arise as a result of all kinds of losses. Though it is usually associated with the death of a loved one, other events - like a miscarriage, divorce, geopolitical uncertainty, or an isolating pandemic - can trigger grief, too.

Similarly, grief manifests in a variety of ways. A person might feel guilty and numb or grateful. Many different emotions are connected to grief. Physically, a person working through grief might be lethargic from disrupted sleep and digestion.

Grief affects us mentally as well. It can show up as “grief fog” or “grief brain,” impeding our ability to concentrate, multitask and remember things. At work, this might look like changes in behavior towards others and diminished performance or output.

On an individual level, reflecting on your own experiences with grief will help you see similar patterns in others. This will enable you to support them with empathy and understanding.

A graphic depicting the outward signs of grief.

Source

How HR Can Support Employees During Times of Grief

There’s no question that human resource professionals play an integral role in creating systems and structures to support grieving employees.

Before designing and implementing any support initiatives, it’s vital to establish the guiding principles behind them. Consider your organization’s core values and how they can show up authentically as you support grieving employees.

Once you have that foundation in place, consider aspects in which human resource professionals can support an employee’s well-being as they process and navigate their grief:

Building a Grief-Responsive Work Culture

Grief is a personal and challenging experience. However, an understanding and empathetic work environment can go a long way in helping grieving employees recover from their loss.

When companies normalize grief by acknowledging and proactively having a conversation about it, it creates a culture of greater acceptance toward expressing and responding to grief.

Lead by Example

Leadership has a vital role to play in building a grief-responsive workplace culture. Senior leaders and managers must be able to embrace the discomfort of acknowledging and addressing grief on a personal and collective level.

Modeling this behavior is a powerful way of putting a company’s values into action.

Respect Each Individual’s Unique Grieving Process

Everyone grieves differently and has correspondingly different levels of comfort around disclosing details about the loss they have experienced. Be sensitive to this.

Some people may want to keep things private and only share this information with their manager. Others may want to share with the broader team but not respond to any questions about what happened. Others might be open to discussing their loss.

Empower employees to make their own decisions. Ask how they would like information to be shared if they experience a loss so you can offer support to them accordingly.

In the event of losing a loved one, ask the grieving person how they would want to receive condolences. Some may appreciate a standardized policy of sending flowers or cards, but others may see it as performative. Instead, HR and the employee should consult to decide the best way forward.

Remember that grieving is also non-linear. While responding to loss immediately is essential, consider ways to support employees in the longer term. For example, you can allow employees to opt in or out of Mother’s Day or Father’s Day messaging if they mourn a parent's loss.

You should also provide flexibility for employees to deal with the administrative and logistical aspects of their loss, especially in the aftermath of a death. It can take up to 18 months to take care of things like funeral planning, closing accounts, distributing assets, and cleaning out the deceased’s home.

Check on Other Team Members

Grief affects more than just the individual. Other colleagues are likely to be affected, too. Keep them informed about if and when they can reach out to a grieving employee while they’re out of the office.

Besides that, be sure to check in on other colleagues who may be taking on more responsibilities in the absence of the grieving employee. They may need adjustments to their pre-existing responsibilities to accommodate additional work.

Developing and Communicating Grief Policies and Resources

To reinforce a grief-responsive workplace culture, leadership must ensure strong HR policies are in place. Besides that, active two-way communication between the grieving employee, their manager, and HR should be maintained. Connecting the grieving employee to resources they might find helpful is vital.

Here are a few particularly relevant areas:

Time Off

In the event of the loss of a loved one, providing employees with bereavement leave enables them to take the time and space they need to process their grief immediately. Usually, companies offer an average of five paid days through their bereavement policy for employees who have lost immediate family members.

Grief experts recommend 20 days off. While some companies like American Express and Johnson & Johnson have recently implemented this, it may not be financially feasible for smaller organizations.

What options do employees have if they’re grieving from other life-changing events?

Examine how comprehensive and flexible your company’s policies are for time off in response to grief. Encourage employees to take the time they need as and when they need to. They might also use other types of paid time off (PTO) available to them, such as vacation days, sick leave, or mental health days. The employee may even choose to take unpaid leave.

Check in periodically with grieving employees to see when they plan to return to work. This enables you to continue supporting them and their team, especially those taking on additional work while the bereaved employee is away.

One way to tactfully check in with them is to let them know they are missed at work. You can also let them know about their leave options if they need to extend their time off. Use this opportunity to confirm any other resources that could help them, such as mental health care benefits covered by their employee benefits plan.

Alternative Work Arrangements

Companies can also give grieving employees the option of flexibility in their work to aid them in transitioning back to work while coping with grief. Forms of support that you could offer include reduced working hours or remote working options.

As always, continue to check in with the grieving employees regularly to find out how they are doing. This can easily be done through their managers scheduling these check-ins to be part of their usual one-on-one meetings.

Medical Benefits and Wellness Programs

If your company or insurance policy offers mental health benefits such as counseling or therapy, remind the employee that they can access those support forms. For US-based companies, employees could also look into applying for short-term disability benefits if they are too devastated by their loss to come back to work.

