Responding to Employee Bereavement and Grief

Within the modern workplace, there is much talk about creating a cohesive environment that is family friendly, inclusive, and sympathetic to the needs of the individual worker. While it’s a knee-jerk reaction to think that this might focus on appropriate work/life balance and ensuring that parents have the ability to manage their children’s busy schedules as well as their own professional duties, it’s necessary to also expand this scope and realize that sometimes “family friendly” means helping an employee when they have actually lost a family member.

Heartbreaking and sad things happen to employees sometimes. Husbands, wives, children, and domestic partners die. Sometimes this happens because of illness or sudden, unexpected accidents or events. As a human resource professional, it’s necessary for you to understand that when this occurs in your office, you are probably going to be on the frontline when helping your co-worker manage this difficult time in their life.

Bereavement and Grief Will Affect Workplace Flow

The first thing that you must understand is the presence of grief in your workplace will not simply affect the bereaved employee at your office. The management team, other workers, clients, and even you can be profoundly affected as well. Therefore, you want to know what to do when helping an employee who is facing loss while also ensuring that business operations are addressed.

When helping a grieving employee, be aware of the following items:

  • Realize that it is likely that senior management or human resources will be contacted first when an employee faces tragedy. When an employee comes into your office bearing news of a sorrowful life situation, you must first offer genuine sympathy and support. Allow the employee to express themselves and realize that their energy is focused on their own feelings at that moment, and not on what might be going on in their professional life.
  • Acknowledge the loss, but avoid clichés. Saying, “I’m so sorry for your loss,” and “I can’t imagine how difficult this is for you.” Stay away from saying, “This is God’s Will,” “God has a plan,” “I know how you feel,” “God never gives us more than we can handle,” “Thank goodness you have another child,” or “You can always get another dog/cat.” It is important for you to listen to the employee and take your cues from there. Expect to also hear repetition of the story itself—this is part of the grieving process.
  • Next, be prepared to talk to the employee about options available through the company, no matter what the circumstances are regarding the employee’s situation. Ensure that you, as an HR professional, stay up-to-date on bereavement time-off policies and FMLA rules and regulations. Furthermore, compile a guide now in advance of any possible tragedy that provides information regarding health insurance benefits, short- and long-term disability applications, and life insurance. Being able to easily and efficiently deliver this pertinent information to an employee who is likely feeling overwhelmed, scattered, and sad can be hugely beneficial.

How Organizations Can Offer Sympathy

Every company approaches sorrowful life events in an employee’s life in different ways. Some approaches are incredibly touching and supportive, and other organizations completely miss the mark. Here are some ways that you can help your company ensure that it falls into the former category, instead of the latter:

  • Start a collection for a grieving employee. Realize that this individual is likely going to face some financial issues stemming from loss of income, time off from work, and other negative situations that arise when an adverse event occurs. Even small donations from co-workers can ease a bit of the worry that is sure to fill the heart of the grieving employee.
  • Create a plan for helping the employee continue to run their household during this time in their life. Line up home-cooked dinners for several weeks for a bereaved family or a family with a loved one who requires daily hospital visits. Consider putting together a volunteer board where co-workers can step up to take care of small, everyday tasks such as picking up or delivering dry cleaning, walking an employee’s dog, and other minutiae that could easily get overlooked or fall through the cracks in a trying time.
  • Note that it is completely appropriate for a company to send flowers to honor a death in the family. Flowers might not seem like a big deal to some, but to a grieving employee who feels lost and distraught, this simple gesture can speak volumes.

Of course, it is also very important to make sure that your company consults with the grieving employee in order to understand how they would like to be helped and supported. You do not want to overreach and you want to ensure that your approach is welcomed by the employee. Ask the following questions in order to match your company’s support with the grieving style or needs of the employee in question:

  • What information would you like shared with other co-workers and management? What details are appropriate for others to know?
  • Would you like funeral information available to company workers?
  • Do you want to talk about your experience when you return to work, or would you prefer to concentrate on work?
  • Are you aware of any special needs at this time, either in your personal life or in the office?
  • What can the management team do to help you manage your grief?
  • Do you have any privacy concerns that I can help address at this time?

As an HR professional, I understand that it is your job to keep employees productive and functioning, but know that personal grief is a situation where this is not always an immediately achievable goal. However, you have the ability to create a workplace environment that recognizes the cycles of grief and provides a strategy to effectively address the grieving employee’s morale and work capacity. While it may be uncomfortable to talk about death, loss, and troubling situations with an employee or co-worker, showing compassion and understanding that their life has been upended at this time will not only help facilitate the employee’s journey through the grieving process, but also retain the individual in the long-term while playing a role in guiding them toward possibility even greater productivity and workplace success than before.

Mary Ellen Wasielewski