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Managing Grief in the Workplace: Actions, Support, Communication

One of the more difficult challenges of being a manager arises when an employee experiences a loss in his or life. This could be the death of a loved one, or even the end of a significant relationship. As a manager, youre in the uncomfortable positio

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Managing Grief in the Workplace: Actions, Support, Communication

One of the more difficult challenges of being a manager arises when an employee experiences a loss in his or life. This could be the death of a loved one, or even the end of a significant relationship. As a manager, you’re in the uncomfortable position of being required to offer the appropriate support while ensuring that the work environment experiences minimal impact.

With a death in particular, your sensitivity to the issue will go a long way in demonstrating your concern for the individuals who work for you. How you handle it can even impact morale. Paid leave for a period of time can help, but in many cases the grieving person returns before he or she is able to cope with the loss. When an employee does return to work, be attentive to symptoms of grief that can impact productivity. Such symptoms manifest themselves differently from individual to individual, but you can recognize them in the form of fatigue, confusion, loss of concentration and memory, sorrow, depression, difficulty making decisions, or other behaviours that are out of character.

If the person isn’t capable of shouldering the same workload, then you can offer assistance with his or her responsibilities until the employee can function at the same high level again. But if the person is finding work to be therapeutic and asks for more, it’s ok to do so as long as it is reasonable.

Although there is no way to be totally prepared for personal disasters, the main thing is that you have a plan in place when tragedy does strike. Below you will discover the actions you may want to take when one of your workers experiences a significant loss, as well as some specific ways you can show support for a grieving employee. The last section provides some suggestions for communicating with people who are grieving.

What should I do when an employee experiences a loss?

Kirsti A. Dyer provides some guidelines you may want to include in your plan.She recommends that you:

  • Contact the grieving employee as soon as possible.
  • Ask about specific things you might do to help: Do they need time off? Do they need an adjustment in their work schedule? Do they need help with their work?
  • Handle the situation in a sensitive, straight forward manner.
  • Respect confidentiality of personal or medical information unless permission has been given to share it with others.
  • Be sure to find out what can be shared and what is confidential.
  • Expect the best from grieving employees, however accept less than the best for a time.
  • As tasks get re-distributed, be sure to thank the other employees for their efforts in taking on the additional work.

What can I do to support a grieving employee?

In addition to implementing the plan you have in place, Dyer provides six additional ways to support the grieving employee:

  • Ask how the bereaved worker is doing.
  • Listen to the grieving employee's response.
  • Provide some flexibility in work hours. Time off or adjusted schedules can help the worker cope with the combined stress from work demands and grief.
  • Be patient. Realize that the grieving process takes time and that a grieving employee may not quickly "snap out of it."
  • Acknowledge a death with a note or flowers sent from the company to show support for the grieving person.
  • Have a workplace representative present at the funeral to convey condolence.

How do I communicate with a grieving employee?

As someone who plays an important role in your employees’ lives, you’re in a position where you have to communicate with the grieving employee, regardless of how uncomfortable such interaction can be.

Although there is no exact formula for talking to a grieving person, Dr. Mark Dombeck believes there are principles you can follow that will help you be a comforting presence and avoid saying the wrong things:

1. Reach Out – Some people would prefer the leave the grieving person alone until he or she is ready to talk or ask for help. Reach out to the person and ask if there are specific things you can do to help them. When you do reach out, avoid generalities such as, “If there’s anything we can do for you, please let me know.” Most grieving people are more likely to take you up on specific requests.

2. Don’t Minimize the Loss – While many people are unsure what to say to those who are grieving, avoid clichés such as, “He had a good life,” or “It was probably for the best.” These are the type of phrases that can be taken the wrong way because they seem to minimize the loss and most people who are grieving are incapable of being philosophical about it.

3. Listen – Rather than taking on the unnecessary burden of coming up with something comforting to say, you can be more comforting by making yourself available as a listener. Let yourself be comfortable in the suffering person’s presence, and leave it in his or her court as to whether or not anything gets confided. Even if you have gone through a similar situation yourself, be careful sharing stories unless you’re positive the person can handle it.

4. Don’t be Afraid to mention the Deceased by Name – We assume that mentioning the deceased by name can exacerbate a person’s grief, but many people who are grieving feel better if others didn’t act as though the relationship didn’t exist. Acknowledging the loss is beneficial to the grieving process. Dombeck also points out that you shouldn’t baby the grieving person, but treat him or her as normally as possible. There’s no need to be extra gentle.