Wellness programs may also provide some comfort to grieving employees. Initiatives like stress management workshops, meditation, and yoga classes can be avenues for employees to engage in self-care and emotional well-being. These channels also allow grieving employees to connect with their peers without necessarily engaging directly with them, which may help them ease back into work.

An HR professional supporting a bereaved employee.

Grief Support through Employee Assistance Programs

Regularly promote your company’s employee assistance program (EAP) to employees. Many EAPs offer access to grief counseling or grief support. EAPs specifically focus on assisting employees dealing with personal or work-related challenges. They can also help companies develop org-wide preventative infrastructure.

Typically run by external providers, EAPs can ensure confidentiality and impartiality towards employees.

Beyond that, EAPs could also provide grief support in the following ways:

Legal Aid

EAPs can be an excellent resource for legal advice for employees and their family members to help them with any legal issues surrounding their loss. From family law matters like divorce and custody to wills to bankruptcy and credit issues, EAPs can ease the burden of navigating through these complexities at no cost to the employee.

Financial Counseling

Financial stress can either be the source of one’s grief or come in the aftermath of loss. It would be remiss to underestimate the impact financial stress can have on employees and employers.

Research has shown that employees’ financial stress costs companies nearly $200 Billion annually in terms of employee burnout, disengagement, and turnover.

While it isn’t sustainable for companies to give raises to alleviate that stress, EAPs can provide financial wellness education and advise employees on securing their future from an economic perspective. This education can take various forms, including financial literacy workshops and direct access to financial advisers. In addition to an EAP, your organization can offer these resources to all employees through a financial wellness program.

Grief Support Groups

EAPs can give employees and their family members access to grief support groups. This facilitates opportunities for grieving individuals to process their grief collectively with others who have gone through similar experiences. It gives them a community to learn from and heal with and can be a significant way for people to deal with grief.

Long-Term Ongoing Grief Support

Given how grief is a non-linear experience, it’s critical to have options for long-term grief support.

One example that some EAPs provide is Help Texts for Grief, a year-long text message program that delivers twice-weekly text support. These personalized texts contain information, ideas, and small nudges to encourage individuals to engage in healthy coping mechanisms.

This can be especially helpful in alleviating presenteeism— when someone is on the job but unable to function fully.

Training Managers and Employees for Grief Situations

Learning how to handle grief is crucial in creating a compassionate and supportive workplace environment. Training programs can help all employees develop skills to handle grief situations sensitively.

Emphasis should be put on cultivating and practicing skills like respectful communication, active listening, and empathy in grief situations and other day-to-day aspects of work. Additionally, training should focus on developing an awareness of well-being both of oneself and others. This can go a long way in creating a culture of mutual support.

Training sessions are also an excellent opportunity to educate employees on resources that can support grieving employees, such as EAPs and therapy through health insurance.

Managers play a critical role in guiding their teams through difficult times. Besides what was outlined earlier, managers should specifically be given practical guidance on managing team workloads, providing flexibility, and facilitating a gradual return to work for grieving employees.

FAQs on Grief Support in the Workplace

How can I take a preventative approach towards grief and mental health in the workplace?

Consider using technology as a way of keeping track of your organization’s mental health in terms of how employees are doing. While technology cannot fix these issues, it can be leveraged to provide insight into employees’ well-being through tracking people analytics and employee engagement.

How do I know I’m doing right by my employees?

Approach this from a place of empathy, understanding, and grace towards yourself and the employees you serve. Similar to the training recommended for employees to prepare for grief situations, you need to practice active listening and respectful communication.

Get consistent employee feedback on what’s working and what’s not and ideas on what they would prefer. Each individual is unique in how they grieve. While there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution, the best approach you can take is respecting employee autonomy and consulting them throughout the process.

What are other ways I can normalize grief and mental health at work?

One approach we haven’t explored is collaborating with employee resource groups (ERGs) to provide targeted support to grievers. ERGs are usually formed to create community among people with shared identities or experiences at work, such as veterans, LGBTQ, race, or religion.

They bring together employees and create a safe space for them to have social connections, education, and peer support.

It is also possible to create ERGs dedicated to mental health, given the degree to which grief and mental health impact people. Additionally, it could help normalize mental health and grief in the workplace.

Conclusion: The Importance of a Compassionate Workplace

You and your employees are human, both in and outside of work. Caring for a grieving employee is ultimately the right thing to do, as daunting as it may be.

Melissa Kong
Talent Equity Consulting Associate
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Melissa Kong works at Edgility Consulting, an HR consulting firm focused on supporting social sector clients in executive search, talent management practices, and equitable compensation strategies. She has 8 years of global experience specializing in leadership development, education, nonprofits, and HR. Melissa also has 6 years of experience in the performing arts, and enjoys exploring innovative ways to apply theatrical practices to business settings to foster creativity, innovation, and collaboration. 

Melissa holds an MBA from the Haas School of Business at the University of California Berkeley, a Master in Chemistry from the University of Oxford, and a postgraduate diploma in education from Universiti Utara Malaysia.

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