Dealing with Grief in the Workplace with Care and Empathy
Have you ever had to cope with the death of a co-worker? Have you supported a colleague with the loss of a spouse or the death of a child? Did your employer create a safe space for grief in the workplace? Whether you are a senior leader, the manager of a team, or an individual contributor, we all experience grief in our personal lives and need to find a way to deal with grief at work.
It is helpful for employers to take a whole-person approach to company culture. This involves a people-centered focus that factors an employee’s personal life into their ability to perform at work. Companies can offer resources and training that extend beyond the job requirements and support the whole human being, not just the employee.
Grief-Related Company Policies
The typical definition of “grief” is deep sorrow, especially that caused by someone's death. According to well-known researcher Brené Brown, “We live in a culture where people need us to move through our grief for the sake of their own comfort and grief does not have a timeline.” Grieving families are trying to cope, move on with their lives, and continue to be productive at work. So, how is your company supporting team members and making space for grief?
There are multiple ways an employer can support employees going through the grieving process:
- Bereavement Leave Policy: The death of a family member is a time when employees need to be with their families attending to financial obligations, funeral arrangements, burial rituals, memorial services, etc. Offering several days off with pay helps to relieve some of the stress.
- Employee Assistance Program (EAP): An EAP program is the original tool in the whole-person approach. It was originally designed to assist employees with resolving personal problems that may be negatively affecting productivity at work. These services can include grief specialists, counseling or legal advice and cover issues like substance abuse or financial issues. Many HR departments have expanded wellness and self-care services, offering telepath options and other mental health resources for employees and families.
- PTO or Vacation Leave Policy: With a renewed focus on mental health and resilience of employees, the company’s vacation or PTO policy becomes even more important. A generous policy will give employees the time they need beyond the bereavement leave policy. The vacation time offers flexibility throughout the year as employees work through the stages of grief or have unexpected days with overwhelming emotions.
When a close friend’s domestic partner suddenly died, I took several days of vacation to assist him with the arrangements. He was devastated and barely making it through each day much less being able to make decisions about the style of a casket, the image on the prayer card, or what songs to play at the service. Luckily my employer allowed me the flexibility to take PTO on short notice so I could support my friend and sit with my own grief.
A coworker shared the story with a previous employer when her father was diagnosed with cancer. In the months leading up to his death, she used PTO to take him to his radiation treatment. Every day she was processing her grief while trying to live her life and continue working in her job. She told me how she had to call her manager to take some time out of the office because her father was dying. Her manager asked her “How do you know?” Her manager’s response was a symptom of a larger issue with the company and work culture.
Make Your Workplace Culture Safe for Grief
People experience grief for many different life changes and experiences, not just the death of a loved one. Divorce or separation, selling a home, the loss of a friendship, serious health diagnosis, and death of a pet are just a few. When my oldest nephew went away to college, my sister had a really difficult time. She said it felt like a death in the family.
Waves of sadness can hit at any time, not just during the three days of bereavement leave. No one wants to cry in the middle of a meeting. You never know what might trigger an emotional response from a grieving employee. Hopefully, you can create a supportive work environment and culture for people who have experienced significant losses.
- Psychological Safety. This term is typically associated with diversity, equity, and inclusion but it has additional benefits. A culture where employees feel psychologically safe allows people to bring their whole person to work. This includes their identity, ideas, and emotions. People need to be able to speak up without the risk that coworkers will embarrass, reject, or punish them. This involves speaking up about grief, mental health, and the need for ongoing support. Learn how you can identify and implement psychological safety within your organization in our podcast.
- Social Awareness and Empathy. Creating a culture rooted in respect, care, and concern for others provides the foundation for a work environment where employees operate with integrity, collaboration, and teamwork. Social awareness and empathy will help employees better understand people from different backgrounds or generations and help them be more open-minded and sensitive when coworkers are going through tough times.
- Emotional Intelligence. EI is the ability to better understand the emotions of ourselves and those around us so we can be more productive. A high degree of emotional intelligence will help us reduce stress, develop better work relationships, and improve interpersonal skills. Managers and coworkers who develop EI will be much better equipped to interact with a grieving employee with care and concern.
Grief Support Training Topics
Of course, an employer’s primary focus is creating a healthy, thriving business but you also need to support healthy, thriving employees. Your employee training library can go beyond job-related and compliance courses, so people have on-demand access to content to help them through difficult times.
Many of our clients open their HSI training library to all employees for self-directed learning. This allows them to privately access videos to help them offer support to a grieving coworker or to help them work through their own grief. A few of our related courses from our Business Skills Library include:
- Use your EAP
- Developing Tact
- Psychological Safety
- Stress Management
- How to Build Resilience
- Optimizing Work-life balance
- Emotional Intelligence: Developing Empathy
- Focus: Focusing During Times of Hardship
- Returning to Work After a Loss: When a Coworker Dies
- Returning to Work After a Loss: When You've Lost a Loved One
The focus of this article was prompted by the grim milestone of six million worldwide deaths from Covid 19. My mind went to the six million grieving families all around the world and how that is affecting all of us. It’s comforting to know that some of our training content may provide relief to bereaved employees.