The Grief Journey

What Managers and Employers Should Know About Grief

Loss is an inevitable fact of life. Sooner or later, we will all grieve the loss of a loved one. Knowing this, though, doesn’t make it any easier when you or someone you care for is going through it. 

We have all been called upon to support a friend or family member as they navigate the grieving process. However, when the bereaved is an employee or work colleague, it can be difficult to know exactly where the boundaries lie. On the one hand, you want to do your utmost to provide care and comfort in this most difficult of life’s moments. On the other hand, you don’t want your colleagues or the bereaved to feel discomfited by gestures of sympathy that cross the boundaries of propriety.

So, when it comes to supporting an employee in grief, how do you offer support without overstepping?

Understand the Employee’s Needs

The grieving process is never predictable. It doesn’t follow any linear sequence or timeline, and, though it changes and perhaps becomes less disruptive to the person’s daily life, it never really ends. 

What this means for the workplace is that you should be prepared for your employee to manifest signs of grief for weeks, months, and even years after the loss. The bereaved are likely to experience anxiety, depression, and other significant mental health challenges at various stages in this process.

Thus, one of the best things that you can do for your grieving employee is to recognize that their need for support is probably going to last long after the bereavement leave ends. For example, the employee may need greater flexibility in their work schedule for a while, both to attend to their own needs and to care for family members experiencing the same loss.  

Additionally, your employee may need to use all or most of their personal time at once to give them additional time to rest and recover. In addition, your employee is likely to qualify for up to 12 weeks of unpaid bereavement leave under the terms of the Family and Medical eave Act (FMLA). However, they may be unaware of their eligibility for FMLA leave or of the process for invoking it. Educating them on FMLA and assisting them in applying for leave can be one of the most important things you can do to support a grieving employee.

When the bereaved one does return to work, they may need additional mental health accommodations, such as a quiet room to take a break alone when they become overwhelmed. On the other hand, an activity or exercise room can be a great way for all employees, and especially for the one who is grieving a loss, to blow off steam and purge some anxiety.

Another terrific way to offer emotional support for a grieving colleague in the workplace is to bring in an emotional support animal for all of your staff to enjoy. You might also institute a pet-friendly office policy, allowing your employee to bring their furry companion to work with them when they need a bit of extra comfort.

Choosing Appropriate Gifts

In addition to creating a supportive work environment for your employee, it’s also a good idea to offer a tangible expression of sympathy. The key to choosing a sympathy gift for a grieving employee or coworker is to be personal, but not overly so. 

Flowers and plants are a traditional token of support and caring. Certain flowers, such as lilies, roses, and orchids, are not only very popular but are also highly symbolic, expressing meanings such as friendship, loyalty, peace, rebirth, and eternal love. 

Funeral plants, including azaleas and peace lilies, are another great option for expressing sympathy in a professionally appropriate way. In addition, because of their longevity, plants can offer a way for the bereaved one to memorialize their loved one for years to come.

Don’t Let Up

One of the most challenging aspects of losing a loved one, for many, is how quickly life seems to return to “normal,” In the weeks and months following a death, life begins to slip back into its ordinary rhythm, particularly in the workplace.

This can leave grieving employees feeling isolated and perhaps even resentful of those who get to continue enjoying life as usual while they’re trying to figure out how to build their life again without their loved one. 

As a manager, it’s in the months and years after the loss that your employee may need you most. Setting a reminder on your calendar or smartphone to check in routinely, if discreetly, with your employee will help them feel supported long after the rest of the world seems to have moved on. 

This is especially important to do on the anniversary of the loved one’s death. A sympathy bouquet sent to the employee’s home, especially for the first anniversary of the death, can be a profound comfort while also reminding your employee that you have not forgotten their loss and are still there to support them. 

The Takeaway

Grief is a part of life, but when it enters the workplace, it can be difficult for managers, employers, and coworkers to know how to respond. The key to supporting an employee or colleague who is grieving is to understand the grief process and tailor your expressions of support and sympathy to the bereaved one’s evolving needs throughout the grief journey.

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